I arrived at my job one morning to find a note on the door announcing that the owner had closed the business. Shocked, I stood there in the parking lot with the other nine employees. I had been hired a year before to reorganize the company, a software distributor, which had been losing money. After months of work, the company had finally arrived at the point where it was just beginning to run smoothly and efficiently -- and suddenly this. I had moved to the area from Texas and had spent the previous year entirely focused on work. I hadn't time to create a network of local connections. It would mean hunting for a job in San Francisco with no contacts, and I knew that would be tough.
I made a quick mental assessment and realized that I had a very clear understanding of what it would take to run a business of this kind. It had never occurred to me before that I might run my own business, but the day I stood there in the parking lot, outside those closed doors, GC Micro was born. I met with a couple of the other employees to ask if they might be interested in working with me. They liked the idea, and I went home to begin. I had some capital. I sublet space in the my old company's location, and with my two former co-workers as employees, I launched GC Micro.
GC Micro grew slowly and steadily. I took on only as much business as I could handle with high customer satisfaction. However as a small business owned by a woman and a minority, I continually came up against assumptions and lack of trust from the corporate world. When I went to a bank to borrow $5,000 for the business, the banker broke into laughter and said, "There is absolutely nothing we can do for you." One representative from a major computer company stated that, in his personal opinion, a minority- and woman-owned business didn't have the management or financial background to represent their product. Ultimately, GC Micro did receive the authorization to carry their product. I was aware that we were not only establishing a track-record for ourselves, but were also doing so for other small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses.
Perhaps it was that perspective that led me to put the expansion of my business on hold while I pursued a major lawsuit. In 1985, when GC Micro had been just starting, I knew I needed to work with major corporations, not only so we could count on getting paid but also because most of them have an outreach program specifically geared to forming contracts with small businesses. I focused on defense contractors, the group with the most money at the time. I got lists of names and began sorting out which corporations to target. I obtained information on the goal established on each contract for the percentage of subcontracts to be awarded to small and minority businesses. I could then target for marketing those companies falling short of their goals.
I began noticing that the goals negotiated on the contracts I reviewed were consistently below the federal statutory guidelines of 5% for minority-owned businesses. Moreover, companies were falling short even on their 1% and 2% goals, and they weren't incurring any of the supposed legal consequences. When I tried to find out specifically why the F-22 Stealth fighter had a goal of less than half of 1%, I was not only dismissed with an inadequate answer, I was also prevented from further access to documents I'd received for two years. Something was very wrong. GC Micro had nothing to gain by my confronting the issue, since we didn't supply the services needed on that project. We stood to lose business, in fact, by alienating defense contractors. But for me, it was a matter of right or wrong. Eventually, the issue escalated into a federal lawsuit, GC Micro Corporation vs. the Defense Logistics Agency.
Sustaining the suit was emotionally very draining, and sales at my company dropped dramatically for about a year or two. It was often a solitary battle, but near the end of the process, a group of business owners and members of the Hispanic, Black, and Asian Chambers of Commerce came together so effectively that at every hearing, 95% of the people in the courtroom were supporters. Winning the case not only procured hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts for small and minority-owned businesses, but I think it sent a message to large corporations that small businesses are organized. The good reputation of GC Micro did win out, and we moved forward again, diversifying into the commercial arena as well. We have since received numerous awards and acknowledgments from some of those same corporations that were against my lawsuit originally.
Shoshana Alexander was a founding editor and managing editor of the Utne Reader. She is the author of In Praise of Single Parents: Mothers and Fathers Embracing the Challenge, and The Findhorn Garden.
Adapted and excerpted from Women's Ventures, Women's Visions
Copyright 1997 by Shoshana Alexander
Reprinted and excerpted with permission of The Crossing Press
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