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This Woman Thrives in the Toxic-Waste World

Marcella Oster could have stayed put. But when her professional world began changing, she changed with it. In 1992, when she was 30 years old, Oster was a dental assistant at a practice in Northern California. Her duties included supervising the disposal of the office's hazardous wastes: a small but potent volume of sterilizing chemicals, X-ray fluids, and silver runoff. When California beefed up its environmental standards, Oster realized there might be a business in the treating and disposing of dental offices' toxic wastes. In 1993, she founded Eco-Solutions in Milpitas, Calif., a company that is still one of the only women-owned toxic-disposal companies in the country.

Having expanded its services and customer base, the company now has 10 employees and nearly 1,000 customers. Frontier Online's Dennis Berman recently spoke to Oster about how she found her niche, built her company, and survived as a woman in a traditionally male industry:

Q: How did you turn your business idea into a viable company?

A: I did quite a lot of research and found no one else was out there who did pick up and disposal for small generators [of hazardous materials]. It took me just five days to do the research. I then got together with two engineers who came up with the concept for treating toxic organics -- nasty stuff that's used to sterilize and disinfect instruments [used] by medical and dental offices, photo shops, and DNA laboratories.

Q: How does that process work?

A: There are two different units -- one for photochemicals and another for silver recovery. For toxic organics, we use a UV [ultraviolet] light source to break down chemicals and detoxify them. And from there it's purified to water and discharged out to the water district.

Q: How hard was it to get startup capital for your company? And how long before things took off?

A: Back in 1992 and 1993, we went to the Small Business Administration to get a loan, and they didn't hesitate. This was when Clinton had stopped giving out most SBA loans, but we got one really quick. We got $50,000, but that money [mostly went for] my spectrophotometer. That unit alone was $30,000, so a lot of our own money went into the company.

From there, we rented a tiny space and grew so quickly that we started looking for another location. We got referred to the Environmental Business Cluster [a business incubator for environmental companies]. We were lucky to be in the same building as the Permit Assistance Center. They help small business with permits and regulations, and they helped get me to the right government agencies. We felt like we were a big company then -- we had all these other people helping the business.

I had worked with so many doctors in the area that it took right off. When we first started, I was working part-time in a dental office. By April, 1994, I had to stop working there and go full-time. In the first month, I had 35 customers.

We're still a small business. We're looking to be not as big as BFI [industry leader Browning-Ferris Industries], but we'd like to be up there and be known as a medium-size firm. We'd like to have 40 employees with a fleet of 10 trucks. We're a fleet of two trucks now.

Q: Any other advantages or disadvantages in bringing your company to an incubator?

A: You're only allowed two years in there, but because we got so big, we had to move out six months before the deadline. We moved from 500 square feet to 3,200. But for the time we were there, the incubator really helped us. They gave us a reasonable rate of rent and accessibility to office equipment. It was wonderful, and it was backed by the government.

Q: How competitive are you against big companies in bidded contracts?

A: We've tried to do that, but they're so complicated, and it's really not satisfying because things always come down to the mighty dollar. We submitted one bid for disposal of waste from all the school chemistry labs in San Francisco. It was a government thing, and I got bumped by $100 by a massive company. They want such a cut-cut rate, which you can only give if you're a big company.

Q: What's it like being a women-owned business in a traditionally male-dominated field?

A: I'm in a very nontraditional job. For women, this is not their territory. When I go into hospitals, they're not used to working with women. But they think it's great because we know what we're talking about.

It's still a good old boys' club out there. You hear about the "Guido" types in this business, and they're out there. They're scary. But I know we'll do fine because we're the only ones who educate and know exactly what our customers are dealing with. For certain types of medical waste, we've already done the research two years in advance. We're so far ahead of big, big companies that never have a chance. For example, we do training videos and give them free to our customers.

I think my management style is also nontraditional. We come from the side of "knowing what you're going through." It's not: "Pay us now." As an environmental company that's also women-owned, we want to be there to help. We don't use scare tactics or hard sells. And when we say we're going to do something, we'll do it.

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