Overlooking differences, capitalizing on opportunity fuels building a business

vbridges@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2014 

Shirley Cedeno of American Safety Products packages environmental kits, a product used to cover transformers to protect them from leaking when they are transported. ASP is an African-American owned business in Raleigh.

PHOTOS BY JESSACA GIGLIO — jmgiglio@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— In recent years, black-owned businesses have been one of the fastest-growing segments in the U.S. economy.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned businesses increased by 60.5 percent to 1.9 million, more than triple the national rate of 18 percent for all businesses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners. Over the same period, receipts generated by black-owned businesses increased 55.1 percent to $137.5 billion.

Still, said Andrea Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development, some African-American small-business owners limit their revenue growth because they don’t reach beyond their comfort zone and build relationships with businesses led by other demographics.

Here are two African-American small-business owners who have successfully chartered that path.

Warren H. Arrington

Warren H. Arrington started American Safety Products after reading about a unique fire extinguisher in the back of Inc. Magazine.

Arrington had grown up in Cary and graduated from Livingstone College in Salisbury with a degree in mathematics. He went on to do accounting work for GoodMark Foods for 10 years before he left to work for CompuChem Laboratory, then a startup that provided services, such as drug testing and pest control for larger corporations.

In May 1983, Arrington was laid off because of staff reductions after working for the company for three years.

Arrington said he did odd jobs as he sought job interviews, but companies weren’t interested in paying him what he was making at his previous job.

After one interview, in which Arrington said he was insulted by an interviewer who questioned how Arrington had come so far, Arrington decided he was done with the job search process.

“I went home and told my family that was the last interview I would ever go on,” he said. “And I haven’t looked back since.”

That night, Arrington read Inc. Magazine and found an opportunity to sell re-usable fire extinguishers. He called the business and a company representative eventually talked him into taking a training course in Cleveland, Tenn. In 1985, he founded American Safety Products and sold almost all of his inventory to his friends and by going door to door.

One of Arrington’s college classmates asked him to come to a meeting at what is now known as the Carolinas-Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council. The private, nonprofit agency is a membership organization of corporations, financial institutions, government agencies and universities in the three states.

Capitalizing on the opportunity to network with company decisionmakers at places such as GlaxoSmithKline and Carolina Power & Light, Arrington became a distributor for safety supplies, including safety glasses and disposable clothing.

Arrington moved his company out of his living room and into an office in 1990, after Carolina Power & Light asked him to produce a product to cover transformers to protect them from leaking when they were transported. American Safety Products invented environmental kits and started selling them to other utility companies.

Growing up an African-American in Cary in the 1960s, Arrington was used to people telling him what he couldn’t do. But that just motivated him to capitalize on opportunities whenever and wherever they presented themselves, he said.

“Opportunity is the word,” he said. “I don’t know if race is a factor” as much as he wasn’t given opportunities because he lived in a different neighborhood and wasn’t invited to join certain business organizations or golf clubs.

“Things are changing now, and those opportunities are a little bit more available, but it is still an ongoing process,” he said.

Olalah Njenga

Olalah Njenga moved from Chicago to North Carolina in the middle of an ice storm in January 2000. Cisco Systems had recruited her from the corporate offices of McDonald’s to work in acquisitions and new product introduction.

More than two years later, Njenga was laid off, but with “a very generous separation package.” Meanwhile, Njenga had started doing marketing work on the side and she continued those projects while interviewing for jobs.

“I had money in the bank, so I wasn’t hard pressed to take the first job that came up,” she said.

Njenga had an opportunity to be a sub-consultant on a large project for a national Catholic organization, which forced her to think about logistics and the requirements needed to do a project of that size.

“That changed the game for me,” she said. “I had to get serious.”

She also learned that she needed to move away from freelancing and become a business. After doing contracting work for an accounting association, she discovered that a payment check was not made out to her, but to a tagline she used to use.

She met the company’s accountant to get a replacement check.

Njenga said that the accountant then offered her some advice, “ ‘If you are going to be in business, be a business.’ 

“The fact that I didn’t have a business, that I was just an independent freelance person, was not good enough,” Njenga said. “It wasn’t credible, and that was the game changer for me.”

Njenga talked to lawyers, accountants and others to learn everything she could about what it meant to be an actual business, she said, and then founded marketing firm YellowWood Group in 2003.

In 2005, she moved from her home to an office, and in November 2012 YellowWood Group opened a second location in Charlotte.

Over the years, YellowWood Group has refined its client base with a focus on providing comprehensive integrated marketing plans for companies striving to be an industry leader.

“Since the small-business market does not naturally lend itself to that, we had to change who our ideal client” was to larger, growth focused corporations, she said.

In 2014, Njenga projects the company that employees five, not including her, will increase its revenue by about 25 to 30 percent.

Njenga advises black business professionals that if they look for race to be an impediment to their success, “It will be,” she said.

“You really have to learn how to push aside the things that you think are going to trip you up and really focus on ... the things that might actually trip you up,” such as a lack of business acumen or connections. “There are many other reasons why you might face business challenges. Being black should be at the bottom of that list, not the top.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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