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How D.C.’s small business of the year survived the shutdown, emerged stronger

LaKeshia Grant, founder and chief executive of Virtual Enterprise Architects, was awarded the District’s Small Business Person of the Year by the SBA. The winners from around the country are being honored this week in D.C. during National Small Business Week. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

When the clock struck midnight on October 1, with no deal from lawmakers to keep the government running, LaKeshia Grant started sending out the e-mails to her employees.

One year earlier, her company had ranked among the fastest growing information technology companies in the country, adding new contracts and new employees hand over foot, working most closely with the Department of Homeland Security.

Suddenly, she found herself informing more than 20 of those workers, nearly half her staff, that she would need to let them go as a result of the government shutdown.

“I cried for a good hour that night,” Grant, the founder and chief executive of Virtual Enterprise Architects in Washington, said in an interview. “I’m very close to my employees and their families. It was the worst day of my life, both personally and professionally.”

Down to a single federal contract carrying her company, and one year removed from a nearly $5 million year, Virtual Enterprise Architects, sustained its first-ever operating loss in 2013. However, Grant refused to let the blow sink her company, gleaning from the experience some valuable lessons about her team — lessons she says helped VEA emerge even stronger than before the shutdown.

“When you’re in a crisis, you see how people respond,” said Grant, who will be honored this week as the Small Business Administration’s Person of the Year for the District of Columbia. “It helped me make some important management changes, reassigning some people, hiring some new people. I think it’s going to help us bounce back.”

Grant, who has brought back some of the employees she was forced to lay off, says the company has focused on improving its proposal submission process for federal contracts, ensuring that the team is identifying and quickly responding to new opportunities.

“Honestly, I think that’s the key to our success,” Grant said, noting that agencies are starting to spend again now that Congress has approved a two-year budget. That has helped her grow the company back to just shy of 50 employees.

In addition, VEA is currently applying to be part of the General Services Administration’s roster of contractors for what’s known as GSA Schedules, through which every federal department can purchase goods and services on pre-arranged terms. Inclusion in that program, Grant says, “would open a lot of new doors.”

Still, her company isn’t out of the woods yet.

She says the shutdown has made it harder to recruit talent, as applicants now recognize that large contractors can more easily afford to carry their workers through hard times, like another shutdown or sequestration. Conversely, one lost contract for a small business can prompt immediate downsizing.

“As a business owner, there will always be things that will keep you up at night,” Grant said. “I’m just trying to remain positive and take each day as it comes.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.



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