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A Chance To Get Into The Room
Black Entrepreneurs Grapple With Proving Themselves

By Keith L. Alexander
Friday, November 17, 2006

They didn't leave work until after 4 a.m. Four hours later, they were back in the office -- frazzled and on edge. Sitting around a conference table, eight employees of Enlightened Inc., a technology consulting firm, were struggling to polish a proposal that could well determine the firm's future. It was not going well.

Chief executive Antwanye Ford was rubbing his forehead in frustration. He was dressed meticulously, as always, in a pressed Donald Trump-brand suit and a French-cuff shirt. Not even a succession of 18-hour days could make this man look rumpled. But on this day, he was oozing tension. Enlightened's bid for a multimillion-dollar contract to update the computer system used by the District's probation and parole officers was simply not good enough, he told his staff. The proposal needed more graphics, more punch. As Ford saw it, this bid was his fledgling black firm's ticket to a new competitive league.

Suddenly, Ford's cellphone was vibrating. He excused himself and headed into his private office. It was Larry Daniels, one of the District's chief accountants who oversees city spending. Daniels had received complaints about Enlightened's work on another project, a $400,000 contract to do inventory of D.C. property: police cars, fire trucks, public school furniture.

It was too much. Frustrated and embarrassed, Ford heaved his bottle of water across the room. "You only get one opportunity, maybe two at the most, to prove yourself," he later fumed to a visitor. "As a minority, you have to work extra hard. . . . We're constantly being watched and judged."

As the day wore on, Ford felt that what he had spent years seeking -- acceptance, respect, an unchallenged level of achievement -- had been put at risk. In danger of losing one contract and not winning another he coveted, Ford wondered: Would his aspirations for Enlightened ever be realized? Would he feel this extra pull to prove himself if he were not black?

Ford's anxiety about image is common among black businessmen who are barreling into territory where relatively few of them have established ownership: information technology, construction, real estate, financial management. Many bring with them advanced degrees, years of corporate experience, and cultural and emotional complexities that can both enrich and burden their lives as business owners. Many struggle with whether they must sacrifice their identity to be successful. In Ford's case, that means questioning whether Enlightened should even promote that it is black-owned.

"The dilemma is you don't know whether doing this or not will help," says Barron H. Harvey, dean of Howard University's School of Business and a long-time consultant to minority businesses. "There are some firms that have decided they are going to be who they are and not downplay that they are black-owned. But then they question if they had done it differently, would they have been more successful? You never know."

Ford decided he would take no chances. Enlightened's Web site features stock photos of three young, white men in suits and a white woman gathered around a laptop computer. There are no obvious indications that the firm is run by black men. "We don't want people to shut the door on us before we show them what we can do," Ford says.

The population of black male entrepreneurs has grown dramatically in the past 15 years, as more black men have abandoned corporate jobs and converted their expertise into livelihoods that they control. According to a recent U.S. Census report, the number of black men who own businesses increased by nearly a third from 1997 to 2002, and now number more than 571,000 nationwide. In eight years, at the current growth rate, that number will top 1 million. Previous generations of black businessmen were concentrated in the service and retail fields: They owned restaurants, barbershops, small grocery stores. Most relied on a black customer base. They were people like Ford's parents, who opened an upholstery shop on H Street in Northeast during the 1970s.

But that business model has markedly changed, and black entrepreneurs such as Ford are grappling with a different set of challenges.

Ford is not aware of ever having lost a contract because of his race, but he is mindful of America's history of racial prejudice. If minority companies did not face discrimination, he said, there would not be federally funded set-aside programs. Enlightened participates in such a program administered by the Small Business Administration. The 8(a) program offers business-development assistance and the opportunity to compete for federal contracts that have been reserved for small firms owned by "socially and economically disadvantaged" people, those whose net worth is less than $250,000. Enlightened, which has been in the program since 2001, is certified to participate for four more years.

But even though the program has generated considerable business, Ford is conflicted. He does not want Enlightened to be known as "just" an 8(a) firm. The designation, he believes, whispers: inferior company in business because of government handouts.

Some business choices do not come easily. The decision about what would appear on the Web site was agonizing. Asked whether he is hiding his heritage or is ashamed of it, Ford's smile disappears and his eyes narrow. He wonders aloud if it's being suggested that he is a sellout, then abruptly leaves the office to lift weights.

The next day, he admits the questioning angered him. "I had to pray about that," he says. Ford then proceeds to defend his racial consciousness: He mentors black teenagers interested in becoming entrepreneurs. He makes a point of employing black interns at his firm. And he still lives in the 'hood (in the Brookland section of Northeast), near vacant lots where he played football as a boy and within walking distance of his elderly parents. "It's expected that when you obtain a certain level of success, you move out to the suburbs, but that's not me," he says. Not even after his house was mistakenly riddled with bullets five years ago in a drive-by shooting.

Do not mistake his business decisions for some lack of black pride, Ford insists. Like many black businessmen who have long felt like outsiders, Ford just wants "a chance to get into the room."

"If I get in the room," he says, "I'll show you what I can do. And I'm going to do whatever I can do to get in that room."

* * *

The 'Myth Men'

In a sense, Ford's quest to "get in the room" originated on George Washington University's campus in 1983. He, Andre Rogers and Thomas Spann -- classmates who became good friends -- would meet at the black student union and fantasize about owning a business together.

At the time, blacks made up about 2 percent of the student body. On the first day of a class on race relations, the men recall, some white and Asian students talked openly about their perceptions of black people: lazy, good only at sports, the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. It was the first time anyone had voiced such perceptions in their presence.

"We sat there with our mouths open," Ford, 41, recalled.

The trio, along with nine other black male students, decided to form a group called the "Myth Men," in part because no black fraternities existed on campus and they craved a social outlet. But the group's other mission was to try to dispel the negative stereotypes about black men.

After graduating, Ford, Rogers and Spann worked in various corporate jobs for 10 years before deciding to pursue their college fantasy. In 1998, they began meeting in Rogers's basement after work, throwing out questions and ideas about launching an information technology consulting firm. Where should they be based? What would attract clients? Where would funding come from? With his outgoing personality, Ford was chosen as chief executive. Rogers's fondness for spreadsheets and numbers made him a natural finance chief. And Spann, who had experience in management, would be the company's chief operating officer. Because they planned to illuminate clients' possibilities, they chose a name that suggested imparting knowledge and insight. Companies that worked with them, the partners figured, would be enlightened.

In 1999, the three men resigned from their corporate positions -- Ford as a manager at Intelsat; Rogers as a software developer for Fannie Mae; Spann as a senior analyst at NASD, a financial regulatory company. With their severance packages as seed money, plus $15,000 each in cash advances on credit cards, they rented a small, windowless space, just big enough for five desks, in an office building at 11th and G streets NW. (Enlightened still has that space but has since expanded to another floor.) The company's initial work came from small government jobs subcontracted to Enlightened by larger minority firms.

Enlightened now employs about 60 salaried and hourly workers who make as little as $9 an hour and as much as $110,000 a year. Expectations are high, and so is turnover: Since Jan. 1, 21 employees have either resigned or been dismissed. Last year, Spann left his executive's chair to become a consultant because he was away from his family too much.

Enlightened designs software programs, hosts Web sites and creates management systems for such clients as the departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, as well as Fannie Mae and AOL. This year, Enlightened projects revenue of about $4 million. By the end of next year, Enlightened hopes to reach $8 million in sales and double its workforce, to 120.

The company has attracted notice. In 2003, Entrepreneur magazine named Enlightened one of the country's "best and brightest" companies. A year later, Inc. magazine ranked it among the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the country -- No. 264 -- based on its 550 percent revenue growth from 1999 to 2003. Enlightened also has one of the best credit rating and financial strength scores of small companies nationwide, according to Dun & Bradstreet, an independent financial analysis firm.

With such success, why so much fretting about image?

* * *

High Expectations

To Ford, perceptions are powerful.

Take what happened when former Enlightened accountant Frank Wentink was hired last year. His friends told him that working for a black firm would not be so hard. Set-aside programs, they said, would make his workload easier. But Wentink, who is white, soon found that he was working through the weekends and pulling all-nighters and that Ford and his senior managers were always in the office "working their tails off," he said.

Such false assumptions drive Ford, the firm's big thinker who is responsible for long-range planning. A muscular 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Ford thunders into a room like a politician, laughing, shaking hands, demanding eye contact. With employees, he is often like a jovial, joke-cracking big brother. But when problems surface or deadlines approach, employees say, the big brother turns into a stern, no-excuses businessman.

Ford doubts that executives at BearingPoint Inc. or Perot Systems Corp., much larger competitors, have his kind of anxiety. They never have to worry about race being a factor in winning major contracts, he says.

Some of Ford's worries about image can be traced to a 2003 meeting between Enlightened's partners and a black procurement officer for a federal agency whose contract the company had just won. [Ford declined to identify the woman or her employer because the agency remains a client.]

The procurement officer told Ford that she had noticed the startled reaction of her colleagues, most of whom were white, when Enlightened's all-black team had entered the conference room to pitch its proposal. She said Enlightened needed to "lighten up" -- hire some white staff members -- to succeed in this town. According to federal personnel statistics, nearly 70 percent of federal contracting officers are white.

Ford was offended, but he did not let it show. He told the procurement officer that he understood she was trying to be helpful. But her comments suggested that no one would take a black-owned firm seriously. And he didn't want to believe that. But her advice began to eat away at him. He started looking to hire white men, white women, anyone who would signal that his company was diverse -- and thereby more desirable to clients.

He kept thinking back to his early years in the business world, after he had attended night classes at GWU to get his master's degree in information systems, landed a job with MCI Inc.'s internal consulting division, did well and ran into what he thinks was a racial ceiling. His bosses said he simply needed more patience. They also suggested something else.

"I think he was overly conscious of race to the point where it didn't serve him well," said Lynn K. Hall, his former boss at MCI. "He focused on it. It was an internal motivator, but it also colored his perception." Hall, who is white, said that when clients questioned Ford's abilities as a consultant, Ford often attributed those assessments to racial prejudice. She remembers when Ford was tapped to implement a new finance system at MCI. During the initial meeting, employees, most of whom were white, grilled Ford with questions about his plan's practicality. Ford thought his ideas were challenged because he is black. Hall disagreed. "All consultants face those challenges," she said, adding that Ford was an "excellent" worker who "always delivered" and would have eventually moved into management.

But Ford thought the company was devaluing him. The final insult: when he learned he was being paid less than a white woman he had trained to take over one of his former jobs. The woman, he was told, had a year more experience than Ford, which is why she was paid more. "But she was doing my old job," Ford says, exasperated. "Every time I would jump a hurdle, they still wouldn't let me in the room."

So he left MCI, became a manager for Intelsat's consulting arm, and for six years prepared for the day when he could run his own business.

Among Ford's most critical hires at Enlightened: Anita Hinnerichs, 33, the company's No. 4 executive, who manages most of its day-to-day operations. In the office, Hinnerichs wears her shoulder-length brown hair in a ponytail. But when accompanying Ford or Rogers to client meetings, she lets her hair fall to her shoulders. "I realize being a white woman in this town is an advantage," she says matter-of-factly. "If I can help get them get in the door, the work will keep them there."

One of Hinnerichs's unofficial roles is to make male clients, particularly white men, feel at ease. Recently, Hinnerichs attended a meeting with a white male government official who would not return phone calls or e-mails from Rogers and a senior male employee. Now, the client responds promptly -- but only if the correspondence is from Hinnerichs.

"If we're selling to men, females are more of a plus," Ford said. "But being passionate and hungry are more important than anything."

This strategy may be good for business, but it has caused tension in the Enlightened offices, especially among black employees, who number seven of the 18 core staff members at headquarters. Some feel like systems analyst Akisha Campbell, who says that with seven years in business and a long list of satisfied clients, Ford has proven himself. "I don't see why race would still be a problem," Campbell said.

Managing black employees, Ford and Rogers say, can be challenging. Some work hard and want executives who look like them to succeed. Others are extremely talented and therefore difficult to keep because larger firms can offer them as much as $25,000 more in salary. And then there are those who expect special breaks, challenging their bosses to the point of insubordination.

"I have very high expectations, regardless of race," Ford said. "But when it is an African American person who disappoints me, I get hurt."

* * *

Work Ethics

Working through the night is common at Enlightened, though it is not always pleasant. Gospel music, late-night inspiration for Ford and Rogers, blares through their computer speakers. If you hear Fred Hammond or Byron Cage singing, you know Antwanye Ford and Andre Rogers are around.

But not everyone can fight exhaustion with church music. During a recent all-nighter, six workers were collaborating on a proposal due at 9 a.m. By 3 a.m., weary senior manager Habib Nasibdar demanded to know why only half the staff was still working. Where were the other senior staffers, he asked Ford. "Don't raise your voice at me. This is my house," Ford snapped.

Days later, the two men joked that whenever they fight, they end up getting a contract. "We have to fight more often," Ford said.

Ford and his No. 2, Rogers, often handle confrontations differently. Rogers, 40, is more patient, more pragmatic than Ford. When he deals with employees, he gives them specific, detailed instructions so there is no confusion. More introverted than Ford, Rogers was teased for being a bookworm while growing up in New York. He is happy to let Ford take center stage.

Ford was meeting recently with one of his advisers, a George C. Scott look-alike named Joseph Libby, when Rogers walked in. Libby took one look at Rogers's black suit and joked that it matched his dark skin. Rogers just laughed. "You'll never change," he told Libby, who runs a Fairfax insurance firm. Ford dropped his head, clearly irritated. As much as he treasures Libby's counsel, his gruff jokes are difficult to accept.

Embracing diversity can be as tricky at black-owned companies as anywhere else. Ford and Rogers are vocal Christians in a workplace that includes Jews and Muslims. Ford says he tries to ensure that all employees' faiths are respected. During Ramadan, he joined his Muslim workers in a sunrise-to-sunset fast. More recently, Ford opened a senior staff meeting with a prayer, asking God to "give us the guidance and wisdom to make the right decisions," which was followed by Rogers's, "thanking you, Lord, for the opportunity to worship."

"One of the perks of owning your own business is you don't have to deny who you are," said Ford. Though some people see spirituality as a sign of weakness, he says, he believes the opposite.

"We will be humble before God but bold before man."

* * *

Source of the Drive

Ford is driving his 2005 Porsche Carrera toward Saratoga and Montana avenues in Northeast. Growing up, he spent many days in this neighborhood hanging out with friends. It's 2 p.m., and Ford notices a dozen black men his age and younger standing in front of an apartment building. Some are holding wads of cash, others are shooting dice. Cruising by, Ford feels uneasy. He jokes that in his designer suit, he is dressed like "a victim," an attractive robbery target.

His family had a house near Hechinger Mall when he was a child. After school, Ford and his sister spent evenings at the J&K Upholstery shop their parents owned on H Street NE. John and Katherine Ford put their children through Catholic schools by exchanging tuition for upholstering chairs and sofas. Ford grew up hearing Jim Crow stories from his parents, who migrated to Washington from the segregated rural areas of North Carolina and South Carolina in the 1950s. Katherine Ford taught her children that the best way to overcome racism was through hard work and professionalism. "I wanted them to be the best at what they do," she said. "No matter what it was, be the best. No one can stop you if you're the best at what you do."

But trying to be the best can exact a toll. Now four months into his second marriage, Ford admits that his first marriage fell victim to the 18 to 20 hours a day he routinely put in starting Enlightened. Time management still isn't easy. His first son, 8-year-old Antwanye Eric II, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 3. The disease is in remission, but watching young Antwanye endure years of chemotherapy and steroid treatments inspired Ford to give more to social causes. Every Enlightened employee is required to participate in at least two volunteer efforts a year. Through his wife, Tanya, Ford is stepfather to Jahleel, 10, who talks of opening his own dog-walking business.

Driving past his old haunts, Ford reflects on the economic progress that has rejuvenated some District neighborhoods while skipping others. Most of his childhood buddies are either dead or in prison, he says, victims of the 1980s crack epidemic. Though his heart tells him he can still hang out here because he is a local homeboy, his mind whispers that he no longer belongs here.

"It's just something I think about at times," he says.

* * *

Resolution

Ford wasted no time dealing with the headache that caused him to hurl his water bottle across the room. If the District was dissatisfied with Enlightened's work on the $400,000 D.C. inventory project, so was Ford.

He discovered that most of his employees were having the same problem: They would show up to count copying machines or fire trucks and be told that the work had already been done. Unknown to Enlightened's employees, another contractor had a similar assignment. The employees never reported this to their supervisors, and the supervisors never asked.

Immediately, Ford decided that more aggressive supervision was needed and moved one of his senior managers, Colleen Moses, off the project. He shifted two other managers from another assignment to take over. Moses was distraught. She had been in charge of the inventory project for nearly two years; Ford's quick decision stunned her. She sat alone in the conference room, tears streaming down her face. "I just hate that I disappointed him," she said. "I just wish I had the opportunity to fix it."

But her opportunity had passed. "The customer wanted it fixed now," Ford said. "Period."

Within days, Daniels, the D.C. official who hired Enlightened for the inventory project, called to say that everything was back on track. He had heard no further complaints. In appreciation, Ford gave his project workers $25 Chipotle restaurant gift cards.

Soon afterward, Ford received even better news: Enlightened was among four companies chosen for that multimillion-dollar contract updating the computer system used by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. A guaranteed four-year stream of income. Ford gathered everyone for cake to celebrate.

Finally, Ford thought, he was in the room. The relentless hours and tough choices had paid off -- for now. Enlightened could indeed compete with the big boys. Not that Ford would stop worrying about the company's image -- or his own. Worrying, he says, keeps him hungry.

"We have to fight for every job we get," Ford says. "Once you start sitting back, relaxing, you lose the edge."

Staff researchers Meg Smith and Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.

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