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Steven Strauss Column: Learning from the SCORE Winners

September 28, 2011

I am filing tonight’s dispatch from our nation’s capital where I was a guest of SCORE and American Airlines at the 3rd annual SCORE Awards. I have written about SCORE many times previously and will do so again as I am an unabashed fan.

But of immediate concern is the question of the night: How does a business get plucked from obscurity, win a national award, and get recognized as among the best, most meaningful, most impact-making businesses at a black-tie event in D.C.?
What the heck are these businesses doing right?

All of the winners seemed to share one trait (a secret I will share in a moment), but the thing was, whether it was the SCORE award for the best veteran-owned small business or the winners of American Airlines’ Flights, Camera, Action contest, the winners all were a dynamic, visionary, difference-making group who are changing their lives and those in the communities they serve.

So what I say to all of the economic doomsayers and financial fussbudgets out there who seem to take some sort of perverse pleasure in any economic bad news is this:
Let them come to Washington!

Let them see what I saw tonight. Let them meet and speak with the winners and participants, with the organizations and companies dedicated to small business. I left the evening convinced that economic prosperity is on the way. Maybe it’s taking longer than we want, but that’s no matter. It’s coming. How do I know? Because I met some of the best of the best small businesses in the country tonight, and the organizations committed to supporting them, and saw firsthand that entrepreneurship is thriving in this country.
So what is it that works? What are these small businesses do right? The first thing, the clearly obvious thing, is the radical thing:

Forget about profit.

Heresy, I know. But what I mean is this: The winners were visionaries who were using an entrepreneurial model to change the world for the better. Their vision, that passion, that . . . compulsion to make a difference is what set these companies apart. (Do they love profit? Of course. We all love profit. But what was equally clear is that profit to them was a means to an end, i.e., the vision.)

As Karen Sepulveda, the dynamic director of small and medium business strategy for American Airlines told me, “We had no idea when we started the Flights, Camera, Action contest just how impressive the contestants would be, and just how difficult it would be to narrow it down to a few finalists. It was a remarkable group.”
I’ll say. Consider some of the winners:
Jack Minton was the grand prize winner of the American Airlines contest – a contest that sought to find businesses that would be able to use AA travel rewards to take their business to the next level. Produced in association with SCORE, the contest awarded winners free flights, exposure and more.

Minton created his business, HopeForce International, as a second career when he was well past 50. Hopeforce is a global business that empowers volunteers around the world to aid in disaster relief, response, and remediation. When I asked Minton why that was the business he created, he said, “I was compelled to. I thought we could make a difference,” adding, “someone had to do something.”

Dr. Kathleen Harrison won for her business, Project Harambee, which nurtures HIV infected women in Kenya with education, economic assistance, and healthcare. The good doctor says that, “It is the quality of your work, a good heart, and values that will dictate your success.”
Not to be outdone, consider Yak Films. Another global company yes, but this time formed and run by three hipster 20-somethings (or is it Hip Hop? Damn, there I go, dating myself again.) The three friends travel the world filming cutting-edge dance & music scenes and then posting them on YouTube. Haven’t heard seen their stuff? Don’t worry, others have . . . millions of others (Google “Heroes of Dance.”) That is why the likes of Adidas  and Red Bull hire these guys to produce videos for them.

The three Yak Film prodigies advise that their success secret is to follow your muse and then to use social media, not just to promote your business, but better, in an unobtrusive way that adds value to others.

Finally consider the SCORE winner for the “Outstanding Woman-Owned Small Business” which went to  Rachel Weeks for her business, School House. While a Fulbright Scholar in Sri Lanka, Rachel had a business brainstorm and began to get online counseling from a SCORE mentor back in the States. She wanted to offer  “ethical manufacturing” to the booming college gear market, and so she did, starting the first living-wage garment factory in Sri Lanka (Weeks paid about 3x the going rate to her Sri Lankan workers). Her alma mater Duke was her first customer, and now School House services more than 100 universities.

So what is their collective secret? Consider the words the winners chose to use:

“Ethics.” “Values.” “Vision.” “Passion.” “A good heart.”

I am pretty sure they don’t teach that at B School.

Today’s Tip: For the uninitiated, SCORE is, as CEO Ken Yancey once explained to me, “sort of like a Peace Corps of entrepreneurs for America.” 13,000 SCORE volunteers, experienced business people all, give confidential, free advice to small businesses in person and online, everyday.
SCORE stats:
•    SCORE cost to create one business: $119
•    SCORE cost to create one job: $98
•    Estimated taxes paid by SCORE clients: $3.8 billion

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