Entrepreneurs are, by their very definition, indefinable. As a group they’re the furthest thing from “cookie cutter” that you can imagine. Almost every entrepreneur I’ve met (and I’ve met thousands) takes a different approach to business ownership. Some are lone wolves, others natural collaborators. Ask a dozen entrepreneurs why they started a business and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Talking with others entrepreneurs about their experiences, insight, and perspective on business and life can be very informative and inspirational.
I can’t think of a better role model than Janice Bryant Howroyd, the founder and CEO of ACT 1 Personnel Services, a global full-service staffing company based in Southern California. Howroyd started her company in 1978 with $1,500 and today boasts revenues of $900 million. As the owner of the nation’s largest woman- and minority-owned staffing company, Howroyd is the recipient of many honors. I caught up with her last month at the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO-LA) Leadership and Legacy Award luncheon, where Howroyd received their prestigious Legacy Award.
Rieva Lesonsky: When you started your staffing company, wasn’t the market already crowded? How many employees did you start with and at what point did you start hiring?
Janice Bryant Howroyd: I grew up in a family of 11 children. Crowds don’t scare me; they encourage me to find my own place. For 11 months, I was my only staff. My first full-time employee was my brother.
Lesonsky: At what point did you think, “It’s time to open a second office?”
Howroyd: Actually, my second office opening was customer driven. We were doing a great job from our [initial] Beverly Hills location, but a customer needed us to staff up a new office [near] them. I decided that I should invest as much confidence in myself as my customer was prepared to invest in me. [We’re now] much more strategic about expansion; however, it continues to be customer driven.
Lesonsky: You talk often about “keeping the humanity in human resources.” That’s getting harder for business owners to do. Any suggestions for today’s beleaguered entrepreneurs?
Howroyd: Every person who owns a business is not necessarily an entrepreneur. That’s the first thing to understand, and often one of the hardest. For those who truly do bring passion and ability to their businesses, it’s more important now, than ever, to remember that what we do is about more than leadership — it’s about fellowship and followship. Fellowship is about caring for the people who you choose to continue working with in this economy; followship is about showing them how to work through the tough times by following your own rules. If you ask your employees to cut expenses, make sure they see you’re doing the same thing. If you ask them to assume more responsibility, support them by doing the same yourself, not as a heroic thing, but as a team leader. And make certain that everyone in your organization focuses on keeping your customers happy. Treat every customer as if they are your last one, or else they might become exactly that.
Lesonsky: You are well known for your philanthropy and obviously believe in “paying it forward.” Do you think it’s important for entrepreneurs to give back?
Howroyd: Giving is a personal thing, even when it is part of an organization’s initiative. My parents taught me early on that “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” so I’ve never [taken] to wastefulness or stinginess. There are so many ways for an entrepreneur to give. Recycling is a great and green thing to do. Allowing employees paid time off to assist at public schools or help centers can meet a lot of needs. I think that giving money is important too, but I believe we all have something to give and don’t need to wait until we can afford to write a check to do it.
Lesonsky: How did you balance it all? Exponentially growing a business and raising your kids?
Howroyd: There have been a lot of family and family-like people who have helped [my] business grow. During the rough moments, I’ve had my faith and my family to support me. Balance for me has never been about 50/50. Sometimes it’s 20/80, sometimes 100/0. It’s the final score on the big stuff that really matters. Once you understand that, you gain a balance of perspective that enables you to not just ‘get through it’. You learn to enjoy it.
Lesonsky: What was your biggest challenge? And what do you consider your greatest achievement?
Howroyd: The biggest challenge I’ve faced, personally and professionally, has been getting out of my own way. Thus far, my greatest achievement has been understanding my own purpose and the power I have to live as I decide.
Lesonsky: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
Howroyd: My mother taught all of us that we should never stop being ourselves. As I’ve grown, I’ve adapted this into my life mantra: “Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally.”
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