In an early February blog post on www.dantelee.com, Dante Lee, CEO of Diversity City Media, an African American marketing and public relations firm based in Columbus, Ohio, bemoaned the fact that, despite the recent election of an African American to the post of United States president, most of the mainstream business publications (Forbes, Business Week, Entrepreneur, for example) have yet to increase the diversity of their pages by including more stories about minority business owners.
Lee’s point was that, there are plenty of minority-owned businesses across the country and minority business publications that represent those well, but it’s unfortunate that the mainstream publications haven’t gotten on board with their coverage.
Tulsa Business Journal took that to heart and has responded by profiling a few local African American entrepreneurs. This feature also serves as our celebration of Black History Month.
No Other Choice
When Yvonne Hovell’s husband died in 1998 and left her a Plymouth dealership in Green Bay, Wis., she felt like she had no choice but forfeit her career as a pharmacist and take up the family business.
“There was so much invested in it – most of our assets were in it – that, if I didn’t take it over I felt that I would have lost everything,” Hovell said.
She attended a year-long formal training program and was the only woman and the only minority in her class at the National Dealer Academy.
In 2001, after the demise of the Plymouth brand, Hovell sold her Wisconsin dealership and moved to Tulsa, purchasing East Tulsa Dodge at 4627 S. Memorial Drive, now named Dodge Chrysler Jeep of Tulsa. Hovell’s dealesrhip acquired the latter two brands and the Sprinter commercial vehicle in 2000.
“When I looked around the country and saw the other opportunities that were available, there were places I knew I had no interest in going, and all the criteria I looked to fulfill in my selection were met by coming to this store in this town. I wanted Dodge, I wanted a bigger market than the market that I was in, and I wanted better weather,” said Hovell.
Hovell acknowledges that it is rare to find a woman-owned car dealership – and even more rare for that woman to be African American – and, although she doesn’t like to talk about it, it is apparent that she has had to work hard to earn respect from her peers in the industry.
“There are industries that are not that familiar with having women in positions of authority. That would be true of this industry as well,” said Hovell. “I believe, with maturity, you reach a point of understanding you are never going to be accepted.”
Though she called her transition from the pharmaceutical industry to the automobile industry a “nightmare,” she also said, “One of my strongest suits that I had in my favor was that I had 20 years of business experience, having owned my own business before.”
That business having been in the health care field left her with a very different approach when it came to tackling the automotive industry, she said.
“There’s a satire vision of the automotive industry of the used car salesman with the plaid jacket and the cigar. My approach to business is different because I came out of a medical industry where, number one, you treated your patients with respect. I treat my customers in the automotive business with a level of respect that is traditionally not expected,” Hovell said.
In 1998, Colleen Payne-Nabors devised a way to transport nuclear medicine and diagnostic testing to patients in rural Oklahoma. As a nuclear medicine technologist at Heart Center of Tulsa, Payne-Nabors noticed an inordinate amount of patients traveling the long distance from rural areas like Tahlequah, Eufaula and Okemah for diagnostic imaging procedures.
“Nuclear medicine a subspecialty of radiology, in which we inject radioactive isotopes into the body to look for any abnormality in a specific organ. The radiopharmaceutical has an affinity for that organ, so basically you can look at any internal organ as it functions and determine the abnormality,” Payne-Nabors explained.
“I came up with this idea of putting a nuclear medicine truck on wheels,” Payne-Nabors said. A year later, her company, Mobile Cardiac Imaging, added ultrasound services to its offerings.
Her mobile units – about nine at the time – traveled to just about every area of northeastern Oklahoma.
“My business was never supposed to be successful in the metroplex,” she said.
But, as the technology behind nuclear imaging became more prevalent and less costly, hospitals and physicians in the rural cities MCI was serving were able to afford their own equipment, and Payne-Nabors began to offer her services to physicians in Tulsa.
Today, MCI Diagnostic Center, 7018 S. Utica, is the largest outpatient imaging center in the state, and the mobile services that first made Payne-Nabors so successful only account for about five percent of her business.
MCI’s 12,000-SF center offers nuclear medicine, cardiac imaging, ultrasound, stress testing, Holter monitoring, DEXA imaging, CAT (CT) scans, MRI, stress testing and a sleep center, and just recently the company acquired a physical therapy center.
In 2007, Payne-Nabors decided to write a book about her experience as an entrepreneur and what has helped make her successful.
“People would ask me to come speak about entrepreneurship and business, and every time I did, people would ask where’s the book?” she said.
The book, titled I Did It My Way and… It Worked!, is available in such mass market retailers as Barnes and Noble and Sam’s Club and was recently picked up by publicity agency Planned Television Arts, which represents such bestselling authors as Maya Angelou, Jackie Collins and Stephen King.
“I honestly believed the book would just be to have when I go speak,” Payne-Nabors said, but, after signing a contract with Planned Television Arts in December and embarking this week on a series of public appearances and speaking engagements, it is very possible that the book could soon find its way to the top of a best-seller list.
Derek Gates, president and chief engineer of D.W. Gates Engineering Services, has always had an affinity for math and science.
His father was an engineer who served in the Air Force, and Gates himself considered entering the service before ultimately choosing the oil and gas industry instead.
“For very selfish, greedy reasons, I turned (the service) down because, in 1980, the amount of money that was going into engineers working in the oil industry was 15 to 20 percent more than the amount of money going to engineers going into the service,” Gates said.
After graduating with an electrical engineering degree from Oklahoma State University, Gates, a lifelong Tulsan, went to work for City Service Oil and Gas, then Amoco and then John Brown Engineering.
After being laid off from John Brown Engineering, Gates said, “I figured, well, until I get a job, I’ll put together some info on my experience and my capabilities and see if I can get some engineering work.”
“It was very difficult trying to break into the (engineering) ranks as an entrepreneur. I was kind of forced into that position. It was sink or swim,” Gates said.
Eventually, through some positive networking, Gates landed jobs with the City of Tulsa and Southwestern Bell that would sustain his business for about 10 years.
For the first five years, his business operated out of his home.
“I even had an employee who would come to the house and go to work,” he said, laughing.
But after about five years, he was able to move his company to its current location at 616 S. Main. His business employees a full-time staff of five and various part-time staffers he uses as needed.
When asked his advice to other young entrepreneurs and hopeful business owners, he suggests networking and finding a mentor who will help train and educate them in their chosen fields.
“A lot of agencies and entities exist to help small business, and they serve their function, but I have found that most of the work I get is either through referral or networking,” Gates said.
He often speaks at schools, to children and adolescents from elementary school to college, encouraging them to take an active interest in their learning, especially in the areas of math and science.
“We’re losing a lot of black kids, in terms of their interest, I’d say around seventh or eighth grade. At that age, if you’re not on the path that’s going to take you to college, it’s hard to get on board,” Gates said.
“So much of their time is spent watching TV, playing video games, entertaining themselves and not really taking care of the future. It’s like (they think) the future will take care of itself. Well, no it won’t.”