Bernard Robinson Sr. started Networking Technologies and Support Inc. in 1997 on $4,200 borrowed with credit cards and a vision.
"I didn't have any money," said Robinson, who had been working in the IT industry. "This business was started more on a concept, a driver, than it was on a stable angel investment, where people fund you."
NTS in Chesterfield County is a $16 million-a-year company with 145 employees providing business-to-business computer services in nine states and partners with industry leaders such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems.
Such entrepreneurship has deep roots in Richmond's black community, and entrepreneurs like Robinson are extending strong branches into the future.
Through hard work and determination, black entrepreneurs forged a long-standing tradition of providing goods and services — building, feeding, housing, hauling, financing, adorning — within the community.
Black-owned businesses today compete as well for customers in the larger marketplace. And that competition can be tough in the struggling American economy.
"In Richmond, race matters second," Robinson said. "It's not the most important aspect" of business success here. "The most important aspect is, 'Can you do the job you said you were going to do?' "
He added: "You maybe don't have the benefit of the doubt; maybe it's a little harder to prove yourself, but once you do, you're in the network." And "in a place like Richmond, you can actually spin up a business," he said, even if it is the heart of the old Confederacy.
* * * * *
Founded by Thornton Davis in 1908, Richmond's Davis Brothers Construction Co. Inc. is one of the oldest construction companies in central Virginia and one of the largest minority-owned building contractors in the mid-Atlantic region.
The company started building homes in the black community, but today it does largely commercial construction, with a specialty in church construction.
Some of the company's ventures include work on the renovation of the Virginia Capitol, the Landmark Theater and the Greater Richmond Convention Center, buildings on the Virginia Union University campus and a number of churches.
"Black businesses are struggling because of the economy," said Langston R. Davis, the company's CEO, with little work available and many contractors competing for it. "I used to bid on projects that might have had three or four bidders. Now it's 30 or 40, so it's tough."
"A lot of minority companies are competing with large companies," said Langston R. Davis Jr., the company's vice president for preconstruction and the fourth generation of his family in the business.
On the other hand, "Just to be in some of the places we're working, that African-Americans or minorities might not have been able to be in even 20 years ago, has been good," said the younger Davis, a civil engineering graduate of Georgia Tech. "And I think it's been good for society as a whole."
"I'm just looking to keep this thing going another 50 or 60 years," he said.
* * * * *
Kenneth E. Ampy grew up on his grandfather's tobacco farm in Dinwiddie County, taking part in the heritage of black entrepreneurship in Virginia: "Someone asked me, 'Did he own the farm?' 'Yes.' 'Did he buy the equipment?' 'Yes.' 'Did he have employees?' 'Yes.' 'Did he sell the tobacco?' 'Yes.'
"I didn't view that as owning a business till someone pointed it out," Ampy said.
Now Ampy is CEO of Richmond's Astyra Corp., a fast-growing technology consulting and staffing company with 150 employees and $15 million in annual revenue. "Throughout this economy," he said, "we've grown every year."
* * * * *
When his grandfather, Marcellus Carrington Waller, went into business in 1900, said Richard A. Waller Jr., "he had to make his own tools because people wouldn't sell him tools to fix watches and clocks."
Today his firm, Waller & Co. Jewelers, is one of the oldest black businesses in Richmond.
"He was determined to succeed," said Waller, a jeweler's loupe perched on his forehead. If M.C. Waller could survive and prosper in the face of discrimination, "there's no way I can't succeed."
Richard Waller never had the kinds of problems his grandfather had to overcome, "as long as I had money." But, he said, "success in life is not money — a lot of people think that — it's integrity."
* * * * *
Business is in her blood, Sharon Dabney-Wooldridge said.
Her family owned two grocery stores in Jackson Ward, her grandfather owned a farm where he sold livestock for slaughter, one great-uncle owned a frame shop and another owned a construction business, and an uncle owned a small hauling business.
"I used to like to play 'office' as a child," she said. Her first job was putting up stock in her father's grocery store as a teenager.
In 1986, equipped with a vacuum cleaner, a car and a dream, Dabney-Wooldridge started her own business. Her South Richmond-based Kleane Kare Team Inc. is now a nearly $4 million-a-year commercial cleaning company employing more than 100 people.
"It's cutthroat," she said. "You have to be resilient and pick yourself up by your bootstraps and say, 'OK, how am I going to make this happen?' I never get discouraged. I take it as a challenge, as something else I have to overcome."
* * * * *
Black entrepreneurship traces back to the earliest days of African-American slavery in Virginia, with some slaves trading goods they produced themselves, and selling their own skills and services, and often having to give their owners a cut of the profits, according to Charles Gerena, an editor and writer with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
Even after emancipation, blacks were restricted economically by segregation in the post-Civil War society, Gerena wrote in the Richmond Federal Reserve's quarterly magazine "Region Focus."
They turned to self-help, Gerena said. For instance, the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, founded in Richmond's Jackson Ward in 1881, provided insurance and banking services, operated department stores and a newspaper, and invested in real estate.
The True Reformers obtained the first charter for a black-owned bank in 1888 from the Virginia General Assembly, while Maggie Walker's St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was the first bank managed by a black female president.
During their peak between the end of the Reconstruction era and the start of the Great Depression, Gerena wrote, Virginia was home to more black-owned banks than any other state, providing capital to black entrepreneurs and prospective homeowners at a time when it was expensive or impossible to get elsewhere.
* * * * *
But black entrepreneurs say the effects of slavery, segregation and racism still play a role in business, particularly in access to capital.
"Black businesses still have disparate results in seeking out capital," Oliver R. Singleton, president of Richmond's Metropolitan Business League said, noting that "money is the lifeblood of business."
He pointed out that Consolidated Bank & Trust Co., the successor to Maggie Walker's St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, is now part of West Virginia-based Premier Bank Inc.
"I can't ask my dad to talk to the guy he plays squash with at the country club to help us get a loan," said Samuel S. Young Jr., Astyra's president, co-founder and co-owner. "Unless he taught shop in the Richmond public schools, I'm out of luck."
However, Young said, "Other things get in our way. The biggest is we're a small business."
"The one thing my mother always beat in to me was, 'Pay your bills; be wise with your money,' so I always had really good credit," NTS' Robinson said. "If I didn't have good credit, this business never would have happened."
But good personal credit was not enough for his fledgling company, which started selling computer hardware. "Our first customer's order was a $95,000 package," Robinson said. "We were 45 days old. Let me tell you, you get a $95,000 order and you're 45 days old, you have no line of credit.
"You're basically looking for a banker with a sense of humor. By the way, we didn't find one, but entrepreneurs find a way." The way Robinson found was a distributor who based Robinson's line of credit on his end-user customer's credit.
* * * * *
Small businesses, Singleton said, whether they're owned by whites, Hispanics, Asians, blacks or women, "have a lot more in common than they do in distinction."
"Our organization has realized this and is making an effort to change the public perception of us that we're a black-only business association to an association that supports all small businesses," Singleton said. "I don't think we can grow unless we recognize the current situation and adapt."
"I feel sometimes we have to fight harder now as black-owned businesses than back before integration," said Dabney-Wooldridge, president, CEO and owner of Kleane Kare. "We did business within our communities, and we were more successful. It's more competitive now that it's more diverse.
"Until the mindset of the community changes, it's always going to be black and white. Unfortunately, there isn't a level playing field for all businesses."
* * * * *
In economics, discrimination isn't a rational choice because it leaves money on the table, Gerena said. Some business people might want to discriminate against blacks, but in the marketplace that will cost them.
Singleton notes that he is old enough to have lived through desegregation, "and even during segregation, I've never seen a white businessman not take a black person's money."
"I assure you," Singleton said, "there aren't any black businesses that wouldn't take a white person's money.
"There's been progress, but there's still a lot of work to do."
While "it's hard not to know Astyra's a black corporation because we're prominent," Ampy said, "our 2012 mantra is not, 'Let's go find business for black companies.'