Sunday, December 8, 2002

Take 2 women, 1 dream; mix in well

Enterprise insight

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

The goal of Electrical Innovations Corp. is to wire itself into the Tristate's construction network.

[photo] Richardo Johnson, left, Rachetta Johnson, front, and Charlene Monroe
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
But for this young, minority-owned electrical contractor, every step is a challenge. Meeting those challenges has required a powerful combination of determination and discipline.

The spark for this enterprise came when two female apprentice electricians met on the job at Paul Brown Stadium. Rachetta Johnson and Charlene Monroe agreed that their career goals went beyond mastery of the electrical trade; the young women dreamed of running their own company.

The first challenge was laying the foundation: Because union rules prohibit members from being business owners, the women turned to family members for help.

Ms. Johnson's brother Richardo and Ms. Monroe's mother, Sharon Commins, furnished the capital and the leadership to establish Electrical Innovations.

Richardo Johnson, Rachetta Johnson and Charlene Monroe sacrifice their personal lives and often skimp on sleep to achieve their goals for Electrical Innovations.
Mr. Johnson works two jobs in addition to providing the business organization behind the company.
Sharon Commins, Ms. Monroe's mother who is retired, helps out with paperwork.
But the majority of business development falls on the company's young electricians. Here's a typical day for Ms. Monroe and Ms. Johnson:
7 a.m. Get up and report to the job site.
12:30-1 p.m. Leave the job site, shower and change into business clothes. Meet with prospective business associates, advisers or contract administrators.
5 p.m. Go home and change clothes again. Twice a week, both women take classes from 6:30-9:30 p.m.
10 p.m. Ms. Monroe and Ms. Johnson meet at the company office to complete paperwork and learn how to do such tasks as taxes and payroll, which they will need to know when they eventually take over the company. They hope to take business courses after they finish their electrical training.
Electrical Innovations Corp. is at 2489 Paris St. Information: 333-0612.
The company was incorporated in April. Ms. Johnson and Ms. Monroe became its employees, along with journeyman electrician Ed Wilke.

But a greater challenge by far has been plugging into the building trades establishment.

"Eighty percent of this business is who you know. That's the way you get contracts, both public and private," Ms. Monroe said. "Cincinnati is definitely competitive, and this industry in particular is hard to get into. There are lots of majority-owned businesses that have been around a long time and have all these relationships. New companies don't have access to that table."

But rather than complaining about an inclined playing field, the company developed strategies for building its own relationships.

Ms. Monroe and Ms. Johnson became involved in community organizations and got to know some local decision-makers who helped them make connections.

"It took us a while to learn the game, but eventually we were blessed with a couple of contracts," Ms. Johnson said.

"Networking is critical," her brother added. "If you're not in the same circles as the big shots, it's almost a done deal that you won't be included. We have been constantly hustling, with determination, dedication and hard work."

The two women were already members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the only two female minority apprentices in Local 212.

To increase its visibility and contacts, Electrical Innovations became active in the Electrical Workers' Minority Caucus, the African-American Chamber of Commerce and the National Electrical Contractors Association.

The company became certified as a Minority Business Enterprise in Southwestern Ohio by completing the rigorous qualifying process.

"The whole premise behind this certification is to establish that the business is viable," Ms. Monroe said.

The two women joined the Cincinnati Public Schools' Supplier Diversity Council, primarily to serve as role models.

"We want to help others, and help increase minority participation," Ms. Johnson said. "It's good to see the city is opening up and trying to push that."

But traditional modes of operating are still the norm in the building trades. You can become frustrated or you can find opportunities.

Ms. Johnson said: "If you want to do private industry work, you have to know somebody. If you want to do public project work, where there are minority set-asides, you have to be bonded by a surety company. In order to be bonded, you have to demonstrate financial security and you have to have experience."

Said Ms. Monroe: "So one way to alleviate these obstacles is to form partnerships with majority contractors. But the resistance from many firms to having minority subcontractors is unbelievable. Most of our success has come from persistence. We just keep at it; that's been the biggest shock to people. We're still here. We're serious."

Ms. Johnson said they looked for cracks in the network.

"Break down projects into smaller contracts or go after smaller projects," she said. "City departments don't require bonding if the project is under $10,000, but they do have to get three bids. They've already got lists of providers, but we're working on getting on those lists. We are not looking for handouts; we just want the opportunity to show what we can do."

Electrical Innovations is learning how and to whom to submit bids. Each contract makes winning the next contract easier.

And, come April, the company will celebrate its first anniversary. It will be eligible for additional certifications that will strengthen its competitive position.

"Intestinal fortitude is a word we like to use," Ms. Monroe said. "We are working in positive directions to get change."

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