Entrepreneurial Dream Makers
It is impossible to put a price tag on the satisfaction that comes from helping others, especially when that help could mean facilitating someone’s dream. As that dream matures, it’s the countless dreams of others, when the ripple effect of a successful enterprise expands out geometrically.
The Florida Small Business Development Center (FSBDC) hosted at UCF works to ensure the dream of business growth isn’t lost or stymied by providing strategic insight and coaching for all businesses, especially those that have the potential to scale. For Eunice Choi, that was the surprising discovery she made when she joined the FSBDC in 1998 as a part-time consultant.
Choi came to the area with her husband Yoon Choi, an associate professor of finance at UCF’s College of Business. With her graduate degrees in French and accounting, she had hoped to teach, but then a UCF faculty member told her about an opportunity with the FSBDC. She started working and never left, though she said laughing, “I wasn’t planning to stay this long.”
At that time, the Center had a staff of eight in Orlando and 14 regionally. Today, they boast a staff of 41, serving an eight-county area that includes Brevard, Flagler, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties. It also maintains three sub-center offices and six satellite offices, along with the main office in Orlando.
“I started to fall in love with my job, because I was helping people and able to witness their growth and success,” she said. “There were also times when I was able to lend my shoulder.”
Bumping It Up a Notch
Becoming regional director in 2006, Choi has vastly expanded the scope and reach of the FSBDC at UCF. In the process, she has garnered recognition including the prestigious Excalibur Award for business leadership, the CBA Impact Award for her exceptional contributions to the economic development of the region and the State Star Performer Award, which is the highest recognition
in her field.
In 2011, Eunice was also recognized as one of the female faculty at UCF who raised the highest Contract & Grant funds and has made the UCF’s Millionaires Club for the seventh year in a row since 2008. The UCF Millionaires Club was established in 2000 and recognizes researchers who have received externally sponsored funding of $1 million or more in the last fiscal year.
To Choi, the most important recognition is from her clients, but the economic development numbers cannot be overlooked. According to a 2013 report, the annual impact of the SBDC on our region is: 7,507 jobs created, retained or saved; the generation of $1.04 billion in sales; $87 million in government contracts that were acquired; $51.5 million in capital investment; and 129 new businesses launched. Statewide, for every $1 that is invested in the SBDC program, $35 is returned to the state in tax revenue.
“When I started, I was shown to my office and basically we waited for the phone to ring,” Choi recalled. “As the Small Business Administration better defined their goals and expectations, along with new leadership at the state level, we became a more performance-oriented organization.”
“It is a very different world today,” L. Harrison “Hal” Thayer, the FSBDC’s assistant director, added. “We actively seek clients and that is due in large part to Eunice’s leadership. We go out and demonstrate to potential clients our unique value proposition.”
The FSBDC at UCF is the result of a collaboration between the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the state of Florida, the FSBDC Network and other public partners, particularly host universities that provide resources to facilitate their mission. “It is a good arrangement; by being hosted, they take care of our back office, including contract management support,” Thayer explained. “In turn, we are a very effective community relations arm for the University, helping to create jobs and raise capital which provides opportunities for their talent pool to fill.”
“We benefit from matching funds from local partners and host institutions and so, in addition to the SBA and the State of Florida, local cities and counties support us to assist in the economic development of their community,” Choi said. Eastern Florida State College, Seminole State College and Daytona State College also serve as sub-center locations under Choi’s leadership. Elaborating further, Thayer said, “All of the stakeholders have a voice at the table in setting the direction for the SBDC, yet Eunice is able to maintain a certain autonomy while satisfying their expectations.”
“Fundamentally I am the one responsible for reaching and exceeding our performance goals,” Choi added.
Why the FSBDC Is Unique
“We are different than chambers, for instance, because one of their primary roles is to connect people and they are very good at providing venues and opportunities for networking. We, on the other hand, provide certified business professionals who give in-depth analysis and consulting services to help businesses grow and succeed. This is one-on-one consulting, provided at no cost by 23 certified business professionals with a very diverse background,” Choi explained.
Essentially, just as a company might hire consultants to provide the most up-to-date strategic planning, financial analysis or marketing know-how, many small business can’t afford to pay for this type of expertise. “One company that kept me in this arena was Pegasus Transportation – they consider me their ‘guardian angel,’” Choi said, beaming. Brazilian immigrant Fernando Pereira and his wife Claudia formed the company with minimal assets in a simple 100-sq.ft. office, with a 15-passenger van and just one driver. “The FSBDC has helped us to overcome situations like September 11 and hurricanes, and also helped us to obtain capital for the construction of our new facility,” said Claudia. Fernando added, “The FSBDC has been on our side since 2001 and we couldn’t be more thankful for it.”
The list of companies they have helped nurture into multi-million dollar corporations is quite impressive including Elizabeth Burch’s Dignitas Technologies, LLC and Andre Uribe, Michael Wright and Glenn Durie’s Power Grid Engineering. “Their pay scale isn’t up to the market value our consultants could earn elsewhere,” says Choi, “but they are passionate about helping people, so their job satisfaction is high.”
“Our primary target customer profile is one with five or more employees and over three years in business. Our ratio is about 40 percent startups and 60 percent small- to medium-size existing businesses with growth potential,” Choi said. “We take companies with potential for growth to the next level.”
“The process begins with a needs and situation analysis,” Thayer explained. “We meet a lot of clients who are in their business primarily because they want a job. And, while we certainly assist those clients, our emphasis is on companies that have growth as their objective. Once we understand their needs, situation and goals, then we go to work.”
“We have special programs for companies that are in the second stage of development, like our Advisory Board Council program,” Choi said. “These companies can’t afford to have a qualified board of directors with compensation. So we form an advisory board with FSBDC consultants and local professionals who volunteer.”
Thayer added, “We get the most amazing people to volunteer for these Advisory Board Councils. We match the type of company a client is building with seasoned professionals with years of experience in that sector. We do tight needs assessments of that client and then recruit professionals to serve on their councils.”
It’s no wonder their small business success rate is so high.