It’s hard to say whether Lena Graham-Morris’s entrepreneurial savvy is a matter of nature or nurture. With four generations of entrepreneurs behind her, it might just be in her DNA. Growing up, while the other girls were playing with dolls, she was at her grandmother’s office playing secretary. “We later found out we were doing payroll,” she laughs. No matter the source of her drive and talent, there is no question she has put them to good use.
After coming to Central Florida 15 years ago, Graham-Morris worked in television production and as a host, as well as in fashion as both a stylist and a make-up artist. After coming to Orlando to work for WMFE and 90.7, she eventually went on to work for the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, first as events coordinator, and finally as director of operations. All the while she has continued to foster her entrepreneurial goals, eventually founding her latest company, The Entreprenista. She is currently the vice president of marketing and business development for HORUS Construction Services Inc. and she sits on the board of the Orlando chapter of National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).
Your family has a long history of entrepreneurship. What have you learned from family members, and how did that prepare you for your career?
I’ve always been involved, so I think what I’ve learned from them is persistence, endurance and the ability to take the good and the bad. A lot of folks just thought we had it easy because we worked for ourselves, but they didn’t see that in the construction industry, things go up and down. It was because of my grandmother being such a savvy businesswoman that the business sustained for years just based on the fact that she could run everything. Whether it’s in my DNA or whether it’s learned, I took away the ethics and the work standards. My family works very hard. They strive for excellence and they are very determined, and even if things do not go well, they always look to recoup and just keep going with it. They band together, and that’s something that has really stuck with me.
My No. 1 role model is actually my uncle. He is the hardest-working entrepreneur I know. When I was younger, I would look up to him, and I watched him grow our family business from being one truck to six offices, with general contractors working on multimillion-dollar projects. It’s so exciting to be able to work with him closer now on a lot of different projects. I was even able to facilitate a strategic partnership that kind of revived some of our business, and already that partnership is equivalent to $155 million in just 14 months. I feel fortunate to have people who are close to me that that I admire. They’re driven. They’ve been successful. Even when they’ve made mistakes, they’ve recovered. I admire that.
When you got started with your own business, was there anything that surprised you?
Some folks think being an entrepreneur is glamorous because you can have a flexible schedule. They think I get up and I do what I want to do and I go to bed when I want to go to bed, not understanding that it’s not for the faint of heart. It is a grind all day. It is 15-hour days. It is sometimes being the accountant, receptionist, assistant, business development manager, all the way across the board. And if you’re not committed to that, then it can definitely take you by surprise.
How would you describe your journey to your current role, and what excites you most about it?
I had a studio and I got very, very sick. I was sick for six months, and I was actually in the hospital for two months, and that’s when I came to help John at the African American Chamber. As I was getting back into those roots, I was talking with my mentor at that time, and I said, “I feel something else is coming on in my life.”
I was throwing some things out to her. And she was like, “No, you need to push more, Lena.” One day, I just woke up and realized that with my background in makeup and fashion, my own show at the time, and my business savvy in being an entrepreneur, I feel like I’m The Entreprenista. So I went through a process to get that trademarked.
What I love the most about being an entrepreneur is baring my soul and sharing my experiences with people, even the mistakes I’ve made and how they shaped me to be better; how I have evolved to be the Entreprenista and how I can help them.
I am just very committed to helping local, small, minority-, women- and veteran-owned businesses increase their bottom line through partnerships and strategic alliances. I saw it change my life. I saw it change my family’s life, and I’m committed to diversity and inclusion and supporting these businesses.
What we want to get to, and what is important to me, is that we develop quality businesses. Not that people are using the business because it’s a woman-owned business, or it’s a veteran-owned business, or it’s a minority-owned business, or it’s a small business, but we’re developing businesses that can compete just like the Fortune 500 companies. And so the perk is that, on top of that, they happen to fall into those other categories.
When you’re working with these companies, what questions do you get the most often from business owners?
A lot of people ask “How do I get started? What do I need to do?” Some file with the state, and get an EIN [employer identification number], and they think they’re in business, but there are so many more steps to it than that. Another question I get a lot is about a business plan, so we refer them to vendors we work with. But those startup questions are big. The second set of questions is when someone is moving into that next phase, they’ll ask, “How do I get different types of contracts and get into procurements?” because that is a world that’s not so easy to navigate through even when you talk about minority certifications, whether it’s women-, minority- or veteran-owned business enterprises. If it’s public work they’re looking to do, such as in a school system, those types of things, how do they prepare their business to get into government contracting?
In any sector, including business, it may be hard for minorities and women to enter the conversation simply because they have not had access to it before. What kinds of programs or opportunities can help ensure business owners are equipped with access to the tools and conversations they need?
One of the most important things across the board that you can ever have is the opportunity to have a mentor-protege program. Whether it’s in an official sense, following the U.S. Small Business Administration guidelines, or if it’s in a more informal sense, it is so important to find that safe place where you can have someone who’s been through those experiences and is open to sharing them with you. The other thing is a coach — and people get mentor and coach confused. You should definitely have both if you’re looking to grow. A coach will be the person who holds you accountable for what you’re trying to do. And then, finding other support in the form of groups — a place where you can ask questions and be pushed to grow. I just recently was appointed to the board of directors for the Orlando chapter of NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, and that’s a great opportunity because it’s another group that supports within. It’s a safe place. Access to capital is a major factor when it comes to small businesses.
What advice would you give to those seeking guidance on this? What resources are there, and what changes might need to be made to improve access?
You have to start your business thinking long-term. A lot of folks start their business and they don’t put the correct paperwork in place. They don’t set up their bank account. They don’t create a track record. When you’re looking to gain access to capital, you have to be able to show that track record. I’ve worked with so many entrepreneurs who don’t pay themselves. That’s not a good thing because when you’re going back to try to get support, the funders, whether it is traditional or nontraditional, or investors, whatever it is, they want to look at this track record. There are alternative ways to gain access to capital. In this area, there’s the Black Business Investment Fund (BBIF), which has programs, technical assistance and capital that is available. There’s also ACCION, which is, again, nontraditional lending, so they have different criteria. You have to think out of the box. Angel investors, venture capitalists, and pitch competitions are nontraditional ways to gather some capital to get started.
What would you describe as the greatest lesson you’ve learned along the way, or the best piece of advice you would give?
One of the big things for me is celebrating your successes and your failures. Being an entrepreneur, I have lost everything — and I’ve lost everything more than once because of believing in what I wanted to do, even when no one else did. And so when I got to the point where I could celebrate my failures and my successes, that’s kind of where the Entreprenista was born. I really believe, and I share this with everyone, that the absolute test of one’s character is the ability to lose as gracefully as you win. Then you will truly just master not even the art of being an entrepreneur, but the art of being a great person.
What keeps you motivated when you have a hard day?
I am a nerd. Love to read. I read about everything I’m interested in, especially productivity books. I actually designed my own productivity planner, and that was fun for me. And spending time with my husband and my family. I draw off of him. He is so supportive of anything I do. Being in the world of entrepreneurship, you have to have somebody who supports you. Even if they don’t understand your drive, they have to support you or it’s not going to work.