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Success beyond startup: Walker-Miller invests in energy, diversity


A standard lightbulb uses 10 percent of its energy to create light. The other 90 percent creates heat.
 
Carla Walker-Miller may be intimately familiar with this energy fun fact. As president and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services, she might even agree a lightbulb functions much like Michigan's economy: small percentage corporate, much larger percentage small business.
 
In fact, more than 98 percent of all employers in the state of Michigan are small businesses, according to data from business coalition New Detroit.
 
"Small businesses are the engines in our economy," Walker-Miller says. "They drive economic development in a way that is not incidental to wealth or to the growth of the economy, but foundational."
 
By scaling beyond the startup stage, "second level" small businesses create jobs and power Southeast Michigan's economy, she says.
 
And she should know.
 
Walker-Miller Energy Services helps people and the environment by reducing energy waste in the residential and commercial buildings where we live and work. In making our structures healthier, more comfortable and less expensive to operate, Walker-Miller Energy stimulates the local economy and advances sustainable energy solutions, now and for the future.
 
The 16-year-old Detroit-based firm has grown exponentially in the last year, doubling its workforce to 80 employees and boosting annual revenue to about $27 million, up from just $7 million in 2015. Through existing business and a project with DTE Energy, Walker-Miller has catapulted her business to the second level.
 
And that feels wonderful, she says.
 
"Going for new business was like a dog chasing a car. Once you catch it, you have to figure out what to do with it. In reality, it was a dog chasing a rocket ship," Walker-Miller says. "I'm proud we were able to move a lot of jobs into Detroit and earnings into the pocketbooks of Detroit residents."
 
Entrepreneurship realities
 
Diverse hiring was top priority for Walker-Miller, as it should be for all successful companies, she says. "Leaning out" to hire people who don't look like you will ultimately change the workforce for the better.
 
"If you believe in fairness and equality, there should be a larger, more diverse pool considered for just about any position there is," she says. "Too many don't accept that this needs to change. Any rational discussion on economic development and the good of the country or the city or town or neighborhood would reveal the need to change the dynamics of workplace hiring. It's something I deal with every day."
 
To support second level, we need to recognize the reality of entrepreneurship is not the 25-year-old guy who develops an app, Walker-Miller says. "Entities that I mentor know there's a lot of excitement as well as isolation and pain because no matter how passionate you are about your product, if you have no money, you are living a difficult life," she says. While the entrepreneurial "ecosystem" focus has matured from startup to sustained growth, investors need to begin stepping up.
 
"The startup area is replete with training and opportunities, but for second stage, once you reach a certain level and continue to grow, the requirement for more investment to finance the growth becomes larger," she says.
 
Even for businesses that lay a rock-solid foundation and get through the initial startup phase, second-level funding can be elusive, according to Maureen Krauss, senior adviser of economic development for the Detroit Regional Chamber. (Walker-Miller sits on the chamber's board of directors and in 2015 received its Leadership Detroit Moving the Needle Award for transformational leadership.)
 
"Funding of that second stage is still a big gap," Krauss says. "Second stage needs to be more structured. Funders want more structure, customers want more structure, and growth cycles need more structure to be successful."
 
Seeking access
 
As a black woman business owner, Walker-Miller is part of a growing group, yet she's one of only a few large enough to have employees. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2016 the number of black female-owned businesses in the country rose nearly 67 percent from 2007 to 2012 and account for around 59 percent of black-owned businesses; only about 12 percent of all women-owned businesses have employees, according to 2012 figures.
 
So what does it take for women to scale job-creating businesses? Access, Walker-Miller says. Unfortunately, in Detroit, access belongs to the few.
 
"Use any large project as an example," Walker-Miller says. "Someone knew three years ago there would be the [Little Caesar's] arena project. Those with access made investments in property, in relationships, and positioned themselves, possibly at some risk, three years ago." Then, years later, programs are created to introduce a diverse set of contractors.
 
Too little, too late, according to Walker-Miller. "The way I look at it, those opportunities are at the end of the deal flow, and the largest opportunities were at the beginning when people were discovering what was going to happen," she says. "There should be an initial effort to bring a wider, more diverse group of businesses, of people, into the early part of the deal flow—for all deals, not just the arena."
 
For small businesses to really grow, the power holders, typically white men, must "lean out" and pull diversity closer, sats Walker-Miller. "Those in power need to make themselves available to people who don't look like them or live like them. All of our lives would be richer if we all did that."
 
Change is slow. For now, Walker-Miller reenergizes herself through immersion in business events for women and minority entrepreneurs, like the inaugural United State of Women summit in June in Washington, D.C. She recently participated in Southeast Michigan Startup's #HighGrowthHappyHour, offering advice on how businesses can scale.
 
"It's coming off the battlefield to spend time with people like me, with the same interests," Walker-Miller says. This is coveted time to "lick her wounds" and talk about issues relevant to women, not just women in business. "It's so positive and so real about the barriers and challenges, and possibilities," she says. "Where you get love and encouragement in a very diverse group. It's quite a blessing."

Claire Charlton is a metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.

Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.
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