KTECH Helps Stem Rise of Juvenile Criminals; Opens Gateway to Jobs for Foster Kids

In 2003, while investigating a news story about a man on Death Row, then-television news anchor Lee Marshall discovered the man was a product of Alabama’s foster care system.

Marshall, who was herself adopted as an infant, hit on an alarming statistic from Pew Research: Between 75 and 80 percent of kids in the juvenile justice system come out of foster care.

Lee Marshall: “KTECH is a gateway, an opportunity for kids aging out of the system, to take another path.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Having grown up in a loving family and having the benefit of a good education and a successful career, she was appalled at that statistic.

More than 16 years later, recent statistics from Foster Care 2.0, and confirmed in stats quoted in an article written for Teen Vogue in May 2018, that number is now solid at 80 percent.

Furthermore, by age 17, more than half of the youths in foster care have experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility. More alarming numbers:

  • 90 percent of youths with more than five foster placements will enter the justice system at some point in their lives;
  • 40 to 50 percent of formerly fostered youth become homeless within 18 months after leaving foster care; and
  • 25 percent will be in prison within two years of aging out of the system.

“I saw this happening, like a flood rushing the prison gates and pouring through it,” said Marshall. “I searched for somebody, somewhere, doing something to stop it, but came up empty.”

Shortly thereafter, Lee Marshall retired from television news after 20 years to start her Kids To Love foundation. Kids To Love seeks to wrap their arms around foster kids no matter what age or under what circumstances they enter the foster care system. They provide supportive programs, all with a hidden curriculum: to give them food if they don’t have it; to provide transportation if they need it; and help them find housing if they are on the streets. But no one was offering solutions to just “Stop it.”

“As a former journalist, I know what I don’t know, so I did some research,” Marshall said. “I needed an exit strategy for these kids, especially those aging out of the system.

“I created our KTECH workforce training initiative to stop it by getting them into jobs. Our overall catalyst is to invest in, educate, and sustain these kids. KTECH is a gateway, an opportunity for kids aging out of the system, to take another path.”

Daily KTECH classes feature mechatronics in the mornings and robotics in the afternoon. (Photo/Steve Babin)

In 2014, a Kids To Love board member connected Marshall with Fred Rascoe, dean of Career and Technical Programs at Motlow State Community College. He runs the career readiness department which includes Bridgestone classes in mechatronics, a multidisciplinary form of electrical and mechanical engineering systems that trains people for the newest jobs in advanced manufacturing. Mechatronics rethinks traditional blue-collar manufacturing into a clean, skilled environment.

“Several community leaders and members of the Board of Directors went with me to see how their program worked,” said Marshall. “They were stating 100 percent job placement for graduates from the classes and, by all accounts, it looked good.”

Rascoe became her mentor and when she told him how she wanted KTECH to look, he showed her what they needed and how to set up the equipment to be successful.

“I had a vision of what I needed to make it work but I knew the mountain I would be climbing. All I needed now was a building and half a million dollars in equipment,” Marshall said.

Kids To Love was operating out of several locations with a warehouse in one place, her administrative offices in an old Intergraph building, and to make the classes work, she was praying for a way to bring everything under one roof.

Just a few months later, in November 2014, she met Louis and Patty Breland of Breland Properties. Patty was adopted and she shared Marshall’s vision for KTECH.

The Brelands donated a 13,000 square-foot investment property on Castle Drive in Madison to Kids To Love.

“It was formerly a Jump Zone painted in primary colors and smelled like dirty socks, but I have never been so excited about a building in my life,” said Marshall. “Nearly all the materials for renovations were donated and in April, Dorothy Davidson of Davidson Technologies bought all the required equipment.”

KTECH has two fulltime instructors and classes are daily with mechatronics in the mornings; robotics in the afternoon; and soldering and solid edge, a 3D CAD technology that provides solid modeling, assembly modelling and 2D orthographic view functionality for mechanical designers, taught several hours per week. Students leave KTECH with all four industry certifications.

Students attend an accelerated program of four college-level classes in 16 weeks. Classes are 40 percent lecture and 60 percent hands-on instruction.

KTECH has an articulation agreement, that is, their college level classes qualify as transferable college credits if a student wants to transfer to Calhoun Community College, Wallace State, or Motlow. Calhoun and Wallace State give 12 of the 16 hours credit, but Motlow gives the full 16 because the program is patterned after it.

“We want kids to have an easy transition into a job after we certify them, so we set up the labs just like they will be at a job, in fact, the robotic lab is exactly like the new labs at the new Mazda Toyota plant,” Marshall said. “Students can go straight to work making $30,000 a year.”

In 2018, KTECH expanded the mechatronics lab to include the largest robotics training classroom in the state of Alabama. There are four robots and a virtual computer robot just like the ones they will see at the Mazda Toyota plant.

KTECH runs completely debt free and accepts no state or federal funding because grant money has strings attached.

“I can’t help kids the way I want to help them if I accepted government funds,” she said.

While KTECH’s priority is on kids aging out of the foster care system, it is not limited to that. Marshall said it is a training vehicle for anyone in the community who can use the skills.

“We have put veterans in there who are transitioning back into the workforce and they bring a tremendous synergy to the kids,” said Marshall. “My kids have a tendency to quit when it gets hard or to quit when they don’t want to do something.

“If I put a vet in here with one of my kids, that vet comes from a brotherhood. They will say, ‘I’ve got your back. We’re in this together and quitting or failure are not options.’”

The program also offers classes to the underserved or under-resourced people.

“We have great relationships with nonprofit organizations like the Downtown Rescue Mission and Christian Women’s Job Corps,” Marshall said. “We have trained six of the Downtown Rescue Mission’s program graduates.”

Students must have a high school diploma or GED to interview and Marshall said it is a tough love proposition.

“We have a strict interview process and only take about half of those that interview; however, we have a 100 percent completion rate,” said Marshall. “We give them an opportunity. What they do with it is up to them.

“For us, it is not about having butts in a seat – it is about completion. We kick them in the butt while they are here, but we are by their side at graduation.”

Kids To Love has awarded more than 700 college scholarships in its first 16 years, and KTECH has awarded more than 100 certifications in the first three years of its existence. KTECH is an alternative for foster children who are not cut out for college or don’t have the support to go to college, but they still need a skill set to be independent.

For 16 years, Kids To Love has implemented numerous programs in support of foster children of all ages throughout Alabama, in 60 counties in Tennessee, and with a growing presence in Mississippi and Georgia. Programs for young children like More Than a Backpack and Christmas For the Kids provide food, school supplies, and new clothing to wear. Life Lab teaches older kids, essential skills like how to create a budget, balance a budget, write a resume and dress appropriately for a job.

“I asked a judge in Montgomery, ‘What is the number one thing you see in my kids when they come before you?” said Marshall.

“He said, ‘Armed robbery with drugs a close number two. It may surprise you, drugs isn’t number one, but they get a gun because they need a gun to get into the drug business,’” Marshall said he told her.

According to Bennet Wright, Chair and Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, it costs $44 a day to house an inmate in Alabama. Armed robbery is a gateway crime with an automatic 20-year sentence if convicted in Alabama. A 20-year sentence costs the taxpayer over $321,000.

Right now, there are more than 1,500 kids over the age of 14, about to age out of the system. The cost of that many kids aging out of foster care and going into the juvenile justice system will cost taxpayers about $365 million if nothing is done to stop it.

KTECH is one step to help stop this trend.

Sitdown with Success: Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf

(Sitdown with Success is a regular feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bruce Weddendorf who helped revolutionize the craft-brewing industry in Huntsville and the state.)

Just four short weeks before COVID- 19 became everyone’s daily reality, Huntsville City Mayor Tommy Battle proclaimed Feb. 14 as Straight to Ale Day.

Bruce Weddendorf stands in the Straight to Ale stockroom, a converted gym at the former Stone Middle School. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The Valentine’s Day proclamation came on the heels of a recent accolade from RateBeer, naming the Huntsville brewery the “2019 Best Brewer in Alabama.” And what an honor it was: Five times in six years, Straight to Ale has earned the title.

Going far beyond its local and state popularity, Straight to Ale has become a nationally recognized product, as well as a hang out. The taproom is a prime destination location for out-of-town visitors.

It’s that kind of comfy place where old friends gather over a pint, business folk network and new connections are forged.

Getting its start in 2009, Straight to Ale has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the small, 500-square-foot production facility at Lincoln Mill.

In spring 2011, Straight To Ale took up residence in the former Olde Towne Brewery on Leeman Ferry Road. Still operating as a production venture, the passing of the Brewery Modernization Act in fall 2011 that included taprooms, was a business model game-changer.

Once the taproom was added, operations expanded to host a wide assortment of special events. Every night was a party of some sort and, by 2014, Straight to Ale was bursting at the seams.

School’s out forever! By summer 2016, Straight to Ale became the anchor tenant at Campus No. 805, formerly  Stone Middle School, which was a part of the West Huntsville redevelopment initiative.

In its spacious, 45,000-square-foot facility, Straight to Ale has plenty to offer. There’s the taproom with more than 20 taps of Straight To Ale brews. The beer names are uniquely memorable, such as “Monkeynaut,” and “Unobtainium.” STA Operations Manager Matt Broadhurst creates the quirky label art that’s poster worthy and unforgettable.

Having a reception, business meeting or a party? There are five special event rental spaces. There’s also a small retail shop that sells STA merchandise.

For dining, there’s Ale’s Kitchen, serving up items from a variety of cultures, all made from scratch.

Bruce Weddendorf, his wife Jo, and business partners Dan Perry and Colin Austin were the trailblazers on this first wave of local craft beer; frontrunners with the taproom concept.

The idea behind Straight to Ale was to make Huntsville more fun! “We wanted to provide a product that was uniquely Huntsville,” said Weddendorf. “To get people -all kinds of people- together over beer.”

Before 2009, there wasn’t a craft beer segment to the beer market. Free the Hops paved the way by helping to pass the Gourmet Beer Bill. That was the first industry game-changer. When they helped to pass the taproom laws two years later, it completely changed Straight to Ale’s business model.

“The thing is, we really didn’t know what it would do, we didn’t understand at the time how big a part of our lives it was going to become because we were still very much a manufacturing business,” said Weddendorf. “It (the taproom) made it so much better, so much easier to reach customers and to make bonds with those customers.”

Since 2011, Alabama has gone from seven craft breweries to 45 in 2019. The passing of the Gourmet Beer Bill and Taproom law had the one-two punch effect of creating a new industry and adapting the brewery business model from strictly production to a business that encompassed hospitality and retail, too.

Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf is climbing the ladder to success in the craft beer industry. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“We grew from being just manufacturing-oriented to becoming part of the hospitality industry,” said Weddendorf. “That wasn’t something we planned, but it’s been tremendously beneficial to our business and beneficial to Huntsville.”

There remains to be challenges; but challenges are something that Weddendorf sees as something to go over, go under, go around, or break the walls down. Until the recent pandemic, home alcohol delivery wasn’t an issue nor was it on the radar.

“It was something that we hadn’t noticed until COVID-19,” said Weddendorf.

Despite the current business climate and the obstacles associated with COVID 19, Straight to Ale recently completed a merger with the Tuscaloosa-based Druid City Brewing. The idea was to help Druid City bring their great beers statewide to and to expand their fun, yet tiny taproom and brewery.

And it’s been a win-win.

“This has been a great relationship and it benefited everyone,” said Weddendorf. “We are very glad that we were fortunate enough to be able to make this deal.”

Straight to Ale provides the place and the experience where people can come to relax.

“It’s all kinds of people and everyone has the beer in common; the beer and the desire to be with other people,” said Weddendorf. “It’s amazing to touch the friendships, the business relationships, and all kinds of important connections and networking that come out of this place. And that is very satisfying to see; that type of success where we’re really influencing a lot of people’s lives, we’re making their lives better.

“We’re giving them somewhere to connect with other people and it’s beneficial to the community, so I’m really proud of that.”

 

Chamber Launches GetYourGiftOn.Org to Support Local Restaurants and Stores

If you were not hungry before, you will be after visiting the new GetYourGiftOn.org website (https://www.getyourgifton.org/), launched by the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce in support of local small businesses, especially restaurants and retail establishments.

The website features retail and dining establishments which can quickly and easily upload detailed information about their business, including any promotional offers and specials; new and limited business hours; whether or not they offer curbside or delivery options (even if they didn’t offer it before); and links to online gift cards that can be used to order food or goods, or that can be given to someone else as gift.

Searchable by neighborhood, it is easy for businesses to take part by clicking the “Submit a Business” link at the top of the site and filling out the information. That information goes to the Chamber to be verified and could go live within a couple of hours if not sooner.

There is no cost for businesses to be added and Chamber membership is not required to participate.

“Maybe your company never thought about offering gift cards or just hadn’t gotten around to it yet,” said Lucia Cape, Senior Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber. “This makes it really easy, and that was our intent – to keep it really simple and make it very attractive.”

For businesses that do not offer gift cards, there are options available.

  • Instagift, an Alabama-based e-gift card service, is  waiving monthly fees for any Huntsville signups;
  • Gift Up is waiving its 3.49 percent fee on the first $5,000 of gift card sales.

For businesses with e-gift cards and using platforms such as Square, they can be easily and quickly linked.

The Chamber has been brainstorming ways to help support local businesses during this unprecedented shutdown and heard about a site called LocalDistancing.com in Birmingham.

Inspired by three childhood friends and entrepreneurs Vince Perez, Dylan Spencer, and Trey Oliver, the Chamber asked them for help in building a sister site in Huntsville based on the same premise.

According to Cape, it was a labor of love working with them to get the site up quickly, and to provide such an easy format so business owners can add themselves to the site and be up and running almost immediately.

“Please pass along the word about GetYourGiftOn.org and encourage every retail or restaurant owner you know to add their information to the site,” said Cape. “We expect to add a lot more vendors to the site in the coming days so if there is a business you haven’t been to lately; or if you know of a business or restaurant in your neighborhood that should be using the site, be sure and let them and the Chamber know so we can get them up as soon as possible.

“Remember that even though we may be losing track of dates these days, we have not canceled holidays and Mother’s Day is coming up May 10. Maybe you are checking in with your mom, but not able to visit. You can still send her a gift. Go to GetYourGiftOn.org and buy her an online gift card to somewhere to eat or to her favorite retail store.

Because the website is new, the Chamber is seeking feedback to provide improvements and updates.

 

HudsonAlpha’s Dr. Lamb Warns: Misinformation Spreading Like the Virus

Drinking hot water; using a hair dryer to blow hot air down your throat; and gargling with bleach are just a few of the outrageous preventatives against the COVID-19 disease that can be found on the Internet these days.

Some of them may even quote an expert with the Center for Disease Control or a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Neil Lamb: “Please, please, please don’t try any of the things you read on the internet.” (Photo/HudsonAlpha)

Dr. Neil Lamb of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology recently answered questions from local business owners in a teleconference with the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce and warned against trusting the Internet for valid information.

“Please, please, please don’t try any of the things you read on the internet,” he said. “During an epidemic, the virus isn’t the only thing that spreads – so does misinformation.”

While these specific questions were not among those asked by Chamber members, Lamb answered numerous highly intelligent and often-asked questions during the call.

For instance, can people build up their immunity system for fighting the COVID-19 virus by eating healthier and using vitamins and supplements such as vitamin C, A, D, E and zinc?

“You can build up your resilience,” said Lamb. “For instance, if you smoke or vape – stop now! You want your lungs to be in the best shape possible.

“If your diabetes or hypertension is not controlled by medication – get it under control with medication.

“Get enough sleep, because your immune system is weakened when you are under stress and not getting enough sleep.

“Absolutely think about your diet. We often reach for comfort food during stressful times like a milkshake or ice cream with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” he said to laughter. “Instead, help your body control immune and inflammatory responses with healthier foods like extra fruits and vegetables.”

There is nothing that scientists and doctor know of right now that will stop the spread of the virus once a person has developed symptoms, he said.

“The best thing you can do is make it really hard for the virus to find you, and you do through social distancing, limiting contact and interaction with others, and practicing good handwashing and hygiene rituals,” Lamb said.

In regards to Vitamin C, he said the levels of vitamins doctors are using to treat people in the hospital, are many, many, times the levels of Vitamin C purchased over the counter or in a multivitamin.

“The Vitamin C hospitals are using is given intravenously too, so you cannot eat enough Vitamin C pills to reach the level they are giving,” he said. “And if you eat a bottle of Vitamin C tablets, it is going to pass right through your system in your urine, so it is not going to do you any good.

“Taking a normal routine of a multivitamin or antioxidant is beneficial all the time; eating more green vegetables is good all the time; but the real way to increase disease resilience is by taking good care of our body.”

Another question pertained to handling he return of employees back to work in the weeks ahead. If a company wants to implement taking employee’s temperature upon entering the building, would that be appropriate?

“The CDC is recommending self-monitoring and part of self-monitoring is taking your temperature,” Lamb said. “As we begin to tiptoe back towards normal, the challenge is that you can be completely asymptomatic and still be actively spreading the virus. You can be infectious with no fever.

“I think we’re beginning to see what’s called a serological test coming to market, that uses swabs to look for the presence of the virus’ genetic material in your nose or throat,” he said. “These tests look to see whether you have developed SARS-CoV-2 antibodies due to exposure to the virus. That is very different from molecular testing we’re seeing offered at hospitals now.

“I think we will soon begin to see these tests come to market as they begin opening drive-in clinics, specifically for finding out whether you’re actively infected.”

Face masks are creating the most conversation right now and there were many questions regarding the effectiveness of wearing them in public.

“The World Health Organization has maintained that you should only wear a face mask if you are sick or caring for someone who is sick or working in a health care setting,” said Lamb. “Other countries around the world have freely handed them out and made them mandatory. There is a lot of ground between those two and we don’t have any firm guidance yet, but I think in the next few days, we’re going to see some guidance from the CDC and the White House about wearing face masks.

“Remember, wearing face masks out in public is not to protect you from somebody else, but to protect other people from you. The face mask keeps any respiratory particles you might be spreading, contained.

“If you’re sick, you need to be wearing a face mask. If you’re caring for someone who’s sick, you need to be wearing a face mask.”

However, there is not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the medical professionals right now so people do not need to be going to the grocery store wearing an N95 mask. Those need to be in the hands of health care workers, the people on the front lines of this pandemic who desperately need every possible protection.

“The kind of face coverings we’re going to be encouraged to wear out in public can be homemade face coverings,’ Lamb said.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle suggested face masks are a psychological reminder that people still need to practice social distancing, but that they should not give a false sense of security.

Lamb agrees.

“The thing to remember is that most of us don’t wear a face mask every day, so it’s going to feel different on your face, causing people to be constantly adjusting it,” he said. “If I am constantly touching the outside of my face mask, I’m potentially taking any contamination I have come into contact with on my fingers, and moving it all over my face. That may inevitably increase the risk!”

Are there hot spots around town we should all avoid, like going to one store and not another, or are some stores cleaner and safer than others?

“I think you should just assume everything is potentially contaminated and you need to be hypervigilant about that,” Lamb answered. “I don’t want to freak anyone out, but we should realize any surface can have virus on it.”

He went on to explain how he approaches surfaces.

“When I enter our building, I use a folded handkerchief to reach for a place on the handle I doubt a lot of other people have grasped,” he said. “Then I fold it inward and try to be conscious of not touching that part of the handkerchief again.

“Keep plastic grocery bags in your vehicle so when you get gas, you can put your hand inside the bag and grab the gas pump with it. Then put it into the trash can right by the pump.

“When you go to the grocery store, before you grab a cart, if someone isn’t there sanitizing the carts, go grab the wipes first or use your own wipes to clean the cart.

“Think about the way you touch groceries. Don’t pick up multiple cans or boxes to read the ingredients like you usually do. Pick up the can or box you want and put it in the cart. When you get home, consider having a dirty space and clean space on your countertop. Wipe off the containers and put them in a clean space.

Many people are intrigued by the bright colorful pictures they have seen of COVID-19 virus. How does the virus behave?

“The SARS-Co-V2, which causes COVID-19 disease, has a fatty membrane around it,” said Lamb. “A lot of viruses are encapsulated and protected by proteins, but this one does not have that, which means it is a relatively fragile virus. All the things that break up fat like soap, tear open the membranes of the virus. That’s why washing your hands for 20 seconds and building up the suds and foam will destroy it.”

How about the weather? Do cold temperatures help the virus maintain stability, and will warmer weather break that down?

“Certainly the influenza virus drops off during the summer, and we know from research that the flu spreads better in drier, colder air, which means the hot moisture and humidity in the South during the summer does not benefit the spread of the flu,” Lamb said. “But we don’t know if the coronavirus behaves the same way as influenza.

“We don’t have a lot of data, and I’ve seen a lot of people suggest we’re going to see a summer dip; but there is also evidence from warmer parts of the world still having rapidly spreading coronavirus that might argue against that. We can’t really be sure. We are just going to have to wait and see.”

There is a lot of information on the Internet about stopping the virus from moving from the upper respiratory to the lower respiratory system if a person starts showing mild symptoms. Is this true?

“I know it may be incredibly frustrating to watch this virus spread around the globe and not think, ‘What can I do and what can’t I do. I’m just one person trying to take care of my household and coworkers,'” Lamb said. “However, every action has consequences,” Lamb said. “The choices we make today, the decisions we make about not hanging out in large groups and about minimizing the number of trips we take outside of home, will shape the next three weeks.

“What you do today, every day, over the next three weeks is a gift to yourself and our city three weeks from now.”

And finally, once this virus passes, how long will it be before life gets completely back to normal?

“I’m going to say this up front and I know no one wants to hear it, but it is likely this is not the last time we’re going to be talking about social distancing,” Lamb said. “The goal of social distancing is to make it harder for the virus to spread so we don’t overwhelm the health care system, but the flip side of that is that many of us will still not have been exposed to the virus so we will not have immunity.

“So it’s likely when we come back together and lax social distancing in different regions of the country, we will see spikes in some regions and we will have to undergo social distancing again. How many of those bumps will we see on the tail end of that curve?

“It shouldn’t be as widespread and require a total shutdown like we are seeing now, but I don’t think it’s going to be a nice, smooth curve at the end when we all go back to everyday life.”

Sit Down with Success: Ellen Didier – ‘Love, Love, Love What You Do’

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features Ellen Didier, President & Creative Director of Red Sage Communications. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures, with tips for upcoming business owners.

What about your company, Red Sage Communications, are you most proud?

I think our ability to survive in the midst of such disruptive change in the advertising and marketing industry since I started Red Sage in 2006 is what makes me most proud.

Ellen Didier: You have to have a love for marketing and the whole idea of branding. (Photo/Steve Babin)

I’m completely self-taught. When I started Red Sage, we didn’t have smartphones or social media. I didn’t know how to use Photoshop, InDesign or Quark. We had websites, but WordPress and open source software wasn’t around; content management systems were just starting to come out, but they were still evolving. My biggest startup-cost was a $28,000 piece of software I had to throw away three years later.

Just look at how much marketing has changed, and it is a huge change. In that conversation you have social media. I started using social media in 2008-09 and I was on the earlier end of adoption. I had both a MySpace and Facebook account, but at the time, there was no way of determining which one would win out. It wound up being Facebook.

It took me forever to figure out how to monetize social media and make it an additional revenue stream. It kept getting more complex and for a long time, we just trained clients how to use it. Because it changes all the time – Linked-In for instance just completely revamped all their tools – it’s really crazy.

Also, in that conversation are online rankings and customer reviews. People are able to post and say things about your brand. That means marketing is no longer a push, but a two-way conversation.

When you’re trying to manage in the face of that much change you must watch what’s going on all the time and really balance how much time are you spending in training and learning. You’re putting in three or four hours a week just learning and keeping up with what’s going on. It was hard to figure out how to be profitable.

We got through it and I think we’ve found a good balance of not necessarily staying on the bleeding edge, but of at least knowing what’s coming and being able to help our clients understand it.

There are a lot more marketing “tools” out there now, aren’t there?

If you look at the marketing toolbox when I started, it was traditional advertising: printed materials, a billboard, radio or TV and that was about it.

Now, we’re running campaigns for people that include media relations, social media, digital marketing, traditional marketing, print campaigns, direct mail – huge toolboxes – the traditional stuff plus the new stuff.

You still find a place for traditional marketing?

Yes, because there is so much saturation online that sometimes traditional works. I think a lot of the newer, all-digital agencies miss the idea that there’s still some traditional tools that are very appropriate in some cases and do better than digital, depending on who you’re trying to reach.

It’s just really been fascinating the amount of change that we’ve navigated through and most importantly, stayed profitable while continuing to grow.

Why did you start an ad agency?

I love, love, love marketing! The challenge of understanding who you are and establishing your brand; exhibiting how you’re different from the competition; telling your story so it aligns with your business needs – I like everything I do, but there are some parts of business that will do a lot better if I focus on the parts that are easier to sell or that generate the most revenue.

I was with another marketing company when I made my first pitch. It was to a hospital and we went in and talked about ways they could promote their services both in traditional media and in cross-marketing within the facility. It was the first time I was able to bring ideas to a client using a multi-pronged strategy that would help them tell their story in a variety of ways. We came away with just about everything we pitched and that was exciting.

You have to have a love for marketing and the whole idea of branding to convey different messages and to align those different messages to different audiences. You have to understand the business and set goals and objectives, and then integrate your overall marketing strategy to reach those goals and objectives.

You have this super big toolbox that is much bigger and more complex than it has been in the past and I love that complexity. I love being able to look at all of that.

I’m also a process fanatic so I can go back and forth from 30,000 feet to minute details and not a lot of people can do that. It’s worked for my business because I can dream the big dreams but then also build the infrastructure to take me where I want to go.

Do you specialize in certain types of clients?

We do a lot of business-to-business marketing in North Alabama. We have some nonprofit clients like Cyber Huntsville, the National Cyber Summit and SMD (Space and Missile Defense Symposium), so we help with some corporate marketing events. We have a client in Fort Payne who has a radiation shielding technology business built on nanotechnology and not lead. They are a very innovative product poised for a lot of national growth. It’s going to be fun building lead generation and tracking and how much of that converts to actual business.

We look at it as, how can we help you grow your business, and how to be smart about it in the face of the many challenges.

What are your biggest challenges, overall?

Our biggest challenge is the pace of change always, and like everyone else, growth and workforce.

How do we find the right people?

It’s painful to have business knocking on your door and having to turn some of it away because I don’t have the staff to deal with it. I need three people right now and it’s hard to find them, plus it is time-consuming when you’re busy to do the hiring, so right now staffing is my biggest challenge and finding the right fit. This is a difficult industry in that I need people who are good critical thinkers and used to a fast pace.

What do you think is the answer to that?

Short term, we’re looking at how we can extend our team with contractors, and how we can build and grow our team in very specific places. My current employees have been with me a while and they are very good. If I can take some of the work off them that can be outsourced, they can manage a contractor to do that part of the job.

What would you tell somebody who wants to start an ad agency today?

It will be the most challenging and the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done. What’s amazing about the advertising and marketing agency business is you can be working with a company that retrofits Blackhawk helicopters with Garmin electronics one day and figure out how to sell eye care products and services the next.

You will build relationships with your clients because you grow to understand their business and their challenges, and that requires communication that often leads to good friendships too. That’s where the reward is.

The challenge is that it is extremely hard to grow. The first couple of years is always fairly easy because people are excited about a new strategy, but scaling this business is really hard.

The first hard jump is when you start adding employees. With that comes health care and employment taxes and other things; and there are also a lot of freelancers and small specialty agencies that don’t offer employee benefits, so we have to justify charging more for our services.

 

Strong Coffee, Strong Women Series: Sonia Robinson Shares her Journey

“Strong Coffee, Strong Women,” The Catalyst’s widely popular breakfast and networking event, features inspirational stories from successful businesswomen that focus on professional growth and successfully overcoming challenges along the way.

Sonia Robinson: “The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

This particular event was no exception as Sonia Robinson, a breast cancer survivor and the executive director at BIO Alabama, spoke to a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd.

Robinson was very candid about sharing her breast cancer survivor journey.

“I do not miss a chance to talk about my boobs,” she said.

In 2017, Robinson was at the peak of her high-intensity career: 36 years old, divorced and raising two boys, then 4 and 8. To Robinson, going for her routine gynecological exam was just that, routine; another self-care box to check off between meetings and an otherwise busy workday.

As the nurse did the manual breast exam, she suggested that Robinson get a baseline mammogram.

Robinson initially declined, thinking to herself, “My career was on fire. I was 36 years old and never had had a baseline mammogram. I don’t have time; I’ll do it when I’m 40. Had I waited until I was 40, my story would have been very very different.”

The nurse practitioner felt a palpable lump in Robinson’s breast and asked her, “Have you ever felt this?”

For Robinson, monthly self-exams were not on her radar, so the answer was “no.”

Even after the nurse practitioner sent her for a diagnostic mammogram, Robinson saw it as another item to check off the to-do list. She assumed that the lump would be benign and she would be back to work without skipping a beat.

When the mammogram was complete, the technician told Robinson the radiologist wanted to speak with her on her way out.

“I thought my radiologist just had really good bedside manner and stopped to chat with all the patients afterwards; she’s good, but not THAT good,” said Robinson.

The radiologist told Robinson, “It looks suspicious. I’ve already spoken with your gynecologist.”

The next step was a surgical biopsy. When her surgeon called Robinson to discuss the results, he said the words she never expected to hear: “Sonia, we have a little cancer.”

As she processed the news and discussed the treatment options, Robinson slowly walked to her bedroom and lay down on the bed.

Sensing the news was bad, her mother lay down beside her as the conversation with the surgeon continued.

The cancer was likely Stage 1. A double mastectomy or a lumpectomy with radiation would be the options given.

Before making a decision, Robinson wanted a better understanding of what she was dealing with. Her surgeon gave her four weeks to research, gathering as much information she could.

A sold-out, standing-room-only crowd hears Sonia Robinson share her incredible journey. (Photo/Steve Rabin)

“What does life look like on the other side of this?” Robinson wanted to know.

Robinson opted for a double mastectomy. During surgery, it was discovered the cancer had spread to one of the lymph nodes, which immediately put her into Stage 2, which became a game-changer.

When the oncologist told Robinson that chemotherapy was to be scheduled, “I told him, “No,” said Robinson.

She advised the audience, “We are to question; we are to ask, to research. Y’all have to fight for your health.”

Robinson still believed that everything would be ok without chemotherapy.

“I felt that maybe I should have Dr. Harriman just ‘clear the margin’ and I do nothing, no chemo,” said Robinson. “As the words left my mouth, I thought how irresponsible that was.

“I had an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. I wanted to be their mommy for a long time. When you’re given a diagnosis like this, it’s not just you, it’s we.”

After four weeks of research and consulting the medical community and breast cancer survivors, “I was told, ‘Sonia, you’re in a gray area’,” said Robinson. “You have to be happy with the decision that you make. Ultimately, I made the decision to move forward with chemo.”

Once the decision was made, Robinson threw a “Shave Party,” inviting forty of her closest friends and family members. The event included a champagne toast and a bouncy house for the kids.

After her head was shaved, she reveled in the new look.

“Try it, shave your head,” said Robinson. “It changed my life.”

Then, there were reconstruction decisions, such whether to keep one’s nipples or get tattoos. Robinson decided to keep hers. “Nipple tattoos, it’s a real thing, y’all,” said Robinson. “I want y’all to look at these,” as she sent images to friends, male and female, to get honest feedback. “Our boobs are so important to us as women,” said Robinson. “I really needed that feedback. I was 36 years old and single.

“Had I been older, I may not have made the same decision.”

Robinson’s fourth and final round of chemo came just 6 days after her 37th birthday. That came with the expectation that life would return to what it was, pre-cancer.

“Chemo is over, Sonia is well,” said Robinson. “That’s when the real work started.

“In order to be your ultimate self, guess what you have to do? Put yourself first. The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.”

 

 

 

Robins & Morton Building on Relationships for a Growing Huntsville

The first building constructed by Robins & Morton was a Shell gas station in 1946.

The Birmingham-based company now has offices in Huntsville, Nashville, Charlotte, Dallas, Orlando, and Miami.

Huntsville Hospital’s seven-story, 382,000-square foot Orthopedic & Spine Tower is expected to be completed in 2021. (Photo/Robins & Morton-Marty Sellers)

“We’ve grown quite a bit since then, obviously,’’ said Mitch Coley, operations manager for the Huntsville office.

Robins & Morton is no stranger to the Rocket City. The firm began a relationship with Huntsville Hospital 31 years ago, and Coley said that partnership is “the backbone’’ of its business in the city.

Two towering cranes just off Gallatin Street are part of the construction for Huntsville Hospital’s seven-story, 382,000 square-foot Orthopedic & Spine Tower. It’s expected to be completed in 2021.

But while hospital construction is Robins & Morton’s calling card, Coley said diversity, particularly in Huntsville, is part of its footprint.

Next to the hospital tower, the finishing touches are being put on Redstone Federal Credit Union’s five-story, Class-A office building with an adjoining four-story parking deck.

“The exterior of the office building is close to complete and it’s a very striking structure,’’ Coley said. “That project will wrap up at the end of this year.”

Robins & Morton recently placed a tower crane downtown for the upscale 106 Jefferson, Curio by Hilton.

“As you can see from the cranes rising above downtown,’’ Coley said, “We have three major projects transforming the Huntsville skyline.”

Robins & Morton is working with Redstone Gateway and Sanmina, and counts Times Plaza on South Memorial Parkway among its projects.

Other local Robins & Morton projects are:

  • Intergraph/Hexagon headquarters
  • Calhoun Community College Huntsville Campus Science Lab
  • Parsons Research Park
  • Huntsville Hospital Madison Hospital
  • Governors Medical Tower
  • Huntsville Hospital Athens Surgery Centers
  • Clearview Cancer Institute
  • Rockwell Collins at Research Park
  • Medical Park Station Retail Center
  • Huntsville Hospice Family Came Inpatient Facility

The company’s projects around the state include the Auburn Arena, the Auburn University Recreation and Wellness Center, Regions Field and the Embassy Suites hotel in Tuscaloosa.

Robins & Morton opened a full-service office in Huntsville in 2007 to further take advantage of the city’s exploding growth.

“We knew the best way to serve the business community was to become an ongoing part of the community,’’ Coley said. “And that’s worked well for us. We have more than 223 projects valued at $1.3 billion completed or in progress throughout Huntsville and the surrounding area.

“Even more important to us: 80 percent of that work is from repeat clients.”

Redstone Federal Credit Union’s five-story office building has an adjoining four-story parking deck. (Rendering courtesy of Robins & Morton)

Another company strength is that Robins & Morton, which employs around 170 salaried employees and craft workers, uses its own workforce.

“We self-employee a lot of the work,’’ Coley said. “For instance, the concrete structure (on the tower), we’re doing that with our own men, our own forces. The reason we do that is it helps with cost, schedules, and quality.’’

Robins & Morton’s economic impact in the Tennessee Valley is substantial. The company reports it is responsible for more than 800,000-square feet of new construction with a projected construction value in excess of $225 million; is working with more than 150 trade partners; and expects to create between 800 and 900 full-time equivalent jobs throughout construction.

While Robins & Morton is involved throughout North Alabama, its local presence has been seen and felt mostly in Huntsville’s downtown and hospital district, both of which have undergone a facelift.

A Notasulga native, Coley met his wife Elaine while both were students at Auburn. They have two sons, Miles (6) and Cameron (4).

When he moved here 13 years ago, Coley said he remembers walking downtown on a weekend and finding a “ghost town.’’

“Now, you go down there and there are food truck rallies, laser light shows, people everywhere,’’ he said. “It’s really neat to see.

“We’re glad to be part of that growth.’’

In late spring or summer, Robins & Morton will announce plans for another downtown project.

“We want people to know that we’re not here just for the duration of a project,’’ Coley said. “We’re an established part of the Huntsville business community, and we look forward to continuing to be part of the region’s growth and economic development.

“We’ll continue the strong relationships we’ve maintained over the past 31 years while building new ones.”

 

Joanne Randolph Cited as Champion at Annual Entrepreneur Awards

Joanne Randolph has been known to champion entrepreneurs in this area.

Joanne Randolph is honored with Champion Award now named after her. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Now, she can officially be known as the champion after receiving the Entrepreneur Champion of the Year Award at the fifth annual Entrepreneur Awards ceremony and luncheon.

Randolph, the founder and CEO of The Catalyst Center, has been at the forefront of entrepreneurship and small business ownership while leading the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama and The Catalyst Center.

“I have loved working with entrepreneurs over the last 25 or so years,” said Randolph. “Many of you are in this room. I’ve celebrated with you when good things happened and I was saddened when they didn’t.

“We learn so much more from our failures; which is why many very successful entrepreneurs have a failure or two under their belt.”

Randolph planned to retire in 2019 but The Catalyst board appealed to her to stay on, for just one more year.

“Joanne has been with The Catalyst, formerly the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama, when we were just an idea,” said Leigh Christian, project manager for TechRich at the Catalyst. “She has led our organization for 20 years and has coached, counseled, and championed hundreds – maybe thousands – of entrepreneurs through the years. The Catalyst staff and Board of Directors chose this year to honor Joanne as not only the Entrepreneur Champion of the Year for 2020, but of all time.

“In honor of this, we are renaming the award the Joanne Randolph Entrepreneur Champion Award.”

The award was the grand finale to the event at The Stone Center and wrapped up this year’s Innovate Huntsville Week.

Kevin Hoey, Chairman of the Board of the Catalyst, provided opening remarks and Kenny Anderson, the Multicultural Affairs Officer for the City of Huntsville, served as the emcee.

Here are the 2020 winners of the Entrepreneurial Awards:

YOUTH ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Caleb Wortham, owner of Caleb’s Cookie Cutters.

This award is given to a school-aged entrepreneur who started their entrepreneurial journey at a young age and is working toward their dream.

When Caleb was in the first grade, he became fascinated with design and technology after listening to a TED Talk on 3-D printing. He was so inspired, he asked his parents for a 3-D printer for Christmas, along with saving up his own money to help them purchase the printer. Enrolling in Mindgear Lab and Endeavor Learning Lab, Caleb learned everything he could about 3-D printing technology.

Caleb’s older brother Joshua started Peaceful Pastries when Caleb was 10. Helping out with the bakery, Caleb soon realized that cookie cutters can be costly. Additionally, Joshua often received unique cookie orders that often required special shapes. To meet the needs of his brother’s successful business venture, Caleb collaborated with Joshua to become Peaceful Pastries and Sweets Bakery largest custom cookie cutter supplier.

EMERGING ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Chanda Davis, founder and owner of Chanda Davis Real Estate and Superior School of Real Estate by Chanda.

The Catalyst Entrepreneurs of the Year. (Photo/Steve Babin)

This award is given to an entrepreneur that’s been in business for less than 3 years and has a proven track record for sustainability with room for growth.

After leaving a successful career as an educator, Davis entered the world of real estate. After 3 years of being a full-time agent and two years of teaching real estate classes, Davis decided to establish her own company. Along with Chanda Davis Real Estate, a flourishing real estate company with over 60 agents, Davis’ Superior School of Real Estate by Chanda boasts one of the highest passing rates in the state.

CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Lady Vowell Smith, owner and founder of The Snail on the Wall bookstore.

This award goes to an entrepreneurial venture that focuses on the retail, arts, entertainment, or culinary industry and has a proven track record for sustainability.

As a book aficionado with a Ph.D. in literature, Smith is no stranger to books. Smith felt there was a lack of small independent bookstores North Alabama —a place where readers and authors could meet and share ideas.

Beginning with a pop-up store at Randolph’s Under the Christmas Tree market in 2017, she has formed a large, loyal customer base by recommending books through social media. Her store has hosted pop-up bookstores at local businesses and has brought bestselling authors to Huntsville for events. Says Smith, “The spirit of entrepreneurship is embracing experiments and new ideas, and when local businesses brainstorm together, it benefits the community as a whole.”

NONPROFIT ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Anne Caldwell, CEO of Greater Huntsville Humane Society.

The Nonprofit Entrepreneur of the year is a new category for 2020. Although different than for-profit ventures, nonprofit leaders still require an entrepreneurial spirit to grow and develop their organizations.

Caldwell’s life and career path changed forever six years ago, when she adopted Randy, a terrified little Chihuahua from Huntsville Animal Services. Caldwell said she was astonished by the problem of overcrowding at the shelters and became involved with several animal welfare organizations before taking on her role as CEO at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society last year.

Through a variety of innovative programming, Caldwell has increased the number of adoptions, lowered length of stays and return rates, in addition to cutting costs and raising donations.

FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Amber Yerkey James, founder and CEO of New Beginnings Family Law.

This award is given to an outstanding female entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region. The winner of this award will be submitted to the Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year Award National Award by the Women’s Business Center.

In 2012, almost six years after starting her own law practice James realized that she wanted to do something more than just process divorce and custody cases, she wanted to make a difference in the lives of her clients and in her community.

New Beginnings Family Law works with clients  to plan for life following divorce and other family law situations. The goal is for clients to have the knowledge, skills, and insight to truly have a new beginning.

VETERAN ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Kris McGuire, founder and CEO of Victory Solutions.

This award is given to an outstanding military-veteran entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region.

A packed house at the Stone Center was on hand for the fifth annual Entrepreneur Awards. (Photo/Steve Babin)

As one of the first women assigned to the Air Force Special Weapons Center’s maintenance squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base during the Vietnam War, McGuire understood the importance of supplying the military with effective systems and supplying troops with the right tools. In 2006, with this experience in mind, McGuire started Victory Solutions to help save the lives of soldiers.

McGuire’s success has resulted in having some 130 employees and subcontractors working on projects ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles to missile defense to missions to the moon. She attributes this success to a continued focus on supporting fellow veterans, women, and other small businesses.

ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Sandra Brazelton, president and CEO of Advanced Innovative Management Solutions

Awarded to an entrepreneur who has been in business for over three years and has a proven track record for sustainability, strategic direction, future growth and community involvement.

Brazelton’s journey has been one of overcoming obstacles, including gender and racial barriers. While working as an engineer, Brazelton started a real estate business. When buying her first two houses, she was steered to low-income areas. This experience fueled her mission to build a business that would educate, empower, and help others while building generational wealth.

Her goal is to leave a legacy in business and in character that would make her children proud. Her daughter, Alex, is also her business partner, helping to create a legacy.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Jerry “JD” White, owner and president of JD Productions, Inc.

Al.com hosted a link on social media for this award. The winner was selected by voters.

After reading books on the topic, coupled with hands-on experience by working the audio/visuals at a variety of events, White finely honed his skills. White said collaboration has been lost in the entertainment industry; he believes that JD Productions will revitalize the entertainment industry, making it a better place to do business.

Coming from a variety of backgrounds and business ventures, there were 68 finalists competing for the nine categories. These entrepreneurs represented 11 communities and 21 ZIP codes in North Alabama. 46 were women, 22 were men.

Combined, they provide jobs for 2,269 employees; in 2019, they accounted for more than $270 million in economic development dollars across North Alabama.

Sitdown with Success: Lisa Williams – Know if You Will Need a Pair of Cushy Shoes, or a Parachute

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features Lisa Williams. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures, with tips for upcoming business owners.

 

The business world is her passion, driven by a need to honor the American soldier and veterans who have and still are, fighting in many unsavory parts of the world. Lisa Williams’ business consulting company, the Soldier 1 Corporation, is all about paying tribute to veterans, and especially to her late father, who brought her and her mother to the United States after the Vietnam War.

Lisa Williams: True entrepreneurs take calculated risks. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“I vowed never to squander the unique opportunities I have as a result of my father, who was my hero, making the sacrifices he and so many others make, so I can live free and be successful,” she said.

Lisa and her husband, former State Rep. Phil Williams, started 3D Research, a defense engineering company during the mid-1990s from the back bedroom of their home. They sold it 10 years later so Lisa could spend more time with their son.

But because business is in her DNA, she still wanted to stay in the game, and today she is helping to build a culture where she can work with veterans to help them build their businesses, so they can hire more veterans within their company.

Tell us about Soldier 1 and your current consulting work.

I am a kind of CEO/president-for-hire. When companies face hard issues like whether to expand, whether to sell, whether to buy or merge with another business; or if they face unforeseen problems like suddenly losing their CEO with no succession plan; those companies can bring in someone like me who has the mentality of what a president or CEO should be doing in terms of running the company.

The president is the face of the company and sometimes while they are out there shaking hands, kissing babies, planning and strategizing for future growth, someone still needs to run the company.

I have built a business from the beginning when there are only one or two people doing everything. I have worked 24/7 to grow it into a lucrative business. And I have been there in the later stage of a business where I had to make decisions about selling, and about what comes after that.

I know how hard it is to run a company; what kind of sacrifices business owners make: the financial risks; the family risks; the health risks. If I see that an entrepreneur has what it takes to be successful, but they need some guidance along the way, I can help because I am somebody who has been there and done that through the entire lifecycle of a company.

What does it take to be an entrepreneur? Do successful entrepreneurs have a set of innate traits or qualities?

It’s always risky to start a business but true entrepreneurs take calculated risks. Meaning if you are going to jump off a cliff, you need to know whether the drop is five feet and you will need a good new pair of cushiony shoes, or is the drop five miles and you’re going to need a parachute.

In working with entrepreneurs, I find that the successful ones know what needs to be done, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it because they haven’t done it.

An entrepreneur knows they must save money. They know they must have funding, but they don’t know how to get it. They know they need a business plan, but they aren’t sure what should be in it. They know they must go out and get business, but they aren’t sure how to get out there and go after it.

Entrepreneurs risk everything, but they prepare. They know they need a business plan. They usually know their own strengths and weaknesses, but in writing the business plan, everywhere they leave it blank, that’s where their weaknesses lie, and they aren’t always sure how to turn those weaknesses into strengths.

An innate entrepreneur will sense they need to do certain things, for instance they know they need to lease a building or office space, but they don’t know what to look for in a contract.

When I mentor businesses, I am very blunt. I will hurt your feelings, I will call your baby ugly, but the important thing is you aren’t going to have time to try something just to see what happens.

You have to feel so strongly about what you are doing that you are either open to advice from someone who has been there, or know with all your body, your heart, your soul and your mind that what you are doing is right.

And entrepreneurs surround themselves with honest people who will pick them up if they fall.

What do you need to start a small business?

You need to do your research. I was a test engineer and knew I wanted to own my own business right out of UAH, but I had to uncover what it was I was going to sell. I spent two years just researching.

Know what kind of financing you will need.

Understand that you will need an accountant and a lawyer. These are mistakes people make because they think, like I did, accounting makes me want to slash my wrists – right, but that’s even more reason why I needed one.

I thought, why do I need a lawyer? I’m going to do business the right way, I won’t get sued. But in business, you can and will get sued, so you need lawyers.

Here in Huntsville, you may need security clearances, and even if you have a personal clearance, you have to get one for your company and that requires a company sponsor, and that takes time.

What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?

Build up a reserve of money to live on before you start your own business. It would be great if you can save a year’s salary, or if you can’t do that, have enough for the rent, a car payment and food several months in advance.

Keep your overhead as low as possible. If you are pursuing a service business, you are selling brain power, so you don’t need a luxurious office to show off. Take your brains to their office and work out of your home for as long as you can until you hire enough people to need and can afford an office.

If you are starting up a product-based company building a widget, then you will need money up front and may need a line of credit. Many commercial companies bring in investors, which is whole other process.

Look for opportunities to team up with other companies. It’s safer when you are getting started. It’s important to be on a growth trajectory but you don’t want to go into debt and partnerships can help with that.

Do you recommend collaborative workspace, which is less expensive than office space and usually more flexible?

I would love to see the numbers on how many successful companies really come out of a collaborative work environment.

An entrepreneur is going to make it whether they are in a collaborative environment or whether they are in their garage because it’s all about the persistence, the passion, the perspiration, and how badly do you want it.

It’s nice to have a collaborative environment, but at the end of the day, you have a plan in place; you still have to make those phone calls to potential clients; you still have to get out there and meet the people you need to meet. I always say, it is not really as much about who you know, but about who knows you.

And you have to do all of those things no matter where you are.

What is the one piece of advice you would give a young entrepreneur opening a small business?

It’s a simple, but tough question – how will you make money? You need a very clear plan and full understanding of how you will make money.

If you are going to build and sell widgets, how will you make money selling them?

People say, “I want to do this because I feel strongly about it. I want to help kids or help people.”

And I say, “Okay. We all want to help people and fill a need, but if you don’t have a plan for making money, you will go out of business.”

At the same time, if you want to open a coffee shop that sells pastries – okay. But if there are 15 pastry shops in the area, how will you be different enough from the others to make money selling coffee and pastries?

I don’t mean making money is the only thing in life, but money is what drives a business and, if you fail, you can lose everything.

Q&A with Sen. Jones: On Military Spending, Families and the Widows’ Tax

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal at Huntsville West and discussed several issues important to our state and nation. This is the final installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is the military and military families.

HBJ: Huntsville is a military town, nicknamed “Pentagon South.” Tell us what is going on with military spending and families.

 

Sen. Doug Jones met with the Huntsville Business Journal in the Huntsville West co-working collaborative community. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Sen. Jones: I’m on the Armed Services Committee. Alabama is extremely important to the nation’s security and our military forces. One of the things that we are trying to do, working with the administration, is to upgrade our military forces across the board.

We’ve got to spend money to upgrade what they call the “nuclear triad” of missiles for protection. We’ve got to upgrade submarines, planes, you name it. It’s all aging and we’re going to have to spend some money.

What we’re looking at now, is a whole new area of potential war and conflict. It’s not just in the air or sea or land anymore; it’s in space. This year, in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), we’ve created the Space Force. I’m hoping the Space Command will come here to Huntsville. That decision is going to come relatively soon.

The other thing I’ve focused was families, our servicemen and women. There’s a 3.1 percent increase this year in the salaries for service members, which is the first one they’ve had in a while.

We’ve also done things to put extra money into education, trying to help the kids of service members that move around a lot, and also for kids with disabilities.

We’ve done things for military spouses. Military spouses often have professional certifications that are hard to transfer when they move. We’re trying to do things to make that certification transfer easier.

HBJ: What piece of military legislation stands out for you?

Sen. Jones: The biggest thing that I’m proudest of, after a 30-year fight, is the work that I did in the Senate this year to get the military widows’ tax eliminated for good. It was a really, really big deal.

Sen. Jones on widows’ tax: “Getting this tax eliminated was more than just a job for us, it was a mission; it was a cause.”

Although it only affects some 2,000 people in Alabama, it’s 2,000 people that are now going to get $1,200-$1,500 a month more.

There was a statutory set of money that the VA has administered for a long time.

Those funds were to be distributed to widows when a service member dies in combat or of a service-related injury. In many cases, service members buy additional insurance to provide additional benefits for their families. That money is administered by the Department of Defense and it’s something that service members pay for – out of their own pockets.

About 35  years ago, Congress passed legislation allowing the Department of Defense and the VA to offset the two.

If a widow was entitled to both pots of money, they’d only get 55 percent. This means money that service members have paid into – was going to the Department of Defense and staying there.

I didn’t know about it, never heard about it and then some of the Gold Star widows came to us and talked about it.

I just about blew a gasket. How can that be?

They showed me that it has been tried for 20 years to overturn and I told them, “This year, we’re going to do something different.”

It’s a commitment that was made to our service members that the federal government and Congress has fallen down on. Getting this tax eliminated was more than just a job for us, it was a mission; it was a cause. Everyone in the office chipped in; we ended up getting close to 80 co-sponsors in a very partisan senate.

I got Susan Collins (R-Maine) to co-sponsor it with me in the Senate. Together, we got so many co-sponsors, we organized it like a political campaign.

Every recess, every town hall, there was somebody there, asking about the military widows’ tax.

It got to the point that when it went up to Congress, the negotiators for the NDAA said, “We’ve just got do this.”

When it passed, there were about 25 to 30 of those Gold Star widows up in the gallery.

It was awesome. It was really, really awesome.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never been with a group of people so appreciative of an act of Congress as those military widows, it has been remarkable.