Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Passion for Service Finds Market Niche

Kekelwa Dall was listening to the radio one day in early 2002 when she heard a news report on the 2000 census and the growing class of senior citizens. Something clicked in her mind. “I thought, well, they need services.”

With a graduate degree in Population Studies and Demographics, experience working for a large corporation in Zambia, her native country, and a major portion of her professional life spent working in social services (at the United Nations, the World Bank and other international development agencies, and as a social worker and volunteer), she realized she had a business concept.

From that moment in 2002 when she heard the radio report, to now, two years later, her story is a case study in how a small business gets off the ground, and could serve as a road map for other entrepreneurs looking to start a small business.

Once she had “generated this seed of interest…in doing my own business,” she went to the Fairfax County Business Center to investigate available resources. The program manager at the Center’s Office for Women walked her through the federal, state and county level resources.

She also directed Kekelwa to the Women’s Business Center (WBC) in Fairfax County and George Mason University’s (GMU) Business Enterprise Center, both of which offered classes on the mechanics of starting a business.

She initially took the classes offered at GMU. Although she had no quarrel with GMU’s classes in terms of their content, Kekelwa found herself gravitating more towards the WBC. At GMU, most of the entrepreneurs were male, and from the high-tech sector, and talking about “big, big sums” of money. “If you end up there, fine, but that was intimidating.”

Kekelwa says she felt more comfortable at the WBC because there were more female entrepreneurs there, and the WBC was a “nurturing place … for people who are starting with very small capital.”

She took the classes they offered on preparing business plans, marketing plans and financial plans, and on the mechanics of setting up a business. She also attended their networking events. It was at one of those events that she came to know of the Enterprise Development Group in Arlington through which she obtained a business loan.

Although the classes and events at the WBC carried fees, she says they were a fraction of what she would pay at commercial centers offering the same types of classes. “Forty-five dollars for a whole day’s workshop, it was definitely very cost-effective,” she says.

As a result of the time and the little bit of money she invested in educating herself on how to be an entrepreneur, she developed the fortitude to revise her business plan when circumstances called for it, and learned that obstacles are but a part of doing business.

Her biggest obstacle, she says, is being a small business in an industry inundated by large, established corporations. The question the start-up classes taught her to ask was “What are you offering that other businesses are not offering?” She found that many of her potential senior clients wanted to stay in their own homes rather than move to a senior living facility, or come home quickly (in the case of hospitalized patients) rather than prolong their expensive stays in the hospital. So she crafted a niche for her business – providing care in her clients’ homes.

When she reviewed the business plan and the various elements of her business – her potential clients, the nurses and nurse-aides she used as contractors to provide the services to her clients – she realized that there was a mismatch in terms of her available resources and the segment of the population she wanted to serve.

On the one hand, her research showed that although it was a growing population, in northern Virginia, only seven percent of the population was 65 years or older. On the other hand, her contract nurses and nurse-aides are licensed to care for people, whether they are seniors or non-seniors. She realized “we were boxing ourselves into [a small] segment of the population by just focusing on seniors.”

So in June 2003, she changed the focus of her business to include any group in terms of age, and renamed it (from Kendal Seniors Care, LLC to Kendal Home Care, LLC) to reflect the change. Kendal Home Care now provides non-medical home care services and the company’s objective is to include home health care services. Seniors, as well as people who are recuperating at home after being discharged from hospitals, make up her client base.

As a small business, the lack of resources can be incredibly difficult at times. At one point, Kendal Home Care had to suspend its services when it was caught in a tussle between her insurance carrier and the Virginia Department of Health. The insurance company refused to augment her malpractice coverage to where the Health Department said it should be. It took nearly four months for the issue to be successfully resolved, and it tested her will to continue with her business.

Kekelwa took heart in the stories of other businesswomen she heard at networking meetings and in the lessons taught at the WBC. For this reason, she highly recommends becoming a member of trade associations and women’s networking groups, such as the National Association of Women Business Owners. One such networking episode (she contacted other women running home care agencies so she could learn about their businesses) lead to “some very positive interaction,” and she ended up sub-contracting for one of those agencies.

When asked what makes her want to come to work everyday, she says it’s definitely not the money – because as a small business, she does not expect profit in the first two years – but her interest in the field, her faith in what she is doing, and the value of the service she provides. It’s almost as if this were her calling.

This article (the third in my series on women-owned businesses in Northern Virginia) originally appeared in the Times Community Newspapers.


Krishna said...

Hi Sujatha,
Very inspiring article, I really loved it. I am very much want to become an entrepreneur and have written a post in my blog regarding the same.
Keep Posting Sujatha..

Mary said...

Nice article :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Krish, thanks and good luck! Go for it!

Mary, thanks!