Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bianca Whitfield: A Single Parent’s Success Story

For Bianca Whitfield, starting a business is about daring to start life over again. She just got divorced with a one year old daughter, and looking forward to living life on her terms. Considering her new situation and the options available to her, she saw entrepreneurship as the best path for her. As an accountant, she decided to start her own an accounting, tax and financial services firm. WhitGroup Consulting LLC was born.

Bianca Whitfield, Founder and CEO, WhitGroup Consulting LLC

Bianca Whitfield, founder of accounting and financial consulting firm WhitGroup Consulting, with her daughter

Success came quickly. With her fearlessness, business savvy and perseverance, she has grown her business from a one-woman business operating out of her bedroom into a small business with its own office and employees.

Read the challenges Bianca faced when starting the business, and how she grew it into a successful business.

What started you to the path of entrepreneurship?

Everything that had been impossible when I was married was now possible, and I now had the privilege and responsibility of caring for another person who would learn from my example.

Within four months of leaving my marriage, I was back in school again and determined to complete my masters degree. With the support of my family—especially my mother, who gave us a place to stay and took loving care of my daughter while I was taking classes—and the blessing of a fresh start, I was determined to make the most of my God-given potential. It settled on my heart that it is a tragedy to waste what has been instilled in you because it has been put there to fulfill a purpose that no one else can fulfill. We have assignments and tasks on this earth, and it was time that I started taking mine on.

I started in the Leadership Development Program for Minority Managers at Johns Hopkins University, and through this incredible program I began to learn myself and my potential. I couldn’t have become anything BUT an entrepreneur after the training and knowledge that was poured into me through the dedicated professors and smart, supportive cohort members in the program. I was again determined not to waste the gift. I started the Leadership Development Program in September, and in October I incorporated WhitGroup in the state of Maryland.

I continued on to the MBA program at Johns Hopkins after completing the Leadership Development Program, and I left the CPA firm I was working with to strike out on my own as an entrepreneur. In the short time since it all started, WhitGroup has grown from a one person consultancy to a “small business” with employees. My proudest moments were moving into our very first office and (this will sound strange) getting WhitGroup’s very first health plan. For some reason, when I got my health card from Blue Cross Blue Shield in the mail the business felt official. We were real. I remember taking my daughter to her doctor and proudly checking the box that read, “My health insurance has changed.” The nurse couldn’t understand why I was making such a big deal about handing her the new card.

What made you decide to start WhitGroup Consulting?

As a single parent with a young child it was so important to have the flexibility to be there for her when she needed me while still being able to earn a living. As an accountant in a higher level position, the expectation was that I stayed in the office until the work got done, whether that was 6 pm or midnight. Even with a relatively flexible employer, that was no longer an option. I wanted to do the work that I love and excel in on my terms.

I also think I was simply ready to take on the challenge of working for myself. Through the training I received in the Leadership Development Program at Johns Hopkins University, I learned my strengths and weaknesses and really developed my inner entrepreneur!

What are the services that you offer?

WhitGroup has three core service areas: accounting, focused primarily on nonprofits, tax, and financial advising. The nonprofit accounting is the soul of our business. We take great pride in serving the organizations that serve the community. I see so many children benefit from their selfless, tireless work, and I think of my own little girl. If I wasn’t here for her, I pray programs like the ones we serve would nurture and guide her through her growing years.

The tax and financial advising arms of the business fill a large and growing need in our communities for competent, well-trained and honest tax service coupled with advice to help families and businesses grow. A lot of the safety nets that we have traditionally relied on just won’t be here in 20 years, and many families are simply not prepared. We believe strongly that every family deserves the opportunity to retire with dignity and send their children to good schools. It can be done with good planning and a little common sense.

We are also reaching out to many women in business to provide advice, training and good old fashioned girl talk so that we have support networks as we develop our skills and balance our responsibilities.

What were the challenges you faced when starting the business?

The biggest challenge in the first days was planning the transition to self-employment well. I needed to be smart about the process: I cut expenses where possible, decided the minimum income I needed to survive, and then determined what kind of ongoing business I had to have to meet that minimum. After this thought process, I knew that if I was working three days per week at a certain hourly rate, I could at least pay the bills. When I got my first client, we established a three day per week schedule, and once I signed the contract, I quit my job! Haven’t looked back since.

I should add that one person stayed in my division at my last job and was soon laid off because of the economic downturn. I was so thankful that I had the guts to make a move when I did so that leaving the job happened on my terms.

Now that you have moved the business to its own office space and able to hire employees, what are the challenges you face as the business grows?

Cash flow, cash flow, cash flow! Now that modest minimum that I needed to survive has doubled with the addition of monthly rent, benefits, and staff salaries. We provide really excellent benefits for such a small business—we cover 75% of health and dental insurance premiums, we have a 401(k) with employer match, fully paid term life insurance, etc. These are the things that I would want as an employee, so either I was going to provide them for my staff or stay a solo act. Making sure that clients are timely in payment is essential for making sure that things flow smoothly. With banks so reluctant to lend, a line of credit was not an option for us.

The bigger challenge, though, has been balancing work and home. You don’t work less when you’re self-employed, you just get more flexibility with when and where you put in the hours. My daughter was very sick in the fall with one asthma attack after another. She was in and out of school, back and forth to the doctor, and I was slammed with audits, 4th quarter financial reports, and a host of other client needs that I just couldn’t meet. Things really started to unravel, and I had to scale back, get help, and work smarter. The business essentially still revolved around me, and I had to rethink how the business could grow. I’m still answering some of these questions, but with well-trained staff on board, redundant systems, backup and forward planning, I have mitigated some of these problems.

Now, as we look to the future, we are learning how to manage our growth and meet higher and higher standards of service for our clients. This is only the beginning, and I look forward to training and assisting many other accountants, entrepreneurs, and women to meet their potential. As we have been given, we give.

How are you marketing your business?

I was relentless when I decided to start a business. I was never a good salesperson because I didn’t feel comfortable “selling” anything, including my own skills. Nobody wants their feelings hurt with a curt “no thanks” and a hang up. But when I went into business for myself I didn’t have the luxury of being shy. I had the skill set, there was a definite need, and I knew their organizations would be better off hiring me. I have been in nonprofit accounting for so long that I knew what their challenges were before they even told me. If I could get an interview, I’d get the job.

I started out by targeting nonprofits that needed part-time assistance at a fairly high level in their organizations. This is a perfect fit for our business, since we can provide a nonprofit CFO on a flexible schedule so that our services are scalable to meet their volume and budget needs. I developed a list of websites that had good job postings for part-time nonprofit assistance, and I began sending out my resume. I found that many nonprofits had a delayed response—I sent something out and received a response 6 months later—so these communications are really “priming the pump” for future growth. Now we are getting referrals, which is great!

How do you balance your family life and business?

My daughter is well-known at two of my client sites. When she was constantly sick, I packed her into the car with a trunk full of activities and we went to work together. I also work at bizarre hours so that I can focus on my daughter in the after-school hours. Clients usually get emails from me between 1 and 3 am. I am also building space into my schedule, which was missing before. If Kaiya has an activity at school, I’m always there. Period. I just shuffle my clients accordingly, knowing that I have a day or two that is open. It means so much to her to see her family there for her luau, recital, parade, or whatever the activity is! I would quit my job before I would miss these things! I also make sure she has the opportunity to explore her talents and abilities through lots of extracurricular activities, so I leave client sites early, pick her up, and we head to ballet, tap, soccer, tennis, swimming, etc. Being able to leave client sites early and then pick up on the work later that night has also been beneficial for me personally as I work through my second masters program. I wouldn’t be able to do it on a typical 9 am – ?? pm schedule.

What was the biggest mistake you made in this business, and what did you learn from it?

Pushing things too far. I had established a schedule that worked, but it only worked if NOTHING WENT WRONG. I was teaching, taking classes, working, taking care of my daughter, planning a wedding . . . It was an extremely tight schedule, but I was pulling it off.

Until my daughter got sick. Then the whole thing fell apart because I had no leeway, no space, no reserve time to spare. I scaled back, cleared spaces in my schedule, got more hands on deck, and even shed staff who weren’t working efficiently and independently. I have a better sense of what I can do, what I don’t need to do, and who I need on board with me. Though I’m still the face of my business, a lot of the routine processing is now handed off to staff who are trained to handle the work. This frees hours for me to interface with organization’s management team and Boards, meet with clients, analyze and report . . . all of the things I’m really good at but didn’t have time to do. Oh, and maybe even sleep an hour here or there. Maybe.

What lessons can you share to other women entrepreneurs?

Be relentless and fearless. When I became a single parent I knew that I had a huge responsibility to care of this little tiny person that depended on me. It lit a fire in me to be the best that I could be, and I haven’t quit striving for that goal yet. Don’t give up and don’t let anyone or anything defeat you. You don’t have to be perfect, you just can’t quit.

And operate your business on your terms. Know what you want and then structure the business around that vision. The business can start to float away from you if you focus your attention on the endless mountain of client work to be done and not the direction of the business. Take time to implement your vision, and don’t let everyone else tell you what that should be. Advice is great, but it’s your life. If you can’t work on Sunday because you volunteer at your church all day, then don’t work on Sunday. Period. If you need certain skills in an employee, and they don’t meet the standard despite training and effort on your part, then fire them. If you can’t volunteer at the International Women’s Society for the Advancement of International Women’s big gala because you’re exhausted, then you just can’t do it. Don’t kill yourself to meet anyone else’s expectations but your own. It’s your life, and you decide how to live it. You can be miserable at the gala and satisfy someone else, or you can fall asleep on a good movie at home in your bunny slippers and send a gift basket to the award winner the following week.


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