John D. Calhoun, Ph.d, CEO of IMS Engineers, isn’t content to just be an entrepreneur involved with doing engineering work on major projects such as the 18-mile Byram-Clinton Corridor and the $700-million Army Corps of Engineers Permanent Pump Station Project in New Orleans. Calhoun, who was recently named by President Barack Obama as one of 18 Champions of Change in Business for Innovation, also works to train and encourage others as a professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship & Professional Development at Jackson State University (JSU).
All faculty members in that department are entrepreneurs themselves who have started and grown various businesses. JSU has the only accredited entrepreneurship degree program at any historically black college and university in the country.
This kind of training is important for anyone, but may be particularly essential for minorities.
“Minority-owned businesses are being hit especially hard in the current economy,” said Calhoun, whose firm that started as a two-person operation out of a room in his West Jackson home has evolved into a corporation with 175 employees in various offices in Jackson, Shreveport, La., Baltimore, Md., Washington, D.C. and Houston, Texas.
“Research shows that minority businesses face significant barriers to entry, growth and survival,” Calhoun said. “Even in more favorable economic conditions, minority firms are more vulnerable because they are generally smaller and have fewer resources to draw on in difficult economic times. The average minority-owned business has revenues of $178,000 per year, which is less than 40 percent of the level for non-minority businesses. Minority-owned firms also hire fewer employees and have lower profit levels.”
A lot of the disparities are related to lack of access to financial capital. Financing can be hard to come by.
“Therein lies the importance of non-traditional lending institutions like MINCAP,” said Calhoun, who helped establish the Jackson Hinds MINCAP fund that lends money to minority businesses. “Minority-owned business enterprises which are funded properly have very high rates of success. The problems occur when these business enterprises have problems securing working capital. No matter how passionate you are, cash is a crucial ‘must have’ in being able to create and scale any successful business. Without question, there is a greater need for the non-traditional lending that MINCAP does.”
Perhaps just as important as access to cash is a passion for their business. Calhoun said it is this passion that also keeps successful entrepreneurs continuously working, even after they have become “rich”.
“Another reason for having a strong passion is the process of building a new business is hard,” he said. “There are long hours and little pay in the beginning. Passion will encourage extraordinary behavior and supply the entrepreneur with energy needed to invest the huge amounts of effort needed to succeed. However, passion has to be in line with the entrepreneur’s skills.”
Another “must have” on his list is customer focus. The entrepreneur must know who his or her customers are, and pay close attention to satisfying them. If you don’t have a good, quality service or product, you will not have a satisfied customer. Without satisfied customers, you will not have a business for a very long period.
Still another vital characteristic of entrepreneurs must be tenacity despite failure.
“Face it, many entrepreneurs are usually trying something new and the failure rates can be high,” Calhoun said. “For many people, the process of fine tuning their business to see what works and what doesn’t work means that there will also be small failures along the way. The litmus test for entrepreneurs is their ability to fight through the setbacks and failures and keep chugging along with the experimentation it takes sometimes to find the success they are looking for. This is called tenacity despite failure and it is important because it shows the degree of commitment required to succeed.”
He also sees having role models to go to for advice as critical. He said although sometimes it may seem embarrassing or intimidating, the entrepreneur can never be afraid to ask for advice and help. Along the way, Calhoun and his partner, Rod Hill, P.E., constantly sought advice from mentors and various experts.
“Whenever an issue arose, we would seek an expert on the subject to bounce ideas off of, and this helped us avoid lots of mistakes we probably would have made otherwise,” Calhoun said.
Is college the place for an entrepreneur to learn how to jumpstart a business? Calhoun’s answer is a resounding “yes!”
“For young adults, the best time and place to flex your entrepreneurial muscle is while you are in college — or at the very least when you are young enough to not be bogged down with a career,” he said. “College is a great place to start a venture as traditional college students typically have lots of free time, access to a large pool of human capital and the university can provide much-needed support.”
Calhoun said people who innovate are not a special breed apart from the rest of the human race. Entrepreneurship and starting a business are a set of skills and practices that can be taught.
“If I can do it, trust me,” Calhoun said. “Anyone can.”
Calhoun comes from a family with six sisters and three brothers. His father is pastor of Miracle Temple Church in Jackson. Calhoun’s daughter, Tracy, is a freshman psychology major at the University of Southern Mississippi. Active in his church and in the community, Calhoun serves on the board for a charter school in New Orleans and is a member of the Hinds Community College Board of Trustees. His hobbies include golf and travel.
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