Cracking the glass ceiling remains extremely difficult for visible minorities and women seeking to make it into boardrooms or even own a business.
The invisible barrier standing in the way of Black women scaling the upper echelons of their career is a lot more impenetrable, especially in these tough economic times.
Jamaican-born Canadian Delores Lawrence is an exception. Not only has she made Profit Magazine Canada’s Top 100 Women Entrepreneur list for the past seven years, but her company – Nursing Healthcare Inc. (NHI) – has added 100 full-time employees in the last year and experienced 56 per cent revenue growth since 2006.
“While I am humbled by the honour, it must be made clear that it takes exceptional organizational and management skills along with an excellent plan and team to make this happen,” said Lawrence, who is the only African-Canadian to have made the exclusive list since the magazine started recognizing the achievements of female entrepreneurs in 1999.
NHI, whose annual revenues exceed $8,000,000, provides health care services to almost 50 institutions in the Greater Toronto Area.
“For this business to be successful, customer service is imperative,” Lawrence said. “I always insist that my staff treat our clients like gold because this is a very competitive field. It’s also critical that my team share my vision and values. Once they grasp that, they will be able to go out and represent NHI well. Though I am the leader, this award really recognizes the team because they are the ones out there making us look good.”
Lawrence was introduced to the world of business at an early age by her mother who owned a supermarket in Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s north coast. She accompanied her mom to business meetings with bank managers and grasped an understanding of the importance of presenting a well crafted plan that would address the bank’s concerns as to how their loan will be repaid.
By the time she was ready to launch her own business in 1985 after graduating from the University of Toronto with a Nursing degree and the University of New Hampshire with an MBA, Lawrence was confident she had the knowledge, business skills and collateral to secure a bank loan.
She was, however, to come up against a startling reality.
“When I approached the bank with my business plan, they told me I could obtain just $5,000 when I was looking for a $25,000 line of credit to start up my agency,” said the former Seneca College and Toronto 2008 Olympics bid board member. “And this was in spite of the fact that I had over $100,000 equity in my home and $5,000 in Canada Savings Bonds. In effect, the money the bank was willing to lend me was covered by my bonds, so they were not taking a risk. The bank also demanded that my husband co-sign for the $5,000. The only thing I did not put up was my children.”
Lawrence, who came to Canada in 1969, ran her business out of her Markham home for two years before being forced to seek office space after she was threatened with legal action.
“Most of my employees would show up at my residence on Fridays for their paycheques which meant there was a steady stream of cars and activity on the residential street,” she said. “That did not go down well with my neighbours and one day a Town of Markham inspector showed up at my door and served me notice that I should cease doing business in there because I was violating the residential by-laws.”
From humble beginnings, NHI now employs 1,400 employees of which 425 are full-time and the company’s revenue stream is approaching $8.5 million. With offices in downtown Toronto, Scarborough and Markham, the company’s varied clients include hospitals, long-term care facilities, the Toronto District School Board and private individuals.
NHI, which is accredited by the Canadian Council of Health Services and is the recipient of the Consumer Choice award for Business Excellence in Nursing the last three years, also provides placements in the United States and the Middle East.
“Because of the recession, we have not been able to push the envelope and set up offices outside Canada,” said Lawrence who is an Order of Ontario recipient. “But we have used the technology available to establish a presence in foreign countries.”
Despite the success, Lawrence still spends a minimum of 10 hours a day during the work week on the job.
“Though you are successful, you still have to work hard to stay ahead of the game,” said Lawrence who co-founded Operation Black Vote Canada and sits on the Anglican Church Board Diocese Council executive. “NHI has set certain standards which we have to maintain and exceed in this business where a lot depends on trust.”
Lawrence will be recognized with a Planet Africa Entrepreneur award on Saturday night.