Meet Tonya Hicks. This serial entrepreneur and single mother of two became a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1994. She founded an electrical contracting and engineering firm, Power Solutions, Inc., at the age of 28 in 2000. Her business expanded to become a full-service maintenance company in 2006. She launched, Women Do Everything to help women learn how to repair things in their homes to help them reduce repair costs. She hosts how-to workshops in Atlanta,GA. Her passion is to help women to have the necessary resources they need to succeed at home and at work!
Violet Pearson shares an interview she recently had with Tonya, who is also a founder member of Hera Hub Atlanta
What was your key driving force to become an entrepreneur?
I can’t say I had a key driving force. I had a job superintendent that came up to me while I was working as an electrician who suggested that I open up my own business because I’m always telling everybody what to do. So, it wasn’t like ‘Oh, I want to make money’, ‘Oh, I want to secure a future for my son’, It was being 28 years old and wanting to go for it, wanting to do something bigger.
How do you compete effectively in a male dominated industry?
To be honest, I’ve always had to be better to be considered equal. Another thing that I do is I do what men do. I put my points on the board. I don’t just do the work and keep my head down. I announce my accomplishments so they are documented and that way when they’re looking for a winning team member because really there are some men who don’t want to work with women or have their issues with women, but, for the most part, men want to win.
If they think you’re the key to winning then they’ll choose you, but they can’t choose you if they don’t know what you’ve accomplished. If I finished something on time and under budget, I put my points on the board like ‘Look at me! This is what I did. Next time that you’re doing something, let me know. I’m ready.’
How old is your business now?
18 years old. I started my business when I was 28 years old.
What have been your biggest challenges at various stages of your business’ growth?
Well, I think my biggest challenges have been inexperience in business, as far as not having experienced different economic conditions and downtimes. If you’ve never been through a slowdown of the economy, you don’t know how to react.
Even if you have mentors or people to tell you, nothing builds your confidence or your knowledge base like going through it. That has been my biggest challenge, learning how to navigate those periods.
Despite your technical experience that helped you run the business, you still didn’t have that practical experience of entrepreneurship?
Yeah, you know, so that’s the thing. The one thing I’m most confident in is my job. And I’ve just been building my knowledge base and trying to understand business. You see, business has traditionally been an older person’s game. Even today in business, people don’t really respect your knowledge base until you’re older than 50. I thought 40 was going to be the mark and then people are still asking if you can handle multimillion dollar projects because you’re ‘too young’.
Even though you’d been doing this for about 12 years?
You have very few young people, mostly in the tech industry, who have been young and have been able to sustain a career in business, because noone gives you a shot. But, you see, technology, is a young person’s game so you can win in that industry, but in infrastructure, they expect you to have 25 -30 years of experience before you get any respect.
Considering people thought you were young and inexperienced, how did you get contracts?
Most of my work is through referrals. We also bid. I do have certification with the City of Atlanta as a minority and as a woman, I have certification with the government. But I just got certified last year because I wanted to compete as a majority. I wanted to compete because I was the best, not because I was a woman.
My being a woman is not what I wanted as my value proposition. I wanted my value proposition to be my past performance, my experience and the wealth of knowledge I have on my team. I don’t knock people that do it because I’m on a project now because I’m a woman, I just think you decide how you want to enter the game.
How did you raise funding for your venture?
I didn’t raise any funding. I bootstrapped! I still, to date, have never gotten a loan and I’m on a 3.6 million project right now. I’ve tried to get loans and haven’t been able to. I’m working on becoming bankable but It’s hard when you want to be debt free as well. This is because if you have no record of debt and revolving accounts, just like your personal account, it works against you in business.
In this past year, I’ve had to create 8 accounts that I don’t really need. I hate that part of the capitalist system because you’re not rewarded for paying things off. You’re not rewarded or considered responsible if you’re not in debt. But if you’re in the game, you have to play it, right? I’m hoping the generation coming behind us changes that.
I want anyone to know, you’re gonna lose several things in business. You’re gonna lose a lot. Because it’s about sacrifice, it’s about winning and losing so you have to get mentally prepared for that (and you do as you grow). But, there are two things you don’t want to lose: your peace of mind and your credibility. Even when you don’t have money, if people know they can trust you, they will ride with you. You have to be transparent (maybe not totally) but you should not fake it till you make it. Be real and honest about what your past performance is and what you can do.
That way, you don’t have to worry about being found out or not being able to do the job. In my experience, it really helped that I’m authentic and I do what I say I’m gonna do.
How do you market your business, and which tactics have been most successful?
I don’t really market but I network really well. That’s been the biggest thing for me. I also do a great job. If you do a great job, Jim will tell Tim. Referrals and networking are my marketing. I’m not using my website to generate revenue and attract customers as I should, I use it to provide information about my business for people interested.
I don’t do SEO and social media. I’m big on slow, steady growth. I play the long game. You can make a lot of money or build a sustainable business but you can’t do both. That’s why I think a lot of entrepreneurs who get multimillionaire dollar deals don’t last because they haven’t build a foundation strong enough to sustain it.
Who has been your greatest inspiration in building your business? What motivates you?
One of my greatest inspirations is Oprah because she’s from Mississippi like me and she still makes blackeyed peas and cornbread. She’s still authentically herself and she did it her way. Another woman is Ariana Huffington because, through her experience, she realized after all the success that she had to take care of herself and was transparent about that. I went through that as well during the recession because I was doing too much and ended up having issues with anxiety. As I said, it’s a journey and the best thing I learned was to be selfaware to be able to selfmanage.
There is a Jeff Bezos quote where he states he doesn’t think it’s about a worklife balance but about harmony between the two. What are your thoughts on that? How do you balance the demands of your business with your family life?
I agree with the harmony part. I think I”m still working on the balance part because I have to work while resting. I don’t really rest. I love working and that’s who I am. When you try to do what you’re not, that’s where the problems come in. After three days of holiday, I get stressed out. I don’t try to be everything to everybody every day.
After going into stress management, I limit the things I do daily. I’ve learned how to file things away in my mind and how not to stress about things I can’t address in the moment. I’m still working on spending time with family and friends but if you notice, everyone who has been really successful has struggled with this same issue. I’m unapologetic about it. I was created to do something great and I’m doing what I was born to do. My family is going to love me in that space.
What entrepreneurial tricks have you discovered to keep you focused and productive in your daytoday busy schedule?
Don’t talk to people. I don’t have too many personal conversations during my revenue generating hours. When I’m at work, I’m at work. I push personal conversations to after 6 pm unless it’s an emergency.
That’s what helps me to focus and stay on track. I think that’s harder for women and it’s something that we have to work on.
What is your biggest regret?
There are a couple of employees that I wish I didn’t hire but that’s not a major regret. I wish I would have become more financially literate earlier. I wish I had found a way to play a bigger game earlier financially because the same people you have around you at a lower level are the same people at the multimillion dollar level. You need certain tax advisors to tell you what the best thing to do with the money you make or are projected to make is.
What would you like other women entrepreneurs to know as they strive to succeed in your sector?
I want them to know that this is truly a man’s world, and don’t try to make it anything else. Don’t expect them to roll out a red carpet, to recognize your talent or praise you when you do things right. It’s a man’s game, just like being in football. They’ll hit you just as hard as they’ll hit the guy next to you so don’t take it personally. My last thoughts for any female entrepreneur are don’t let your lows get you too low and your highs get you too high.