Within a timespan just short of the past decade, the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif), established in 1987 in Northeast, has sought out new partners and pathways to complement and expand their stable of multi-dimensional programs and services. Their mission, however, has remained unchanged — assisting small business owners in the region to fine-tune their plans of operation, develop their companies and increase both their customer base and annual revenue in route to reaching their fullest potential.
The results achieved during the recent seven-year period have been impressive for one of the area’s leading community development financial institutions, closing more than $9.2 million in loans and assisting over 2,000 entrepreneurs with coaching and technical skills — collectively sustaining over 300 local jobs.
In fact, Wacif has served as a veritable port in the storm for a growing number of minority-owned small businesses within the greater Washington area, according to many of their beneficiaries including Kia Weatherspoon, founder and CEO of Determined By Design, an interior design-focused company in Northeast.
She recalls what she deems “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” heeding the advice of Melissa Bradley, a business consultant highly-regarded by the Bowser Administration for her ability to teach the rubrics of entrepreneurial efficiency and success. Upon Bradley’s recommendation, Weatherspoon, 37, reached out to Wacif when her fledgling company (founded in 2012) needed an influx of capital that would allow them to seize upon surging opportunities for growth and the concurrent formation of a larger clientele who had more lucrative projects and budgets to match.
“I was one of the original cohorts of Wacif’s Project 500 [now 1853 Ventures] that helped D.C.’s minority-owned businesses scale up and who assisted me in securing sorely-needed capital at a critical time in our development,” said Weatherspoon, a homeowner in Southeast as of last summer and an Air Force veteran.
The Portsmouth native, since setting her sights on still untapped potential in Southeast eight years ago, has emerged as a topnotch businesswoman, maintaining her focus on “making interior design a standard for all and not a luxury for a few,” employing an innovative approach that brings design equity to affordable and supportive housing projects.
Her efforts and hard work have not gone unnoticed as recent achievements confirm: 1) chosen to join the ranks of an elite membership, “40 under 40,” under the auspices of the Washington Business Journal; 2) recipient of the Emerging Leader award from the District’s Housing Association of Non-Profit Developers; and 3) a panelist invited to participate with more seasoned business execs from highly-respected financial institutions including Wacif, JPMorgan Chase and others who announced the establishment of a unique partnership and the launch of the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund to the region during a provocative discussion held at the R.I.S.E. Center earlier this year.
She proudly points to the support and encouragement she received from other women, both classmates and instructors, during her matriculation at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia which has long served as a center for excellence in art and design and bears the distinction as the first and only visual arts college for women in the U.S.
“I didn’t know it was an all-girls’ college when I applied but that would become the thing I came to love most about the school. It was the first environment where I began to see myself as an artist — more than just someone who had technical skills that have become an integral element within today’s everchanging workforce. As an older student, I really appreciated their encouragement which helped me thrive and grow,” said Weatherspoon who went on to complete a master’s degree at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design.
Real Growth Requires Patience, Planning and More Capital
For the first five years of business, Weatherspoon successfully kept operating costs low but regrets that she didn’t know that during those “boom years,” she should have put away a significant amount of cash on reserve for the time when costs would inevitably rise.
“We were getting bigger, getting more projects and we needed to increase the size of our staff,” she said. “That meant my payroll would have to rise. Several projects were with government entities whose pay schedules were a lot different from our smaller clients — we had to wait longer for payment.”
“Cash flow became my biggest hurdle and it’s still something that can become difficult to handle. I had to learn how to manage funds that were linked to projects with clients who operated on 90- or even 120-day pay cycles.”
“Wacif couldn’t give me the full amount I requested but the dollars I was granted were essential — and I’m grateful for their assistance. I’ve come to understand that as an area investment fund, they’re not always able to help small businesses get completely over the threshold — that is, in terms of the panic mode that comes when the cash flow is low and the needs of the business exceed revenue.”
“That’s where their recent partnership with Chase that they’ve just launched brings such promise for people like me. Now, small businesses like mine have opportunities for larger amounts of capital and easier access to an even greater variety of services. Still, at this point in my company’s development, what we also need are services more substantive than what I call the Business 101 level.”
Lessons Learned as a Black Woman and Business Owner
Surprisingly, Weatherspoon rarely encountered race as an obstacle to her securing projects.
“I targeted developers of color believing that they’d have a greater buy-in to me than larger ones whose leadership was predominantly white,” she said. “I wanted developers who looked like me and who worked in our community. From the start, my bigger mission was about people of color and working to collectively build the Black community,”
“My first client who gave us a shot and took a chance on me was Dantes’ Partners in 2015. We were alike in many ways — ways that mattered to me. Buwa Binitie (managing principal for the D.C.-based real estate development and advisory practice) believed in Determined By Design, believed in the talent we had and brought to the table and believed in the mission which drove us.”
“Of course there were times when male clients would attempt to cross the line with me — you know, become a bit too familiar or share personal stories or anecdotes that were inappropriate. I knew how to handle that. But with women in similar positions of leadership, I assumed that they’d be more willing to reach out and help me — serving as mentors or colleagues — which was not the case.”
“Actually, as I began to be invited into rooms where the principals had access to far greater amounts of capital and who operated in circles quite different from those to which I was accustomed, the women, mostly white, were more closed off — more micro-aggressive than men.”
“But I didn’t let any of that deter me. I’ve been aggressive for most of my life. And I make sure I’m respected just as I always respect others. I’ve never led off with the fact that we’re a minority-owned business as a marketing tactic. I don’t look to be part of quotas. We’re good and we have a good work ethic.”
“Sure, there were times when opportunities came available because the clients wanted a good, minority-owned business or when funds had been earmarked for minority business owners. And if that’s done in efforts to level what’s still an unbalanced, unequal playing field, that’s fine. But my clients know from day one that I’m hungry, relentless and focused.”
“As our company name indicates, we’re ‘Determined by Design,’” said Weatherspoon who, as our conversation drew to a close, made sure to mention that when she’s able to unwind, she relishes the sense of freedom she experiences by participating in “extreme activities.”
“I find great satisfaction in sky diving, rock climbing or doing my thing on the flying trapeze,” she said. “I love moving in heights that are far beyond and outside of the norm. Then, or rather there, no one pays attention to me — there are no restrictions.”