Employment Opportunities

Tracey Brown never knew that a pink slip would turn into her ticket to entrepreneurship. Until December 2001, Brown worked as an executive assistant for EMC2 Inc., an Alexandria, Virginia-based data storage company. But after Sept. 11, EMC2’s fortunes evaporated, and her job was eliminated as a result of corporate downsizing.

The 38-year-old single mother had a backup plan, though. Since June 1996, Brown had been running a sideline venture–Maid 4U, a cleaning service based in Prince Georges County, Maryland. After spending several frustrating months chasing jobs, she decided last June to tackle her business full-time. Brown started with a single residential client, generating $4,000 in her first year. Today she grosses an estimated $45,000 in revenues and expects to more than double that figure in the coming year. “What was I going to do?” Brown says. “I couldn’t find a job, so I didn’t have any other alternative. I decided to pursue my cleaning.”

Brown is one of thousands of black professionals who have been casualties of corporate cutbacks. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 8.6 million people were out of work in December 2002. Recent reports show that the overall unemployment rate stands at around 6%, while the unemployment rate for African Americans has risen to 11.5%. And blacks tend to be at a greater disadvantage because they often lack seniority or work disproportionately in noncritical staff positions.

Downsizing has forced support staff as well as managers out of corporations, says Dr. Thomas Boston, a member of the BLACK ENTERPRISE Board of Economists and a professor of economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Entrepreneurship is a natural path for these individuals and a downsizing economy probably accelerates it,” says Boston. “Every former manager I know that has been laid off has either started a business or attempted to start one.”

Layoffs are not the only reason some black corporate employees are thinking outside the box. Dissatisfaction and growing cynicism among black professionals may also be prompting the exodus from corporate America.

Of course, not everyone has the pluck to become an entrepreneur, and most businesses fail before they get off the starting block. “What I’d say to any employee who was considering [entrepreneurship] as an option is do your research,” says Jocelyn Frye, co-chair of the Employment Task Force of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, who urges budding business owners to get a handle on, among other things, the ins and outs of their industry, as well as the capital requirements of their enterprise.

Thus far Brown hasn’t hit any major obstacles. In fact, business has accelerated since last July. She now has 28 residential clients. And in November, Maid 4U signed its first commercial contract, handling the cleaning services for a local outlet in the Lowe’s home improvement store chain. She recently added one more commercial client and is negotiating contracts with five others. With her strategy in place, the determined entrepreneur fully expects to clean up, estimating revenues of $65,000 to $85,000 this