In 2006, Jameel Webb-Davis walked away from a six-figure salary to tread into the treacherous waters of starting her own business. Nearly two years later, she misses the money, but says following her passion is "kind of magical." (Jin-ah Kim photo)
It's 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and beneath the large windows in her home office, Jameel Webb-Davis is a blur.
One minute, she's closing manila folders stuffed with paper and stacking them on her wooden desk. The next minute, she's racing downstairs into the kitchen, where she hurriedly packs pineapple slices into Tupperware, grabs a banana and a container of yogurt, and hunts for her 3-year-old son Quinton's favorite red lunchbox. When the search goes south, she settles on a brown paper bag.
Snacks packed, she rushes out to the backyard, where she hops in her blue station wagon. After picking Quinton up from the child care center in their Medford neighborhood, Webb-Davis points the wagon north to Haverhill, where she is running the fourth session in her five-workshop series for high school students and their parents.
She's teaching them how to manage checking accounts and credit cards.
Forty minutes later, 15 students and their parents are sitting around two tables when Webb-Davis enters the classroom at the Haverhill YMCA. Two volunteers greet her and take Quinton to play in another room while Mommy does business.
Webb-Davis starts the two-hour "Be Smart about Credit Cards" workshop with a statement - "I had 23 credit cards and a mad mother" - and a big smile.
She pulls up PowerPoint slides, using visuals and metaphors to explain to the class "why you need to pay the full amount you owe to credit card companies" - to avoid extra financial charges and stop the vicious circle of getting into, and staying in, debt before it starts.
The group pays close attention throughout Webb-Davis' presentation. Some take notes and ask questions while they practice a couple of exercises on how to prioritize credit card bill paying.
The workshop is part of Webb-Davis' start-up business, Start Money Smart Inc., whose mission is to educate and train individuals in the area of personal finance.
She decided to start her own business in June 2006, leaving behind her prestigious job at a Fortune 500 insurance company - she preferred not to disclose which one - where she managed financial data for actuaries.
"I used to make much more money, though I work harder now," she says. "I really liked my job. There was really no reason for me to quit what I was doing."
Especially considering the six-figure paycheck she gave up, and her family's financial situation. When she quit her job, they had two homes with two mortgages, bills to pay and a then-2-year-old son to support. Her husband Mike was, and still is, a truck driver, coming home from hauls only on weekends.
"I made twice as much as my husband made. I was the breadwinner of the house," says Webb-Davis, who graduated from Colorado College in 1989 with a degree in studio art and learned the skills she teaches today through personal experience and research.
But she had a calling of sorts to own her own business that helped people manage their money and credit.
Nearly two years ago, she started MJOrganizers, a personal finance management service firm in Medford, as a sole proprietorship, a type of company in which one individual owns and manages the business and is responsible for all transactions.
It didn't cost much to start the business - the only expenses were computer and office supplies, Webb-Davis says. But while the outlay was not large, neither was the income, as she had trouble lining up enough clients to pay her personal bills. With times tight, she and Mike had to rely on the nearly $200,000 in savings they had accumulated.
"We lived off the savings for a long time, until we reached the point [where] we had nothing," she says.
And the future did not look bright. MJOrganizers' client list was not growing like Webb-Davis had hoped. She attributes the difficulty to the "new territory" her business occupies - while financial management is old hat to affluent people and large companies, it is a different story for ordinary folks and small business owners.
"Nobody really has done this before ... a lot of people are hesitant and nervous about it," she says.
But instead of abandoning her hopes of owning a small business, Webb-Davis stuck with the firm, which was generating about $1,000-$1,500 in monthly income, and found another opportunity in personal finance education.
Three months after the launch of MJOrganizers, Webb-Davis was asked to speak at a public event held by a local nonprofit organization. The experience taught her two things, both somewhat surprising: She liked speaking in public, and doing it can be lucrative.
Since then, she has incorporated public speaking engagements into her Start Money Smart business, building a reputation and networking with organizations hiring speakers. So far, she has spoken to a number of groups in schools, nonprofits and even the State House.
Webb-Davis's companies are two of the approximately 250,000 women-owned firms in Massachusetts as of 2006, the last year for which statistics are available.
According to the Center for Women's Business Research, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization, the number of businesses owned by minority women like Webb-Davis grew by 120 percent over the last 10 years. By comparison, overall firms in the United States grew by 24 percent for the same period.
But most of them struggle, says Donna Good, chief executive officer of the Center for Women and Enterprise, a nonprofit organization helping 1,200 people in the Boston area start and run their own businesses.
"Small businesses are always desperate for help. It's funny because small businesses account for almost all the business in America, really," Good says.
Securing financing and marketing a business are the most formidable challenges for small start-ups, she says, especially for minorities and females.
"Never mind how difficult they are generally - for women and for people of color, they are really difficult," Good says. "It's awfully hard."
Webb-Davis knows all about money and marketing problems.
She says she could not get a loan because her unconventional businesses were deemed unpromising, and with two mortgages already taken out, she doesn't have enough equity to prove that she can pay a new loan back.
The lack of capital hobbles Webb-Davis' plans to expand her business by writing books and designing new personal finance curricula and programs.
There were countless times, she says, that she wanted to give up her businesses.
"Many women and men who start their business quit when things get tough. You have to have an incredible commitment to do this. There are a million reasons to stop," she says.
But thanks to her husband's emotional support, she has continued to stick it out, and now her two businesses are generating some revenue. For example, the five-week workshops, like the credit card course at the Haverhill Y, bring in about $2,000, and MJOrganizers is up to about $2,500 per month.
But even with the increase and her husband's income, Webb-Davis says, they can barely maintain her household. The irony is not lost on her.
"I am teaching people how to manage their money, [and] I am going broke," she says with a laugh.
Many times, Webb-Davis says, she has given lectures on personal finance for free in the interest of "planting seeds" for the future. She hopes those freebies bear more fruit than last year's marketing efforts.
She calls her attempt at brochure and direct mail advertising an expensive lesson. She had planned to hold workshops for teenagers in Boston, and spent more than $5,000 on advertising and renting space at a Lexington church.
But "three kids signed up, so I had to cancel it," she says.
These days, instead of waiting for business to come to her, Webb-Davis is logging miles chasing it, driving to cities and towns across the state to conduct her financial seminars. She says she also learned that networking - which has garnered her most of her speaking engagements - can be a more effective marketing tool than advertising.
Eridania Nieves, a Haverhill school suspension supervisor who translates Webb-Davis' YMCA workshops from English into Spanish for some parents, says the two met through a women's conference in Boston two years ago.
Nieves asked Webb-Davis to speak to her students last year and says she was satisfied with the performance, leading to a return invite for the five-session workshop.
"She's a very hands-on person, very motivated, full of energy. She makes us feel comfortable," Nieves says.
That sort of networking and word-of-mouth has helped Webb-Davis establish a more solid client base. At the moment, she has one workshop a week, but business is about to pick up.
"My calendar of the next month is really busy," she says. "I looked at it the other day and got a bit overwhelmed."
On the way home from the Haverhill workshop, Webb-Davis says she draws motivation from the words of a participant at an earlier session. He told her, "This is just life-changing. Nobody else did really answer these questions."
Responses like that help Webb-Davis weather all the uncertainty that comes with running a start-up.
"I sat in a cubicle to do reporting for 16 years - never done any public speaking or teaching before," she says. "I just followed my passion, and this whole thing happened. It's kind of magical."
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