SARCOR, a civil engineering firm, has been in business for 12 years. This is not CEO Selena Rodgers Dickerson’s first business. She started her first business in elementary school. She collected cans to recycle then used the profits to purchase candy. She would then sell the candy to kids in the neighborhood giving herself the official title, the Candy Lady. This business was not the last challenge she faced, nor the last success. “I grew up in Riley which is in West Birmingham. There were not a whole lot of success stories on my street. It’s important, particularly as a Black woman, to fight for some sense of equality.” Selena’s ambition, ingenuity, and intelligence, paired with a number of SBA, SBDC and PTAC resources, has molded SARCOR into the successful company it is today; and, Selena has become a thoughtful CEO, dedicated to high quality work and equality through engineering.
Selena graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Tennessee State University (TSU). While there, she became intentional about pursuing the dream of entrepreneurship. Not long after graduation, one of Selena’s former classmates, who knew she wanted to go into business for herself sent her a link to an SBA Small Business Bootcamp. The one-day course scratched her entrepreneurial itch, providing her resources and structure to start planning her business. Ironically, the Bootcamp was held at TSU, but on its downtown campus a few miles away from the college of engineering. Selena had no clue that TSU was affiliated with a PTAC office that offered opportunities to learn and network with aspiring and successful business owners, but she did not mind making the trip from Atlanta to Nashville to learn the basics of business ownership and Federal contracting. Selena had made up her mind to go into business for herself but was not sure what area would be the most meaningful and beneficial.
Selena’s next interaction with the SBA came through one of her first employers which was an 8(a) Certified company. Not knowing anything about 8(a), as a part of her due diligence about her employer, Selena looked into the details of the certification and found herself going down a rabbit hole of resources, information, and resource partners. She was strategically preparing herself to start and run a company. In 2007 the Great Recession hit, and Selena did not want to wait to get laid off to start making her own way. Utilizing assistance from the Nashville PTAC office, she founded SARCOR in 2008, continued to attend SBA trainings. In November 2010, Selena was laid off and in January 2011, she officially launched the business.
Selena believes success is when opportunity meets preparation. Leveraging the network she had acquired for over two years, the day she was laid off, she was able to walk into a sales conversation with more than just her undergraduate engineering degree and MBA. Thanks to the persistence, preparedness, and training through the SBA and resource partners, Selena had a 5-year plan, statement of qualifications, a capability statement, and she was awarded a small contract. Shortly thereafter, Selena moved back to Birmingham from Atlanta and dove headfirst into networking, volunteering, industry organizations, ALDOT DBE workshops, and she landed leadership opportunities. The solid work she provided to the contracts she won, in addition to the networking opportunities she took advantage of, qualified SARCOR for a steady rotation with city contracts. Soon she was winning state contracts. She hired her first employee in 2014 and at the company’s height, in 2019 she had 9 full time employees. She credits the SBA Emerging Leaders program and access to capital workshops for this growth.
Despite all these outward successes, Selena still did not feel as if her efforts were enough. While she credits the SBA’s Emerging Leaders program with enabling SARCOR to grow as much and as quickly as the company did, the growth was unstable and unsustainable due to a lack of a management plan, a management, team, and personnel issues. She questioned if she could or even wanted to keep the company going. “I had to reinvent myself. Personally, I had to figure out what I wanted in life and what it meant to me as an employer. What would quitting look like and what would it look like to my daughter and to my community?”
As a Black woman and survivor of domestic violence, Selena is acutely aware of all the eyes looking at her and her business. “When I’m in a room and I’m the only woman, or I’m the only Black person, or the only Black woman in a room full of men, I have to know my stuff, I have to have a good team around me…and I always have to go a little bit further to prove a point sometimes. I’m not always listened to and sometimes, I’m even yelled at or told to quit. It’s hard to show and prove my worth, but if I don’t do that extra, if I don’t speak up, then I’m not being of service to the next woman that comes along. We are equal, and I have earned a seat at the table. I have to show the students that are shadowing me that these are the obstacles that you may face, but it’s ok if you face it. It doesn’t mean you quit.”
SARCOR’s motto: “We design for equality.” When faced with the decision to quit and shut down SARCOR, the motto and her community’s rallying cry around it pushed her forward to reinvent herself and examine the company.
“[ASBDC program] GrowSmart was pivotal for me because I was at my lowest…I didn’t have the opportunity to separate working on the company and working in the company.” The ASBDC GrowSmart Program gave Selena that opportunity to work on her company – create a strategic plan complete with a management plan and personnel plan. CEO Selena Rodgers Dickerson has grown as an individual, community member, and CEO. She has come a long way since her days as the “Candy Lady.” Leveraging her innate entrepreneurial spirit, her formal education as an engineer, and experience as a CEO, she works every day to further equity and equality. Selena continues to leverage SBA, SBDC, PTAC, and Capital Access Program resources to sustainably grow her business and increase equity and equality.