Faces of Opportunity: From struggling to find a job…to owning a business
After a troubled childhood, Jimmie Williams struggled to enter the workforce. But with the help of JPMorgan Chase, he started his own business and gained a new lease on life.
Jimmie Williams couldn’t find a job.
As 2007 drew to an end, he’d been applying for work in Chicago, writing applications for any job he thought he might qualify for—construction, lawn care, maintenance positions—only to be turned away. The problem, he was convinced, was his past. “I’d been in and out of jail since I was a kid,” Williams says. “Being truthful about my past hindered the process.”
The solution came in the form of a secondhand truck. Tiffany Williams, Jimmie’s wife, was working as a Cosmetologist when one of her customers asked if she knew someone who wanted a used truck. After talking it over, Jimmie and Tiffany bought it for $800. Then they had to figure out what to do with it.
“We considered opening a moving company,” Tiffany says, “But then we decided to put a plow on the front end and go into business removing snow.” They printed up business cards and flyers, which Jimmie and his kids passed out to property owners in the neighborhood, and went to work. By the time Spring rolled around, they had begun to build a list of clients.
“In the springtime, we incorporated,” Tiffany recalls. “We bought lawn care tools and a trailer and started landscaping.” Their company, Urban Roots Inc., was born.
As someone who strove to re-enter society after going to jail, Williams knew how hard it was to get your life on track as a “returning citizen.” “It was easier for me to start a business than it was to find a job,” he says. And so, when he and Tiffany created Urban Roots, helping people in similar situations was a major priority. “We’ve been working with returning citizens basically since we started out,” he says. “Right now, we have two returning citizens working with us.”
Over the years, they’ve also become involved at schools in their area, hosting Earth Day events at which students can beautify their campuses—and learn valuable skills. In 2019, at Ida B. Wells Preparatory elementary school, they worked with over 20 students, showing them basic landscaping skills, like mulching, planting flowers, identifying plants, and using gardening tools.
For Jimmie, it was also an opportunity to give the students the valuable lessons that he never received. “I didn’t have a lot of positive role models and guidance when I was a kid,” he says. “I talked to the kids about my background, and helped them realize that it’s possible to start your own business.”
Building a business
In 2008, three months after they incorporated, Jimmie and Tiffany landed their first corporate client, which gave them a little breathing room—and the beginnings of a business plan. “It gave us motivation to press forward,” Tiffany says. “We started marketing toward commercial clients.”
It’s a strategy that works—they’ve increased revenue every year since they’ve started, Jimmie says. That’s not to say that things are easy—they’ve had to struggle in years where there wasn’t much snowfall, which made it difficult to build working capital and buy the equipment they needed to take on larger projects. They needed a clear plan if they hoped to expand.
As part of building their business, they took business classes. That’s where they connected with Accion Chicago and the Community Reinvestment Fund, two community development financial institutions supported by JPMorgan Chase, which provide small loans to entrepreneurs. “The first year, [Accion] loaned us a few thousand dollars,” Jimmie Williams says. The Williams paid back the loan, then took out another one. As their business grew every year, so did their dreams—and so did their funding needs.
Getting bigger…and getting bigger partners
As the business continued to grow, Urban Roots Inc. eventually needed more capital, so they turned to the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund (Opens Overlay) (Opens Overlay), a loan program supported by JPMorgan Chase and managed by local nonprofit partners Accion and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). The Entrepreneurs of Color Fund helps diverse entrepreneurs access the capital and the technical assistance they need to expand, and recently the fund has exceeded $9 million (Opens Overlay) (Opens Overlay) with additional corporate supporters.
LISC approved Urban Roots for a $400,000 small business loan. That gave the Williams’ the money they needed to take their business to the next level. “We were able to refinance our debt at a lower rate,” Tiffany Williams recalls.
It also gave them the capital they needed to purchase a physical location for their business. “We had equipment at two locations and we were getting our mail at a UPS store,” Jimmie says. “Now, we have our own facility.”
A bright future
The Williams’ plans for their company—and their community—keep growing. They already have plans to transition to completely eco-friendly tools and equipment. Ultimately, Tiffany says, they want to be one of the top 100 landscaping companies in the country.
Closer to home, helping returning citizens has always been a goal of Jimmie’s, and he wants to use Urban Roots Inc. as a platform to teach useful skills to ex-offenders. “I want to create a one-year training program to teach individuals field work and managerial skills,” he says. “I want to encourage them to create businesses of their own. Nothing is as powerful as community reinvestment with people who live there.”
Learn more about the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund and our commitment to small business expansion at www.magverry.com/SmallBusinessForward (Opens Overlay) (Opens Overlay).