By Helena Tavares Kennedy
Living in a region filled with government and government contractors can make it a challenge for a government contracting company to stand apart from competitors. Some look at it as an opportunity, like Corliss Udoema, founder and CEO of Contract Solutions, Inc. (CSI), a professional staffing and management support services firm that supports federal, state and local governments as well as private for-profit and nonprofit clients.
Prince William Living spoke with Udoema to find out what makes her tick and see if she has secrets to share of her success, having most recently won the 2017 Virginia Small Business Person of the Year Award and third-runner up for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) National Small Business Person of the Year Award.
Serving with Integrity
Udoema takes care of her business with integrity and a commitment to excellence. She didn’t really have an “ah-ha” moment to start her own business in 2006. Rather, it evolved over time.
“When I retired from government as a contracting officer, I was still young at 55 or 56, so I thought about how I wanted to spend the rest of my time doing something good for others,” said Udoema. About a month after her retirement, Udoema started her business in response to a friend’s request to provide acquisition consulting services. Udoema tried to provide the services free of charge but her friend, a successful business owner, refused. That request was the beginning of Udoema’s business journey.
After she helped her friend, Udoema started assisting and counseling small businesses, especially those that dealt with government contracts, which can be daunting for small businesses that may not know the ropes of handling government contracts. Udoema called this an “economic ministry,” as she never charged for her services in the early days.
In 2009, Udoema moved to the Prince William region from her “retirement” home in North Carolina so she could be closer to her grandchildren. Considering the higher cost of living in Northern Virginia, she accepted a position with a small government contractor, but when the company lost its contract, her choice was to accept an offer to return to the government or pursue her business full time, which meant Udoema knew she would have to charge for her services. That was the turning point when she decided to apply for the SBA Small Business Development Program.
Learning Every Day
Many successful business leaders are constantly taking classes, attending workshops, going to retreats, and conducting research to improve themselves, their leadership and their business. Udoema is of the same mindset, but she thinks learning comes every day and from everywhere.
“You need a teachable spirit to build your business—to gain knowledge from a variety of places and people. Don’t overlook the knowledge and expertise that your staff bring to the table,” said Udoema. “Although I had been an entrepreneur all of my life, my business was limited to what I could do. After entering the SBA development program, that changed and I began to employ others. One of the most profound things happened during a strategic planning session with my employees. I looked around the table and felt grateful for such an assembly of talent who were bringing their best to my company. Then I asked myself, ‘With what I’m doing now (working and running the business), can I offer my staff what they are offering me? They are offering me their best—can I offer them my best?’ That reflection helped me realize I had to walk away from the technical work, which was generating revenue, but was causing me to not have enough time to be the visionary force for the organization.”
Udoema’s approach with employees is unique because, in addition to current employees, she continues to write Christmas cards and birthday cards to past employees. “Former staff laid bricks in my business. Even if they aren’t here anymore, they helped to build what we have today,” said Udoema. Long after they are gone, Udoema continues to appreciate her past employees and the role they played in forming the business.
Current CSI staff varies from 30 people to 45 or so, as it depends on the contracts they have at the time. A majority of CSI’s clients are government entities in the D.C. area and government bodies that have offices elsewhere like Colorado, Missouri, California and Pennsylvania.
An Inspiration to Others
The best part of creating CSI for Udoema is not just the business itself but what the business allows her to do for the community. “It’s the impact of what I’ve been able to do through the efforts of a lot of great people who had impact on others,” said Udoema. “Things like our training programs for senior citizens, the business buddy program for veterans, a grant we awarded to a veteran who really needed it, our Hope in a Bag program for the homeless, and more. We wouldn’t be able to give back to our community if it weren’t for CSI’s success.” She encourages other business owners and Prince William residents to play a part in improving the community. Udoema said, “When you have an opportunity to do something to bless someone, do it.”
Udoema hopes people hear her story and get inspired to move forward with their plans and reach their dreams. Her final advice for those considering their own business or who are currently struggling in their small business is to “be who you are,” said Udoema. “If you want to do well in business, whatever you do, do it well. Whoever you have, treat them well. And remember, no one person is greater than the whole.”
For more information on the services offered by CSI, visit contractsolutions-inc.com or contact Corliss Udoema at email@example.com or 703-686-4846.