Brenda Calhoun, owner of Onyx Administrative Services of Buffalo, NY, LLC (DBA Onyx Global Group), has steadily built on her knowledge and experience to get to where she is today.
Out of college in the 1980s, she worked as a commercial underwriter for major insurance companies. She soon saw that “there was a lack of commercial agents knowledgeable in commercial insurance in the inner city, so I decided to strike out on my own and start an agency.” She founded her first company, Calhoun Insurance Agency, in 1989.
Early on, she faced the challenges of any small business owner, such as trying to fulfill all the functions of the business because she couldn’t yet afford to hire staff. Working in the insurance industry in the 1990s was particularly difficult, she found, because “you have to have insurance companies that are comfortable with contracting with an inner-city agent. That was a major struggle.” Conversely, when she began hiring and training staff, poaching by larger agencies became a problem.
Calhoun made a strategic decision to partner with the insurance firm Lawley. Through the larger firm, she gained access to more resources and could offer her clients additional services and amenities. Partnering with Lawley also broadened her knowledge of the industry. As she worked with her clients, who were primarily in the construction industry, she became familiar with their business and the challenges they faced. Ultimately, she capitalized on that knowledge by expanding into new areas. She became a consultant to construction companies, advising about development costs, labor rates, and business management. From there, she began assisting with projects and coordinating construction activities, and moved into procuring supplies as well.
New York state offers a Minority and Women-Owned Enterprise certification to businesses that are at least 51% minority- or women-owned. The program aims to develop these businesses by connecting them with contracting opportunities, as well as offering technical and educational support. Calhoun believes she was one of the first people in the area to become certified as a MWBE. When asked for insights into the workings of the program, she chuckled. “That’s a long conversation!” In the 1990s, she said, the program existed with little oversight, “so even though you were certified, it didn’t really open a lot of doors for you unless you had some form of a watchdog agency that was going to make sure people were trying to do business with you.” It didn’t fundamentally change how she operated: “I still had to have the lowest price, and I still had to have the coverages that they were looking for.”
In the construction and supply industry, the certification was more effective; she felt that those companies more actively looked to partner with MWBEs. Asked to explain the discrepancy, she described a problematic feedback loop on the insurance side. “When you think of it, there’s maybe two or three minority agencies that focus on commercial,” including herself. Most, she said, focus on the personal sector, like homeowners’ and auto insurance. The small hiring pool allows insurance agencies to say that they made a good-faith effort to work with MWBEs. However, because of the perception that there aren’t local MWBEs to contract with, “I don’t think [the agencies] are even being questioned,” she said. In other words, participating in the MWBE program is important as a means of challenging the presumption that there is no one available to hire, and therefore no reason to try. “I think [the certification] is worth it,” she said, adding, “I try and really respond to the RFPs and let people know that I’m out here.”
Throughout her career, Calhoun has continually built on her experience in order to grow her business. “All of the things that I’ve done have helped me get to the point where I can feel comfortable in the construction arena,” she said. She now employs four people and is broadening her reach once again by moving into real estate development. Currently, she is developing two vacant buildings on Fillmore Avenue into mixed-use buildings that will feature apartments and office spaces.
Asked what she wishes she had known earlier, she thought seriously about the question. “I don’t know if I could say there’s anything,” she said. Each step of her journey prepared her for the next. Too, when her children were younger, she didn’t have the time to devote to her business that she does now. “I think it’s more of a challenge for women, especially women that want to have a family as well,” she said.
In addition to feeling that there was a need for her services in the community, she went into business for herself because she wanted independence and flexibility as she raised her children. By the time that they were getting older and she was ready to branch out, she knew more about resources like Pathstone Enterprise Center, and was able to tap into those resources and make more strategic decisions. Lawley provided a mentoring context for the insurance business; now, as Calhoun moves into construction and development, she has a mentoring relationship with David Pawlik of CSS construction. “Advice I would give anybody is try and get a good mentor,” she said, in order to gain as much knowledge as possible as quickly as possible. “Someone that wants to work with you and wants to help you grow.”
Her overall message is one of constancy and the long view. “You just have to stay in the court,” she said. On reflection, she added, “I’m a very spiritual person and I just believe that…I was being guided by God through this whole process… Opportunity comes your way, but if you’re not prepared for it, you’re gonna miss it. So just be prepared for that opportunity, and how do you get prepared? It’s a lot of work.”