Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:29 pm
Olaitan Olapo, co-founder of Toki and Associates Inc., says there is an all-too-common stigma that minority-owned businesses provide inferior services or goods.
However, that stigma hasn’t hindered Toki and Associates.
"We’ve used that disadvantage to our own advantage," Olapo said.
Toki and Associates, a professional architectural and engineering firm, graduated June 8 from the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, which provides assistance to socially disadvantaged small businesses.
Through starting smaller projects and teaming up with larger companies, Olapo said his company has found ways to succeed and is ready to stand on its own, without the SBA program’s assistance.
"Most small businesses fail," said Joseph Tucker, chairman of the Business Council, an organization that helps businesses owned by African-Americans. "It’s frustrating to know you’re facing barriers simply because you’re a different color."
Despite the multiple obstacles a minority firm is forced to confront, a successful firm can overcome them, Theophilus Iyasele, co-founder and chief executive officer of Toki and Associates said.
"Once you perform, the rest is history," Iyasele said.
The SBA’s nine-year-old 8(a) program assists small, socially disadvantaged firms in becoming competitive players in the marketplace. Through sole source contracting, in which businesses can obtain a contract without competition, training sessions and leadership courses, the program helps level the playing field for racial minorities, women and other people deemed to be at a disadvantage in the business world, according to Linda Krysiak, acting director for business development at the SBA’s Milwaukee office.
However, she said the program can only help so much before a business thrives on its own or fails.
"Toki adapted the program for their business, they used it the way their business needed it," Krysiak said. "Toki has really understood federal contracting."
Toki and Associates took advantage of matchmaking events where the company gave marketing presentations to large businesses and federal agencies.
Iyasele and Olapo, originally from Nigeria, moved to Milwaukee in 1977. They attended college at the Milwaukee School of Engineering and received their graduate degrees from Marquette University.
Olapo had been working at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and Iyasele was working as a consulting engineering firm when they founded Toki and Associates in 1987.
Since then, Toki and Associates has been contracted for several high-profile projects including Miller Park, the Midwest Airlines Center and the Marquette Interchange.
According to Iyasele and Olapo, their company’s ability to acknowledge and fix their mistakes has driven their success.
"If you look inwards and be aware of where your shortcomings are, then you will have a team that will interest a contractor," Iyasele said.
"Try and try and try," is the company’s philosophy, Olapo said.
"When they needed additional resources, they went out and contracted more experienced firms," said Mike Young, project manager for the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "They also utilized their own staff to give us the benefit of a highly professional service."
Young has worked with Toki and Associates on a couple of major hospital renovations for nursing home projects and said they followed up with strong quality control.
Toki and Associates also is planning to work beyond Milwaukee in the near future, with hopes to open an additional office in Madison.
"Without the SBA backing us, we will go out and get projects on our own," Olapo said. "Toki is here to stay".
June 25, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI