For Valerie Daniels-Carter, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based V&J Holding Companies Inc., the entrepreneurial bug bit at an early age.
“As a very young child I had entrepreneurial instincts,” she said. “At the age of 6, in the first grade, I was walking 5-year-olds to kindergarten as their guardian for my neighborhood and was compensated $1.25 a week for various families to be the patrol guard, if you will. Always as a child I had different little businesses.”
While she grew up in Milwaukee, Daniels-Carter’s parents encouraged her to develop her entrepreneurial spirit. Her father, a Navy officer, was an entrepreneur himself and started a heating, air conditioning and refrigeration business.
“(Entrepreneurship) was definitely ingrained in me and reinforced and nurtured by my parents,” she said.
After graduating from Custer High School (now named Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education), Daniels-Carter got her bachelor’s degree at Lincoln University (a historically black university in Oxford, Pennsylvania) and later earned a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University.
Daniels-Carter began her career at First Wisconsin National Bank as a retail and commercial lender. Later she was an auditor in the financial underwriting division for MGIC Investment Corp.
She wanted to start her own business and in 1982, Daniels-Carter and her brother John Daniels (an attorney who today is chairman emeritus of Quarles & Brady) launched V&J Foods with a single Burger King restaurant, which they built at 5812 W. Lisbon Ave. in Milwaukee. The company still owns the restaurant.
John Daniels, the chairman for V&J, invested in the company and has served as an advisor for Valerie Daniels-Carter, who leads the day-to-day operations of V&J as its CEO.
“He was a financial investor into the company but a great supporter for me and a phenomenal advisor to me,” Daniels-Carter said. “He saw the passion I had to be an entrepreneur and wholeheartedly he, along with my husband and other family members, supported me in order to be able to do it.”
They decided to become a Burger King franchisee after examining several business opportunities, Daniels-Carter said.
“We had looked at and investigated a number of organizations and at that time Burger King had an aggressive development model,” she said. “I had never been in the food industry before. I was able to construct an agreement with them that basically said if I make the investment and I wasn’t happy with it in three years I could revisit my decision with them. …When I first entered the business, I really loved it. I had some really great people on my team, which makes a huge difference. I decided within the first year, I’m going to stick with this.”
Within 16 years, Daniels-Carter grew the company into a 137-unit, multi-brand operation. Today the company has 131 restaurant units including real estate holdings and operation agreements.
“Between a combination of acquisitions and build-outs we were able to ramp-up and build the company to being on a larger scale,” she said. “You scale it with great people and you scale it with the proper tools. That’s really what I did. Making sure I had all of the proper systems in place to be able to manage multiple units and looking for good talent. … Fortunately for me I was able to really have a group of individuals encircled in my company that saw the passion, saw the excitement that I had, understood the mission and wanted to be a part of the success story.”
The success Daniels-Carter had in growing her business led to more opportunities as other brands approached her about adding franchises. In addition to Burger King, V&J brands now include Pizza Hut, Auntie Anne’s, Coffee Beanery, Nino’s Southern Sides, MyYoMy Frozen Yogurt and Captain D’s Seafood.
“In most cases the franchisor reached out to me to see if I was interested in the opportunity,” she said.
Daniels-Carter, a part owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and board member of the Green Bay Packers, has done business partnerships with several athletes, including former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. V&J and O’Neal Enterprises partnered on opening Auntie Anne’s pretzel stores.
Now Daniels-Carter is working to help develop other aspiring entrepreneurs. In the past four-and-a-half years she has provided seed capital to help 905 women in Africa start businesses.
“I spend quite a bit of time developing those entrepreneurs,” she said. “That has been probably the most rewarding thing that I have done as an entrepreneur. It is just phenomenal. They are in all kinds of businesses from chicken farming to fish farming, agriculture, bead-making, soap-making, lotion-making, seamstress, you name it. We send them through a two-year entrepreneur program that I have. Most of these women were not employed. If they can successfully complete the program then we will seed the initial capital.”
As part of the program the women agree, if they are successful, within 18 to 24 months they will try to help another woman in business.
“Right now, my life is about intergenerational transfer and development of entrepreneurs,” Daniels-Carter said.
In fact, Daniels-Carter wants to develop two V&J brands, Nino’s Southern Sides and MyYoMy Frozen Yogurt, to be able to offer business opportunities for young entrepreneurs in the United States.
“We recently launched those brands to put the structure around them. Hopefully in the next three to five years I will be able to take those brands and kick-start some other young entrepreneurs in business,” she said.
In addition, V&J has a sister company that provides seed capital for young entrepreneurs in the non-food industry. Those include Wisconsin entrepreneurs in the printing and environmental sanitation industries.
For years Wisconsin and Milwaukee have ranked low on national lists for startup activity and venture capital.
Modern technology is helping entrepreneurs raise seed capital, Daniels-Carter said, but it remains a huge challenge for launching a business, especially for minority entrepreneurs.
“People have access to the internet where they can create investment clubs and things of that nature to help get a base,” she said. “But when you are looking for serious capital, it’s very difficult, especially for a startup, especially for someone new … especially for minority individuals, to get seed capital. That’s one of the reasons why right now I’m trying to do my small part to assist and aid because I know what it’s like to try to raise capital and especially the times we are living in now.
“I worked many years literally taking most of my disposable income and reserving it to be able to start my business because I had that kind of passion. I always tell entrepreneurs if you don’t have that kind of passion then entrepreneurship is really not for you. You’ve got to be willing to make a commitment beyond yourself.”
Mentors are needed to help entrepreneurs in Milwaukee create more new businesses to boost the city’s economy, Daniels-Carter said.
“What would foster more (entrepreneurship in Milwaukee) would be many of them having really strong mentors that can help them understand the business model and understand the business plan,” she said. “I think you have a ton of entrepreneurs (in Milwaukee), they just don’t know what to do, how to do it, where to go, how to access capital, have someone help them write a proper business plan. Having a resource center for entrepreneurs that talks about the reality of business not just the fairy tale of business. You’ve got to have that in order to have sustainability. The failure rate is so high. And most often people don’t really understand everything that they need in order to be successful.”
In recognition of her career achievements, her contributions to the community and her efforts to help the next generation of entrepreneurs, Daniels-Carter is the recipient of the 2020 BizTimes Media Bravo! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award. She will receive the award on Aug. 20 as part of the virtual 2020 BizExpo.