Tara Palacios, director BizLaunch, Arlington Economic Development

Who she is: Tara Palacios started her career wanting to be a journalist. In fact, the ultimate goal for the UMBC grad was to be the next Oprah. “I kind of got there in a roundabout kind of way,” admits the woman, who among other public performances, recently starred in a Arlington TV video promoting BizLaunch, a program at Arlington Economic Development, which has helped more than 20,000 entrepreneurs turn their big ideas into practical realities. Click here to view the video.

What she does: “BizLaunch is Arlington’s small-business assistance network, and a one-stop-shop for everything a small business owner needs to know about starting or growing a business in Arlington,” Palacios explains.

Why she does it: “We partner with a wide variety of small business organizations to provide owners with information on writing a business plan, taxes, permits, licensing, marketing, financing—and we offer information, counseling, and research opportunities—all free of charge. I love my job!”

This summer, the organization also launched BizQuiz, an online business assessment tool that helps entrepreneurs think critically through the most important aspects of their company.

And on July 31, another big event arrived for Palacios: Motherhood. Before she heading off on maternity leave, we had the opportunity to sit down and learn more about this Truly Amazing Woman, including the power and programs of BizLaunch, her fascinating career path and business philosophy, and what she thinks all entrepreneurs need to know about running a successful organization. Scroll down for more.


THE MASTERMIND BEHIND BIZLAUNCH

Hope Gibbs: You graduated from college in 1992, at the height of another major recession. So you know the realities of having a hard time finding the job of your dreams. How did you handle it?

Tara Palacios: I worked in the retail industry for about a year, and finally landed my first job in PR and marketing working for the Prudential Healthcare Plan. I planned about 100 events a year with a variety of different nonprofits and medical agencies, but struggled ethically with the idea of working for an HMO (health maintenance organization). Remember, the very first debate for universal access to healthcare was going on in the Clinton administration, and I was behind the idea. But here I was, working for an agency that was lobbying against it. I couldn’t make peace with it, so I decided this was a good time to start grad school at Johns Hopkins.

Hope Gibbs: At that time you also worked in the PR department of a software company called Estimation, which created hardware for architects.

Tara Palacios: Yes, and then, believe it or not, I was wooed by the team at First Union Bank to become a loan officer. I got my brokerage license, and my Series 6 and Series 63 licenses—and mind you, I was not a financial person. But I totally immersed myself in the field, and just loved it. However, in my class of 25 new loan officers, very few were working there at the end of the year because the banking business is very tough. Nonetheless, it was an important job to have because I learned what to look for in terms of who gets funded and why, about commercial businesses, as well as credit-rating polling. All of that experience has been very important in helping me do my job well at BizLaunch.

Hope Gibbs: After working at the bank, your career took another unexpected turn, right?

Tara Palacios: That’s right. I went into the nuclear field. I was living in Baltimore at that time when I saw a job opening for a marketing manager at the Richmond Corporation. They had 60 clients around the world that needed to have their uranium enriched, so I marketed events for them. We worked with companies from Dominion Power to Tennessee Valley Authority, and several in Japan. But then they started to downsize, and I decided I did not want to be laid off anymore. That’s when I saw the job opportunity in 2002 to work for Arlington Economic Development.

Hope Gibbs: So you were able to bring all of your private experience to the public forum to help small business owners. That must give you a wonderful perspective to doing your current job.

Tara Palacios That’s exactly right. It was interesting at first, because in my previous jobs I was used to moving at lightening speed. The first thing I had to learn was that the government works much slower and more methodically, and I had to adjust to the pace. It didn’t take long to appreciate that what we are doing gives back to the community—and what’s best is that you can really see the difference we make for a small business.

We also work with international economic organizations, such as the Open World Program, which since 1999 has brought more than 17,000 young leaders to the United States from the countries of Eurasia. We go in and do an exchange with former Soviet governments, and we will talk about how we do economic development here in the DC metro area and trade practices. I have been doing that for five or six years now, and it’s wonderful to see that no matter where you are in the wold, business people have similar challenges and issues.

Hope Gibbs: Tell us more about your perspective on business.

Tara Palacios: From a local government point of view, the key thing to measure is how responsive the local government is to its community’s problems, and the laws that it has in place. These can either create and stimulate entrepreneurship, or cripple it. So it is really important to have a transparent process and know whom to contact and where go to if you have an issue that you’re trying to resolve right away.

I have a lot of appreciation and compassion for entrepreneurs, who often feel as if they are out there by themselves, trying to figure out the system and make the right connections. If you are in a silo, and don’t know where to turn for advice or help, you tend to be more reactive than proactive—and that is when you can lose control of a business. But if a business owner comes to BizLaunch for help, we can probably elongate the life of a business, especially if the issue involves extending a lease or planning ahead if a hurricane blows through or if the electricity goes out for a week. We help them come up with a long-term plan so they won’t topple.

Hope Gibbs: Since you work closely with international companies, what is the main difference you see between those who work abroad versus opening a business in the United States?

Tara Palacios: The biggest difference is how easy it is to start a business here. That is good and bad, however. The good news is that you can start something and in time turn it into the next Under Armour or Nike or Facebook. But, if you don’t manage the business well from the start, it can fail before it opens—and I see that sometimes.

Other countries make it so much harder for people to access the entrepreneur arena, or they tax them so highly that they can’t afford even to consider opening a business. Americans don’t realize how good we have it, to be able to pick up and strategically create something that is sustainable over time and draw income and hire people. It is a good thing, because the healthiest communities are the ones that are best bearing the brunt of the prolonged recession. They are creating jobs and helping others in the community.

Hope Gibbs: The recession, and the real estate bust, must have impacted your budgets for the last few years. What are some of the things you are doing to stay effective with BizLaunch?

Tara Palacios We have strategically partnered ourselves with a variety of different agencies, and as far back as 2006, the banks warned us at that we were going to have a financial crisis. So we started planning. In 2007, we brought together about 125 local entrepreneurs to explain what was on the horizon so they could identify their strengthens and weaknesses. They fought us a bit, but we explained they needed a Plan B so that when something comes down the pipeline, they would be able to respond to it. In fact, most of them have survived the economic storm.

Hope Gibbs: Has there been a shift in the types of business opening in Arlington in the last few years?

Tara Palacios: Definitely. Five years ago, there were a ton of doggy daycares, doggy washes, doggy this, doggy that, but now it is more practical. Entrepreneurs have really figured out what they need to do to be successful, and they know it should be based on more than going to the bank for a loan. They don’t see that as a realistic, sustainable means of acquiring money. More businesses now are self-funded, and the owners are much more realistic in their financial and long-term expectations. You don’t have a paper millionaire starting a restaurant anymore. People are much more grounded in what will work in the economy versus investing in their fantasies.

Hope Gibbs: What are some of the biggest mistakes you constantly see entrepreneurs making?

Tara Palacios: The biggest one is not having a strategic plan in place. Too many people say, “I’ve got this great idea and I’m ready to take the plunge.” But that’s not usually the case. Yes, to be an entrepreneur you have to be willing to take a risk. But before they take that plunge, we encourage them to go through a specific process, like starting with the BizQuiz.

It’s important to know your strengths and your weaknesses because then your plan is more likely to be realistic. It always gives me pause when an entrepreneur comes to me and says their endeavor is going to be successful no matter what. You have to have some fear, and you also have to understand what it is that you’re getting into. Having done this for more than a decade, we have touched about 20,000 small business owners, and I can tell you there is a huge distinction between a business that will make it, and one that won’t.

Hope Gibbs: Can you share some of your favorite success stories?

Tara Palacios: Oh, yes, most definitely! My most recent is our lobster truck friends. The owner, Leland, first came to BizLaunch after he graduated from culinary school and had the idea to start a company that sold a fantastic knife holder for chefs that he had designed. Chefs could put all of their favorite knives in it, and it would keep them from dulling or getting lost.

Unfortunately, it was right when the economy was tanking, and he needed a huge investment, and he was determined to have the holders made in the US. What I love about this story is that rather than just pour his heart, soul, and cash into this idea, he got realistic. He put the knife holder idea on hold until the economy picks up, and in the meantime connected with some of his culinary school friends to open up the lobster truck. They go everywhere, including in front of my office in Arlington, which is where we recently connected and he told me about his great success story.

I know this man is going to go far because he isn’t attached to one idea. He’s flexible, looks ahead, works hard, and is persistent. Those are the ingredients needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

Hope Gibbs: What’s next for BizLaunch?

Tara Palacios: We are in the process of taking even more of our programs online so we can work with even more entrepreneurs, including those outside of Arlington. We know busy small-business owners can’t make it out to some of our evening networking events because they have a lot going on. We are still going to do a lot of the same programs, but like any good business, we are constantly looking to find out what the latest need is and meet it. I am very excited about this opportunity.

After I have the baby in August, I’m taking a few months off and will definitely be reflecting on the program and thinking about what else we can do to help small business owners. By the time I return to work in January, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of ideas about how we can improve our outreach and help entrepreneurs even more.


About BizLaunch: BizLaunch is Arlington’s small-business assistance network, and your one-stop-shop for everything you’ll need to know about starting or growing a business in Arlington.

Arlington Economic Development offices:
1100 N. Glebe Road, Suite 1500, Arlington, VA 22201
Phone: 703-228-0808
Fax: 703-228-0804
Hours of operation: Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

For more information, visit www.arlingtonvirginiausa.com.


The Women