Sher Valenzuela of Milford, co-founder with her husband of First State Manufacturing, was named Delaware’s Small Business Person of the Year for 2012 by the US Small Business Administration. Sher is also a candidate for Lt. Governor. TSD caught up with the multi-tasking dynamo to learn about her background, her company and her goals for public service.
Town Square Delaware: Congratulations on being named Small Business Person of the Year – how exactly did that come about?
Sher Valenzuela: We were nominated by our banker, someone who knows our business pretty well, I’d say. We were nominated because of our smart and steady growth, fiscal conservativeness and support and direct involvement with our community. In addition to running our business and creating jobs for more than 70 people, we realized we could help others find success through a small business accelerator called “First State Moves the Nation.” We’ve partnered with Delaware State University and the City of Milford to create a pipeline of resources that will enable other businesses to find the resources they need to get past what they need now and what they need next in order to succeed.
TSD: Tell us about your company, First State Manufacturing.
SV: First State Manufacturing is a Milford-based company that provides industrial upholstery products and services. That doesn’t sound very sexy, until you realize that just about everything you sit or lay on involves some level of upholstered or cut & sewn product or service. We provide products for government and commercial customers, ranging from seat covers and head rests, aircraft ground covers, insulation blankets, upholstery and various textile assemblies, bags and pouches. Our customers include the Department of Defense and the Washington DC Metro system, to chain restaurants like Unos and Chili’s, Dover Downs and Midway Slots, to name a few. Our customers span the globe and include the Israeli Armed Services Search and Rescue team.
We started 15 years ago in our one-car garage when Eli, my husband, was working at Dover Air Force Base. We figured we could produce a higher quality, less expensive product than what the government was paying for at the time. At the same time, we realized they were going to have to do something to raise the money to pay for specialized services for our son, who was diagnosed as autistic. The experts said our son would never read, write, or communicate effectively, but because of the resources we were able to generate entrepreneurially, Simon now attends the University of Delaware. We continue to grow our business with our partner, Ashley Wolfe and remain the result of a dynamic partnership built on innovation, communication and sheer hard work. We like to say that if the wheel needed reinventing, we’d be the ones to do it. Internally, we view this as “kick butt and have fun.”
TSD: What is your background and how did you end up running a manufacturing company?
SV: I’m from a blue collar background, and I love the grit and pulse of manufacturing. My dad was a proud union tool and die maker and former drill sergeant (in case people wonder where I get my “get it done” attitude). Professionally, I worked as a writer and communications director for IBM and the Delaware State News.
TSD: Talk about some of your ideas for helping small businesses – what kind of government policies should we be supporting to help get more First State Manufacturings thriving in Delaware?
SV: I strongly believe that the best thing government can do is to get out of the way of the entrepreneurs who are the real job creators. It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact: Small businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy now and in the past. It’s where 70% of all new jobs come from, so it’s where the bulk of our time and attention should be spent. My dad always pointed out that every big business started around someone’s kitchen table as nothing more than an idea. I never forgot that. [If elected Lt. Governor] I want to bring in practices like that of our neighbor, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno of New Jersey. She heads up the Red Tape Cutting Department, and her job is to scrutinize every regulation on a prioritized basis and eliminate those that are killing jobs and stop other new regulations before they have a chance to do so. They’re making tremendous, measurable progress. In addition, the solutions we offer through the First State Moves the Nation Accelerator will create “intelligent consumers” of no cost, low cost small business resources through a centralized web portal for areas of need to challenges that include access to capital, marketplace intelligence, workforce development, operations, and proposal writing support, to name a few. Yes, we’ve had this in some way, shape or form through other resources. But they’ve been limited in success and not delivered with an entrepreneurial perspective. Delaware State University gets that, and we intend to create a national model that will change that.
TSD: What advice would you offer others interested in starting a small business?
SV: Have a dream, create a plan, and believe that you can succeed. Small business is not for the ordinary. You already have to believe you can come out from among them and be one who signs the bottom of a paycheck vs. the back, intentionally walking into rejection in order to do so when you don’t have to. Think about it…that’s very odd. And yet those of us who choose to do so create the oil that turns the American engine. Never forget how important your place in the economy is if you are an entrepreneur. Connect with what you were born to do, and then move past the naysayers and remember there is always only one “what now, and what next.” Move forward past your next, arming yourself with the best information and resource possible to do so.
TSD: You’ve thrown your hat into the ring to run for elected office – Lt. Governor. What inspired you to get into politics and what kind of goals do you have if elected?
SV: I’ve always been an involved citizen and my husband and I have actively supported good candidates in the past. But I never thought about running for office before now. The truth is, the business we started 15 years ago would be difficult to start today because of the increased rules, regulations and businesses are spending more and more time swatting them away and complying with endless paperwork while keeping their doors open. New businesses run the other way, and I don’t blame them. Last November, several people at different ends of the state asked me if I’d ever considered running for office. After I laughed, I remember telling one that that I had no name. They said they’d been waiting for “no name” to show up. I realized I met that criteria, and on top of it, was a job creator and one who was bent on solutions. I knew if I passed up an opportunity to make a difference in my state and country I’d never be able to live with myself. So here I am.
TSD: What books are you reading?
SV: Let’s say it would be accurate to say I’m a cheap date … give me a pile of books and an island and I’m happy as a clam. So let me count the number. At the top of the pile, Reagan’s Revolution by Fred Barnes. Great by Choice by Jim Collins, an oral history of Pierre S. DuPont IV by Larry Nagengast, The People’s Money by Scott Rassmussen, Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer and Signing Their Lives Away by Denise Kurnan. I’m missing the island, but I’ve got the books.
TSD: What is something people don’t know about Sher Valenzuela?
SV: My favorite quote comes from Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all.” I’m a great poker player, and I miss gardening and just getting my hands dirty. Now I’ve entered the field of politics. Go figure … I still get to exercise my greatest passions. You’ve got to love the way the all of life just works itself out in ways we could never plan for.