Hanging Tough

Wilhelmina Bell-Taylor overcame cancer to launch a successful business

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At age 19, Wilhelmina Bell-Taylor was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. In the decade that followed, she would not only battle the sometimes fatal ailment but also work full time while raising a daughter on her own after a failed marriage. These trials, she says, are what gave her the drive to succeed as an entrepreneur.

“It really prepared me for everything that I faced in my life after that—also for business,” says Bell-Taylor. “I was a person with a disease, which at that time was potentially terminal because they didn’t have the treatments they have today. So I had to live and to really succeed for my daughter’s sake.”

Now, at 54, the rewards of her perseverance are coming to fruition. As founder and president of BETAH Associates Inc. (pronounced beta), a management consulting, communications, information, and administrative services firm based in Bethesda, Maryland, Bell-Taylor has grown her business from a one-person, home-based operation to a 60-member firm that grossed some $7.5 million in 2001. Incorporated in 1994, BETAH focuses primarily on providing outreach and technical services to health-related government agencies and other clients who want to connect with, and get their message out to, high-risk groups with special needs.

One of BETAH’s more notable projects was working with former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher on his Leadership Campaign on HIV-AIDS. BETAH provided outreach services such as media alerts, video, and radio announcements to educate communities of color about their high risk for AIDS, and to teach them to prevent the spread of the disease. As part of the effort, BETAH also coordinated a broadcast and Webcast discussion between major medical schools at historically black colleges and universities and community organizations.

Bell-Taylor began working as an independent consultant following a career in education, community development, and management consulting. Noting the rising demand for her services, she decided to move operations from her home to an office. But before taking the financial risk to expand, Bell-Taylor waited until her daughter graduated from college. She knew that start-up costs would be financially draining—and they were.

Office rent, a copying machine, computer equipment, hiring a part-time receptionist, and an independent accountant had to be paid for. So Bell-Taylor applied for and was granted a $90,000 loan from a community bank to cover these expenditures. Bell-Taylor wishes the move could’ve paid off immediately but that was far from the case. “My income dropped by about 75% my first year,” she says.

This financial crunch, however, didn’t deter her. Bell-Taylor reinvested most of her profits back into the business. “I used those resources to surround myself with experts—people who were very strong in areas that I didn’t feel strong in,” she says. “Finance and accounting were areas where I readily sought expertise from people who really were very experienced in doing this type of business, and that helped tremendously.”

Bell-Taylor’s cancer is now in remission and she’s setting her sights on targeting the commercial marketplace. “The doctor doesn’t like to use the term ‘cured,'” she says with a chuckle. German

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