José Hernandez had done it all, from working in restaurants to cleaning windows, while his wife Mayra Diaz worked in the business sector. Both dreamed of owning their own business, yet felt “a little lost,” Diaz explains.
Shortly after founding Sunrise Window Washing in 2015, they went to the Scottsdale Public Library in search of books about entrepreneurship. The librarian told them, “As a matter of fact, they’re starting a class upstairs” that same day.
The class, facilitated by the Ready Set Go Foundation (RSGF), was designed to help minorities, women and veterans get their businesses off the ground. After an attorney’s presentation, the first thing the Scottsdale couple did was change Sunrise from a sole proprietorship to an LLC for tax and liability reasons.
“We always wanted to have our own business, we just needed a little more knowledge,” Diaz says.
The couple is just the type of people entrepreneur OD Harris created the foundation for. While there’s no shortage of business-related workshops in the Valley, he contends, most gloss over the basics.
“More people are engaged in what their brand looks like versus what it looks like from an infrastructure perspective,” explains Harris, who founded RSGF in 2014 after leaving the Army, only to find it difficult to readjust to civilian life. Since then, the foundation has grown to include chapters in Tulsa; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles and Lansing, Michigan; and has trained more than 2,000 people in marketing, financing and legal matters.
“A lot of people have a passion, but no sense of business,” Harris says. Without an understanding of how capital and other components work, “your business will collapse within one or two years.”
“A lot of people have a passion, but no sense of business.”
– OD Harris, Founder, Ready Set Go Foundation
With the support of public and private partners—including Coca-Cola and the Arizona Community Foundation—RSGF has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships. The funds are used to cover such expenses as legal filings and mentorships. Training is free to its students, who are comprised of 75 percent minorities, 88 percent women, 13 percent veterans, and 10 percent under 18.
Students attend a one-hour course every week for five weeks. Upon completion, there is a graduation celebration, complete with cake cutting and a balloon release. “They have a moment to be proud,” Harris notes. “Some entrepreneurs who are older have never walked across a [graduation] stage before.”
Looking ahead, RSGF is preparing more advanced courses for those ready to take the next step, says advisory board chairwoman Sharise L. Erby-Castle, who became involved with the foundation in late 2014. Already the head of her own successful nonprofit, Phenomenal Woman Empowerment Network, Erby-Castle was also still hanging on to her corporate job.
“But I really felt the tugging to go off on [my] own,” she says. “The foundation just opened my eyes [to the fact] that there were so many other entrepreneurs, and RSGF provided a support system.”
The lessons in the foundation’s coursework aren’t gleaned from books, but rather from Harris’ own experiences. In 2002, he started Wize Tax Service out of his Lansing, Michigan, home after discovering his accountant had neglected tax credits to which he was entitled. Over the next 10 years, he grew the business into 35 locations in seven states before selling it to H&R Block. It was during his accountant days that he got the idea for Ready Set Go; his clients repeatedly asked for other business help.
From the beginning, Wize Tax Service gave to charities wherever it operated. Brought up with six siblings by a manufacturing worker and a housewife who emphasized giving back, Harris remembers collecting perishable goods door-to-door at age 10 using a three-wheel stroller he found in the trash. Four years later, his father died, suddenly forcing the family to rely on services they had once supported.
This year, Harris hopes to bring this “giving back” philosophy to politics with a run for councilman in Chandler. “My job is to be a great servant,” he says. “I believe in the morals I stood for then and I believe in them now.”
By Aaron Berman
Photo: Mark Lipczynski