Biologist Lorena Zeilman was working fulltime in a well-respected research and development lab. At the same time, she was in graduate school carrying a 4.0 GPA and teaching an evening course at Northern Arizona University.
Money was good, but the single mother of two was exhausted.
“Time with the kids when they are little is so valuable…. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t keep doing this. I don’t want to miss their childhood.’”
In late 2016, Zeilman took a leave of absence from the university, postponed her thesis, stopped working at the laboratory and started her own business. She was hoping for flexibility and to do some good in the community she was raising her children.
It did not take long for her to determine the direction she would take, and in early 2017 she opened True Shine, a commercial and residential cleaning service that is environmentally conscious — the biologist would have it no other way.
ONE IN 10 MILLION
One year later, Zeilman’s Flagstaff-area business is thriving. She has five employees and her client list — commercial and residential — keeps growing. She hopes to double the size of operations this year.
True Shine is among 10 million American businesses owned by women. Many have taken root in the last decade. Lorena is part of a growing number of women taking charge of their earning power and their time at work.
In 2014, PayPal polled 1,200 aspiring and current entrepreneurs who owned their business for less than three years. Nearly half of all the women in the study named passion as their leading motivation for starting a business.
Women find niches where their inspirations and passions can thrive, said Diana White, director of the Coconino Small Business Development Center.
“One of the things I celebrate is that women are eager to come up with their own ideas, put their own spin on business,” White said. “They are very in tune to what Flagstaff is all about and they have a vision and passion that melds with that. Women enter into business to contribute to the community rather than just wanting to make money.”
White is in a unique position to take the pulse of small business owners in Coconino County. Her job with the development center is to provide one-on-one consultations and resources to owners and potential owners.
“Unless you have an MBA or have been in business for a number of years, there are things you might not know that you need to know,” she said.
The development center helps by providing support and information in a number of areas, including start-up guidance, market feasibility and research, business plan assistance, online and social media marketing resources and more.
White sees quite a diverse group of people coming into her office and she said the women are plentiful.
“There are so many women business owners in Flagstaff and so many successful stories,” she said. Part of Zeilman’s business model is built on her science background. She created cleaning products and methods that are effective, non-toxic and do not add waste to the environment. True Shine does not use paper or disposable products and makes its own cleaning solutions with four simple ingredients: water, organic vinegar, organic soap and essential oils.
As a head-of-household, parent and former lab worker, Zeilman realized that what homeowners and businesses want in their cleaning providers is not only quality work but a relationship—workers willing to listen to them and understand their needs.
“The people of True Shine really care about the clients and they get to know them on a first-name basis,” she said. The True Shine motto reflects the approach: “We are your local eco-friendly professionals, cleaning with integrity and heart.”
ROAD TO FLAGSTAFF
Lorena is a first-generation immigrant. She was born in Peru and came to the U.S. as a teen after her father, a neurosurgeon, was promised a job on the East Coast. The job never came to fruition, nevertheless the family stayed and worked hard to make a life here. Lorena became a naturalized citizen at age 20. “It’s a moment in my life I’ll remember forever,” she said.
She attended college in northeastern Pennsylvania and fell for the lush landscape of the Poconos. “It’s where I got the outdoors bug.”
Putting her education to good use, Lorena went to work for a company that made flu vaccines. She also traveled quite a bit in eastern states. Then, the west called. “I wanted to see what the other part of this country was like.”
She used an online college search tool to find a school compatible with her needs and wants—a place to continue her education and an area with an appealing outdoor life.
“No matter what I entered, NAU kept coming up in my search.”
On her way to Flagstaff, she backpacked in several national parks.
“It took me three months to get here!”
Lorena smiled big with her recollection of a stunning trip across the U.S., and said she will encourage her kids to do the same when they are older. “It was just an amazing time.”
One thing Lorena was missing in her quest to run a business was any kind of business development training. “I was lacking a formal business background.”
She sought community help to get going and enrolled in the Basic Business Empowerment course offered by Coconino Country in partnership with the Coconino Small Business Development Center. The business development training for county residents is a 12-week program offered three times a year. There is a $125 fee, and scholarship assistance is available.
Zeilman came out of the course with a business plan, newfound knowledge and direction.
“I can’t say enough about this program. The information and the follow-up was excellent. I would recommend the course to anyone thinking about starting a business, or who has already started one.”
Her business plan included three basic tenets: Be client focused, environmentally conscious and socially just.
“I go by the golden rule: Treat others as you like to be treated.”
Earlier, when she worked in the research lab, she became acquainted with the women who were part of the cleaning crew—many of them spoke Lorena’s native tongue.
“Because I spoke Spanish, we would kind of commiserate and talk. They told me how little they got paid, how they had little benefits and that they had to buy their own cleaning supplies,” she said. “The way they were being paid and treated was not the exception; it was the norm. So, I decided to create a business where that would not happen. I knew I could do something that would be a lot more humane.”
Zeilman did research on wages, the costs of business and what clients would pay for True Shine services and came up with a starting wage for her cleaning employees: $15 an hour, $4 above the Flagstaff minimum wage.
“I’m a big believer in giving a hand up,” she said about how she treats her employees, providing a fair wage, training and encouragement. She said she would not be disappointed if her workers move up and out of her business.
“I believe that if you can touch an employee’s life, you can touch the community. If you help to lift people up, then you lift society up.”
Beside its commitment to employees and the environment, True Shine participates in Cleaning for a Reason, a North American charity that provides home cleaning services to oncology patients.
After being in business for a year, Zeilman admits to learning a few lessons.
“I learned to be more choosy about hiring the people for my team,” she said. “Finding reliable people is difficult. Someone may look great on a resumé, but then you find out they can’t take initiative or responsibility.”
She said she also learned that not everyone is your client, understanding that her services are not going to be for everyone. The other big realization for a the new business owner is that although her hours may be flexible, she puts in more than 40 hours a week running the shop.
“I don’t even want to even begin to calculate them,” she said. “Coffee is my best friend.”