Angela Washington recalls the excitement she felt when her company, Alegna, received certification as a woman-owned business from the federal Small Business Administration.
Gaining that honor on the third try required separate applications and frustrating waiting periods each time.
“I knew the advantage of having that certification,” she said, adding that certain government contracts are set aside for female-owned companies. She controls 51 percent of Alegna — Angela spelled backwards. Her husband, Hosea, the only other employee, controls the remainder.
An accountant by training who continues to work in the private sector, she completed the applications herself rather than paying several thousand dollars for someone else to handle the tedious task.
“I’m smart, I know how to read. The accountant in me said, ‘No way.’’’
Alegna, founded in 2017, distributes a variety of products and is this year’s Government Contractor of the Year, as selected by the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship at Bradley University.
“The majority of our business is with the federal government,” Hosea Washington said. “We can go out and get anything at a reasonable price.”
Their product lines range from tactical outdoor gear and industrial supplies to consumer electronics. The Washingtons recently completed an order covering flashlights and utility knives for Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals and have even served U.S. embassies overseas from their hometown Peoria location.
Hosea, a former Caterpillar Inc. project manager and 6 Sigma Black Belt, said the couple’s son, Julian, interned at a similar company while in college and started his own company in 2013, serving as an inspiration and resource for the couple.
The Washingtons said the online nature of the business allows them to work anywhere, anytime, a clear advantage with older family members and other relatives still in the Peoria area. It also allowed them to escape the brunt of the pandemic, though “some of our customers pulled back their budgets and that cut our sales,” Angela noted.
That round-the-clock availability seeps into their personal relationship.
“Hosea has the hardest time turning it off,” Angela said. “When you work for yourself, it’s 24-7. Anything can pop up at any time. (Customers) want what they want when they want it.”
Hosea is the company’s chief operating office but Angela handles the roles of president/CEO/CFO. “He has to report to me,” she said, laughing.
They are moving into e-commerce by aligning with PriceCloser.com, and have tapped into their son’s experience and contacts. “He’s able to give us tips. He’s been a great resource.
“We share information but have different corporate names.”
They agree the family nature of the business is a plus. “You get to learn more about each other. You push each other, there’s a competitive edge being a family and working together,” Hosea said.
Another difference from the corporate world, according to Hosea, is the clear connection between effort and reward. At Caterpillar, he would hear about millions of dollars in project savings “but you never got the chance to actually experience that yourself.”
Angela noted that can come with a price.
“The biggest drawback is every conversation turns … somehow, business gets involved. Every conversation, even on the personal side, somehow the business leaks in.”
Starting out, the company had to bid for federal contracts. Now, they are included in General Services Administration (GSA) schedules, which allow agencies to see what the Washingtons can offer.
Bradley’s Turner Center helped with that, and the Washingtons took advantage of the center’s seminars and resources for fledgling business owners. The couple was familiar with the university before starting their business – Angela has her undergrad degree from BU, while Hosea earned his master’s in industrial engineering on the Hilltop.
“We know what’s up there and how they can help us,” he said.
The company’s near-term goal focuses on gaining access to multimillion-dollar federal contracts, including those for products found in stores at military bases. The couple sees that happening as capital financing becomes easier to obtain.
“The lending side has been one of the biggest obstacles for our company,” Angela said. “With us being small, (lenders) are only willing to give you so much, just enough. To increase (sales) volume, you’ve got to have capital.”
Hosea agrees. “The large corporations, they’re able to get these large credit lines based on a signed contract. We’re proving ourselves and it is coming.”