The founding members of the E-Class

G1SAND28B
Michael Sands (left) employs eight workers at his Camden company, Natural Pest Control Co. Some of them are (in background, from left) Charles Best, Angel Rivera, Jackie Radomski, Cedric Anderson and Ralph Kemp.

WHO LEAVES the security of a paycheck for the get-rich-sometimes uncertainty of the entrepreneurial life? Especially when statistics show that only 35 to 45 percent of all start-ups survive for five years?

In other words, what does your average garden-variety entrepreneur look like?

These are the founding members of the "E-Class" - people who have always had the ultimate DIY dream: to create their own business and work for themselves. While annual start-up numbers are hard to quantify, the regional office of the Small Business Administration is one barometer of vitality: They estimate that there are about 611,000 small businesses in eastern Pennsylvania.

People who are well-connected in the region's "entrepreneurial ecosystem" helped us craft a local spotter's guide:

* Entrepreneurs are bull-headed, but in a good way.

"They have a very specific vision of what they want to achieve," says Gloria Bell, a meta-entrepreneur whose entrepreneurial business Red Stapler provides office services and social-networking help to other entrepreneurs. "They don't want to let anything stand in the way of achieving it."

* Their passion is like a personal force-field. "They are really, really good at something they really enjoy," Bell says.

* They're not deterred by failure.

"Nothing can stop them. They pick themselves back up again," says Donna Palmer, an Ernst & Young employee who selects the best of the local bunch every year to compete for her company's national entrepreneur of the year awards.

* In Philadelphia, they're apt to cook food, cut hair, open dance studios, find compassionate ways to help sick people, rehabilitate neighborhoods and real estate, tutor kids, parlay a talent for crafting into small-scale manufacturing and open neighborhood stores, to name some popular endeavors.

* Increasingly, they're driven by a cause. In a trend that's been developing for a half-dozen years, about a third are doing "social entrepreneurship" to help the downtrodden, either locally or globally, says Therese Flaherty, director of the Wharton Small Business Development Center.

If you want to paint them with a broad brush, they're people like Michael Sands, son of two immigrants from the Bahamas whose Camden-based company just landed its first multimillion-dollar contract, who genuinely believes in the American Dream.

"You don't have to do the same thing that your father did," Sands says. "You can come here and get an apple cart and sell apples. Two years later, you can have a small corner store. Maybe later, you can have a supermarket."

In Sands' case, you can work a salaried job as an exterminator for a pest-control chain, then set out to build your own niche business - his is Natural Pest Control Co., with an emphasis on using nontoxic and minimally toxic approaches to getting rid of rodents and bugs - eventually grossing over $500,000 annually and employing eight other people.

Sands' business is an interesting case study because he's a black business-owner who's vastly more successful than statistics on local black-owned businesses would predict.

As Philadelphia Urban League President Patricia Coulter pointed out in this year's national "State of Black America" report, the Philadelphia region is home to 10,000 African-American businesses- but fewer than 10 percent have even one paid employee.

Some local initiatives are looking for ways to help minority-owned firms expand as a way of improving the overall jobs picture here.

One is the Urban League Entrepreneurship Center, launched in 2008. It was advice and connections from there that helped Sands land that first seven-figure contract, with the Philadelphia Housing Authority for pest control at 6,000 public-housing units. More important, Sands says, networking through the center is helping him meet people who can open the door to contracts with private industry, which are more lucrative.

In another initiative, the city of Philadelphia has set a goal to award 25 percent of its contract work in fiscal year 2011 to companies that are owned by minorities, women and people with disabilities. The idea, according to Curtis J. Gregory, director of the Office of Business Services, is to help the targeted groups of entrepreneurs establish their credibility as contractors - again as a springboard to bigger, more lucrative contracts with private industry.

In addition to the Urban League program, Sands also took advantage of a federal booster program called the Small Business Administration Emerging 200 (SBA E200, for short) that's open to established inner-city companies, regardless of who owns them. A free six-month "business school on steroids," according to SBA District Director Dave Dickson, the E200 program enrolls 15 promising small businesses annually.

Along with a better grounding in business strategy, the Urban League and SBA programs gave Sands a new frame of reference.

"When I was bringing in $100,000 a year, I was around $100,000 people," he says. "They put me in touch with people who are making $5 million a year. . . . It makes you think on the same level."

"It's important to be able to network with people who think on a higher plane," Sands says. "When you see what they're doing, you say, 'Oh, I've got a long way to go.'

"But it's possible. That's why they say, 'Only in America.' "