IT MAY be 2014 but it's still an anomaly to be a black, female tech entrepreneur.
That's why I had to do a double take when I read that the Eastern Pennsylvania division of the U.S. Small Business Administration had named Maria Frizelle Roberts, of MFR Consultants, its Small Business Person of the Year.
Just 25 years ago, the Queen Village resident was working as a nurse at a local hospital and only dreaming of earning her entrepreneurial stripes. Back then, she had no idea that over time her health-care Consultants business would morph into an award-winning information-technology consultancy.
Fast forward a few decades and MFR Consultantsc has expanded to the point where Roberts not only supports herself comfortably but also employs 46 people in offices in 14 states. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg aside, Roberts is at the top of her game in an industry where women in leadership roles are still a rarity. To paraphrase that old feminist-inspired Virginia Slims TV commercial, Roberts has come a long way, baby.
"I took a big leap," Roberts said last week. "Has it been an easy leap for me? No. Many times I have not been awarded a contract because I've been a woman. I've had great years. And I've had tough years."
Born in Chicago to an Air Force family, Roberts lived in Europe before settling in Germantown, where she attended Catholic schools before going on to study nursing at the now-defunct Philadelphia General Hospital. Roberts later got a sociology degree from St. Joseph's University.
It was while working as a nurse at a North Philadelphia health center that she first got the itch to lead. There weren't many women in leadership positions at hospitals back then, but "for some reason I thought I should have the opportunity to be the CEO of a hospital."
Since that wasn't what she was trained to do, she got a master's in public health and business administration from the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to Philadelphia to serve as the director of marketing and strategy for the Greater Philadelphia Health Action.
After about two years, funding for her position was cut. Roberts began doing health-care Consultants work for Pennsylvania state legislators on managed-care strategy, which back then was still a new concept.
"I found that I was good at it," Roberts said. "It was an exciting time for me. I got a chance to meet a lot of people and work on a lot of different projects. It was fun."
MFR Consultants got its start in 1989 in the living room of her apartment at 3rd and Brown streets, in Northern Liberties. The business wasn't an overnight success. To pay her rent, Roberts was forced to go back into nursing.
"I would work from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. as a nurse, then I would sleep and get up at 7 a.m. and do what I had to do," remembered Roberts, who is single. "I didn't come from a family that could say, 'Here's $10,000 in startup capital.'
"There were days I woke up and thought, 'Am I crazy?' I couldn't let this beat me. I think that I just refused to fail."
Early on, MFR's focus was on helping managed-care companies strategize. It wasn't long before Roberts began seeking other contracts to do marketing for operations such as the Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia Housing Authority, BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues) and the Delaware River Port Authority.
Roberts' first foray into IT came around 2000 after she met then-Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston at a Police Athletic League dinner and later snagged a contract to design the Fire Department's website.
"I can remember the first time that I met Maria," said Mike Binns, a longtime business consultant who built a career working for corporate biggies such as KPMG, Xerox and SAP. "I was in a bidders' conference for a big project. I noticed this woman who seemed to know everyone. I thought, 'Who in the world is this?'
"It was pretty clear from the beginning that Maria had relationships with everybody," said Binns, who in January joined MFR as managing director of corporate development. "She'll walk in and she'll knock on the door. 'How are you doing? Is everything all right? How can we help you? How are your kids? How's your husband? How's the dog? Did you get to the islands this year?' . . . Here's a CEO who comes out of her office and she really cares how things are going and she spends her time making sure that that product she is delivering meets their requirements."
The Eastern Pennsylvania division of the U.S. Small Business Administration honored Roberts on June 12 at a day at the ballpark. When I sat down with her in her Old City office, Roberts was still in hype mode about being singled out. She's especially pleased to be recognized not as a successful minority or female business owner - but just as an entrepreneur.
Roberts said, "I'm honored and I'm humbled, and it's made me want to do more."