In April, Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), announced this year’s National Small Business Award winners. The SBA’s Mid-Atlantic Region (Region 3), encompassing Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia has five awardees and a finalist for Small Business Person of the Year sharing the most awardees with neighboring SBA Region 2.
First State Manufacturing of Milford, Delaware is the Nation’s top 8(a) Graduate award winner. Owned by Eli and Sher Valenzuela, the firm has grown from one employee to nearly 100 employees since its inception in 1998. The 8(a) Business Development Program is a program for small disadvantaged businesses. The 8(a) Program offers a broad scope of assistance to firms that are owned and controlled at least 51% by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
“First State Manufacturing is a great example of how hard work and persistence can take a business from a single employee with a single sewing machine in their garage… to one of the top businesses in Delaware and the country. The American Dream is still alive as evidenced by Eli and Sher Valenzuela,” said SBA Delaware District Director, John Fleming.
Sher Valenzuela commented, “What a great honor to be selected as the Nation’s Top 8(a) Graduate by the SBA. We have been very fortunate to work with such tremendous team members as employees, and have benefitted from the many SBA programs that have served to support our hard work and bring our dreams to fruition while serving our family, state, and nation.”
In 1998 with one sewing machine and a lot of determination, Eli & Sher Valenzuela began what is now known as First State Manufacturing out of their garage. As an Army communications technician, Eli took a correspondence course on upholstery while serving with the Second Armored Division in Germany. This course ultimately led him towards developing a career that has been not only financially successful but personally fulfilling. While working at Dover Air Force Base Eli worked upholstering C-5 Galaxy aircrafts for the United States Air Force. As they looked for a more cost effective, efficient way to create upholstery products and services, Sher and Eli decided to start a private business that would aim to do just that.
“We never believed we couldn’t build our dream. From our first “date” – although we were just friends at the time – we talked about the kind of business we wanted to have as individuals,” commented Sher Valenzuela, Vice President of First State Manufacturing. “Later, when we found out our son was autistic, the experts we knew he needed to overcome the dire prognosis we were given were beyond our reach financially. So as nonsensical as it sounds, we quit our jobs to make more money to pay for the experts we couldn’t afford. If it hadn’t been for Simon, I don’t know if we ever would have been brave enough to take the leap. That’s why we respect small business owners and entrepreneurs so much. It takes a lot of guts to follow your dream, believe you can, and risk it all on the unknown. And yet it makes our country and our economy tick.”
Today, First State Manufacturing has been in business for over 17 years and is currently employing more than 85 employees as they hope to hire over 100 before the end of the year. Recently securing contracts with the Washington Metro system in Washington D.C., the business continues to grow and as they also cause a positive ripple effect across other businesses connected with their services. With many national economic and political challenges over the years, Sher states that the Small Business Development Centers played a large role in their success.
When asked about specific challenges, Sher states that, “911 definitely comes to mind. We’d only been in business a few years and were doing a significant amount of work with the American military. The entire country “paused” while our leaders figured out what to do. A lot of companies went under in the 6 months that followed. We’ve learned how to hunker down and circle the wagons over the years. And we’ve worked with great small business resources like the SBA, Small Business Development Centers, Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, and Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership, to name a few. We’ve always considered the folks that staff these agencies and organizations an extended part of our personnel. We still work with most of them to this day.”