Small grants were awarded to the Philadelphia Metropolitan University

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James Ely remembers being with his stepfather, a home electrician, when he was about 12 years old in the early 1970s in Philadelphia.

“Reluctantly, at that,” Eli laughed as he sat in front of a mahogany conference table in a makeshift office space near Pennsylvania Park. His regular office was under construction and was not suitable for guests.

But then, as he grew older, he began to understand the value of this work.

“When I was 18, I started to like it,” said Eli, who wore a tweed jacket with a purple paisley collar. “When I was 28, I started my first job.”

Eli has now been an electrician for 40 years for both residential and commercial properties. He is still moving his business forward, despite several “rebirths” after surviving the economic recession and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now in his late 60s, he is focused on preparing his company to be better positioned to secure contracts with the federal government for commercial electrical construction and maintenance.

“I’m still learning the system and how to get work, but it will be available to all commercial buildings in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware,” he said.

It is a Certified Minority-Owned and Veteran-Owned Small Business – for which sole source contracts and affirmative action processes exist – at the federal, state and often local level for government agency contracts.

Eley is now able to move forward with this goal after receiving a $5,000 microgrant, which includes business support from the Urban League of Philadelphia and Elevate Together.

There were 20 small businesses across the city that received $100,000 in the Northeast Philly Office Max in September 2023.

It’s the third year in a row that Elevate Together, which is funded by the Office Depot Foundation, has donated money to the Urban League and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Beneficiaries ranged from restaurant owners to winemakers. Each business owner was matched with a mentor from the U.S. Small Business Administration to improve the company’s strategy. Eli said the scholarship award was, in some ways, an inspiration.

“I stopped socializing for a while, and now I’m going out again and meeting people. That’s how things happen,” he said.

As a self-taught commercial electrician, he said he spent countless hours studying building blueprints and driving across construction sites to learn because traditional apprenticeships were often closed to him because of racism in the building trades industry.

He said about the answers that might sometimes lead him astray in achieving his goals: “If I get an answer that I don’t think is correct, I follow it until I discover that it is actually correct.” “This is how I built my business from the ground up. I had no money from my family. No one in my family was in business either. No loans at first. But I had a desire. And I learned this the hard way because I had no He tells me all that.

Over the years, he took breaks from running the electrical business, which waxed and waned in size. He once worked at a large university in the city, then left to work for himself again after winning a tempting project bid worth about $300,000.

“Everyone said I was crazy,” Eli said of his co-workers at the time. “You can’t leave a good job like that for one project, so I said, ‘Okay, watch and see what happens.’”

After that project about a decade ago, he became affiliated with a major local electric union, he said, but that can also be a burden because it requires a lot of money upfront to succeed. Overall, he said, persistence was a key factor in keeping him going.

Accessing capital to grow the business has been a constant challenge.

This is because contractors are given projects and expected to pay for all staff, materials and any costs upfront, and then are reimbursed – sometimes 90 days later instead of 30 to 60 days. If a company does not have enough cash on hand to sustain its operations for an extended period, it can fail.

“I learned and I made my mistakes, I made a lot of mistakes,” Eli said. “But you also learn from your failures if you don’t give up.”

Despite his steady leadership, he is in an interesting phase right now. He’s ready and willing to keep moving forward, but he doesn’t have anyone interested in joining him on the journey — yet.

“What I want is to be able to find someone younger who shares my vision but doesn’t know how to get there,” he said.

He’s not sure if there is anyone in his network interested in pursuing the electrical trade as a small business owner. His children have already taken different career paths: one daughter is an attorney, a second daughter works in insurance, and a third daughter lives a few states away in South Carolina.

His son – who works in trade – is a foreman at a major electricity company.

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