A NUMBING AND eerie experience. That's how Kim Davis describes losing her position as director of research and education at the Academy of Medicine in New Jersey a year before the company folded in June 2003. After working in the CME field since 1992 and planning special events on weekends, she made the difficult decision to turn her side business into a full-time career. Events Unlimited Inc. in Deptford, N.J., offers meeting planning as well as CME consultation services to organizations such as the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, government agencies, and corporations. We asked Davis what she has learned from the process.

MM: Tell me how you handled being laid off. How did you find the self-confidence and determination to start your own business?

DAVIS: You're accustomed to getting up and going to work every day — you've built a routine, and it's very difficult to be thrust into the unknown. The very first thing that I did — which was very difficult to do — was to put the past behind me. Dismissing thoughts such as “I used to be” and “I used to do” is a key element in moving forward and achieving some level of success in your own company. I found confidence and determination in my spiritual beliefs. I told myself: You can do this. You've got to move forward, and you definitely can't mark time.

The company [that I had worked for] had reached a plateau, and that taught me a lesson about what not to do in business. Even if a business has been around for 50 or 60 years — you can't remain on the same plateau, you have to keep growing. Clients are looking for the services and solutions that companies can provide for them; when a company can no longer provide this, your reputation in the marketplace will not measure up to the needs of your clients. I've learned that reputation is an integral part of the business equation, but you have to continuously create new plateaus for the company and seek new ways to position yourself in the market.

MM: What were the major challenges that you encountered when forming your company?

DAVIS: One of the challenges that I faced was lack of past performance. You have your career experiences but not the past performance of your company. You have to continue to knock on the door and present your company's capabilities. You simply ask the buyer to consider your small-business capabilities in order to break in and prove yourself.

Another challenge for me was learning the small-business jargon. CME jargon is completely different from the jargon that affects small businesses. Certification processes in small businesses are a completely different arena than accreditation for CME providers. I had to learn to speak the jargon of people who owned small businesses. There is no way you really can compete on any level until you can speak the language. [I learned by] putting myself in situations where [businesspeople] were networking, attending procurement conferences, and things of that nature. The final challenge was learning how to identify buyers in large corporations. You can't call a corporation's 800 number and say, “Hi, I'm Kim Davis and I'm a meeting planner. I'd like to offer you my services.” They're going to switch you around through a myriad of places before you eventually land in the right office. You have to identify buyers in the market for the product that you are selling.

MM: What skills were most important in launching your company?

DAVIS: Communication. You must be able to communicate your ideas quickly and succinctly because buyers do not have a lot of time. You should have an “elevator” speech, one that you and the people in your company know and can present to the public. Everyone needs to be on the same page when they communicate to buyers.

Flexibility in your approach to business opportunities is important. You may come across a buyer who's asking you to do something that's completely out of your realm of capabilities. You say, “I want the job — how do I accomplish this?” That's where partnering comes in. You've got to learn to team with other people on larger projects to offer enhanced products and services to buyers and increase job performance.

And then solutions. Competition is very tight, and you have to provide solutions. You must differentiate your company from your competitors.

MM: You mentioned that you tapped into resources available for minority and women business owners. Tell me how they helped you.

DAVIS: The Minority Supplier Development Council has a certification process. It has opened the door for me as a W/MBE [Women and Minority Business Enterprise] to gain access to major corporations that want to do business with W/MBEs. MSDC has also provided our company with critical business training on topics such as bid processes, RFP submissions, turning cold calls into cold cash, and online reverse auctions. MSDC offers networking events, such as holiday parties and golf tournaments, where we've made contacts and formed business relationships.

Another resource, not associated with MSDC, offered through the government, is a weeklong seminar for government-certified small businesses. This training has enhanced our knowledge of obtaining contracts and managing the company's legal and financial affairs.

You have to avail yourself of the resources that are available to small businesses. There's a lot of work you have to do if you expect to achieve any level of success.

It's important that small businesses pool their resources — which is very difficult. Small businesses see each other more as competitors. It is extremely important to form partnerships for survival in the marketplace. [Case in point: Events UnLimited formed a partnership with Multimedia Dimensions and other multimedia production companies to enable clients to repurpose their events on CD, DVD, video, or the Web.]

MM: What advice would you give to other CME professionals and meeting planners thinking about forming their own businesses?

DAVIS: Keep an open mind to the possibilities. Sometimes when you work for an employer, that's all you see — 9 to 5 — but there could be a wealth of possibilities open to you. Conduct a self-evaluation to uncover any hidden talents. Ask yourself: What am I good at? Can I really make money from this? Sometimes when we're forced into survival situations, we uncover talents that we didn't know that we had. You should be honing your skills now. Learn as much as you can for your future reference. When the unexpected happens, you'll find yourself reviewing every bit of experience that you've acquired in your life, and you'll begin to use it.

MM: What specific advice would you offer African-American women thinking about forming their own businesses?

DAVIS: Let me address women first. It's extremely important that women form alliances — we need to have a voice in terms of lobbying the government for more women-owned procurement opportunities. In terms of African-American women, so many of us shy away from the certification process because — just as with CME — you're talking about mounds of paperwork. But to be successful and to gain access to the marketplace, it is critical that African-American women go through as many certification processes as necessary to [effectively] position their companies in the marketplace. It may take three to six months to do the paperwork, but it will benefit your company for years to come.

From Music Teacher to CEO

Kim Davis says that you build on your past to create opportunities for the future. She certainly has done that in her own career. “I got into CME because I was a music education teacher,” she says. After earning an undergraduate degree in music education and a graduate degree in education administration, she spent seven years teaching in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati school systems. Her ultimate goal was to become a principal, but, as often happens, things didn't work out the way she had hoped. So she answered an ad in the paper for a CME accreditation coordinator at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College — although she didn't have a clue what the job was. She was hired because the director of CME saw the correlation between Davis' education experience, which involved developing lesson plans and determining needs and objectives, and CME. “I brought with me the tools I had as a teacher,” says Davis.

Now, as president and CEO of her own company, Events Unlimited Inc. (www.eventsunlimitednj.com), Davis remains dedicated to young people. One of her goals for her company is to develop philanthropic programs and entrepreneurial training to benefit disadvantaged youth. “It's a must that I reach out and try to help disadvantaged youth who have aspirations and dreams,” she says. “Perhaps through partnering with large corporations and organizations, we might be able to offer programs and entrepreneurial training to assist these youth in achieving some of their goals.”