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After 22 years at Apple, Santa Clara County woman becomes solar power entrepreneur

By Joe Ciolli | 6 Nov 2010

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Margie Sanchez's business is headquartered in her garage, where she builds custom solar screens to improve energy efficiency. (Photo: Joe Ciolli)

The air is sticky as Margie Sanchez, dressed casually in jeans and a loose-fitting floral print shirt, scoots around her worktable to a pair of power saws. Cutting utensils, mallets and measuring tools are scattered about a central worktable as Sanchez dons her work goggles and begins cutting a thin strip of aluminum. Sanchez’s garage, nestled on a residential street in San Jose’s Alum Rock community, serves as a one-woman manufacturing center for her company, California Solar Screens, which makes exterior screens for homes.

The location, where the only distractions are Sanchez’s two small dogs, seems an unlikely workplace for someone who worked at Apple for 22 years. But as Sanchez moves around her workspace, pulling out screens and excitedly pointing to their structural intricacies, her passion for the product is apparent. Should she have stayed with Apple? After all, at 58, she’s nearing retirement. Certainly her life would be more secure and certain than it will be as an entrepreneur. But Sanchez shrugs off the notion that she should have stayed with the safe path. After all, as a Latina woman who spoke English as a second language and dropped out of high school, her life has been a repeating cycle of starting small and building upwards against stiff odds. Why should the final chapter in her career be any different? And with Hispanic businesses growing at a rapid pace, there may be no better time for Sanchez to flex her entrepreneurial muscle.

During Sanchez’s early years her father worked as a coal miner, then later a farm worker. Sanchez didn’t speak English until she was 5, which made school difficult. Eventually dropping out (she would later obtain her GED), Sanchez faced many obstacles as a minority looking for work. “I went through a lot of government programs for low-income women,” said Sanchez. “And I learned electronics, even TV repair, and got a job at IBM.”

Sanchez started at IBM in 1975 on the assembly line building components for the company’s AS/400 computing system. “In any given day, I would do 23 of them,” said Sanchez, “while the men would only do 11.” Her proficiency earned her a promotion to department technician, which led to a job writing technical procedures.

Recognizing that a looming recession could affect IBM’s business, Sanchez elected to leave her job after 10 years, one promotion short of a manager position. But finding a new job proved harder than she thought. “That was really a period of eating humble pie,” said Sanchez. Eventually, she took a job tracing shipments at an Apple branch in Campbell. It was hardly her dream job, she says, to start “down at the bottom. I was willing to do that, because I had the ambition of working my way back up.”

Sanchez soon began a familiar ascent through the corporate ranks. “I worked my way up to an admin job, and from there became the department supervisor for a call center,” said Sanchez. “Then I became the warranty fraud manager – [also known as a] parts compliance manager – and then ended up as a bid response manager.”

Sanchez worked to complete these bid responses on tight deadlines while maintaining company-approved revenue margins. She was also ultimately responsible for outsourcing Apple-sponsored teams in order to implement these solutions.

Lauri Fisher, who supervised Sanchez at Apple for several years, said, “She was totally independent. I didn’t have to worry about her at all. Her work ethic was exemplary – she was a problem-solver.”

In 2007, Sanchez moved from Texas back to California to care for her ailing father. When Apple reorganized shortly thereafter, and wanted to transfer her back to Texas, she refused. Rather than leave her father, Sanchez resigned from the company that she had served for 22 years.

“I think they could’ve done better,” said Sanchez about the end of her tenure at Apple. “There were a lot of things that I did to contribute to that company. I really think they should’ve thought a little more about my situation.”

So Sanchez, then 55, was once again jobless and in the market for a new beginning. But immediately following her departure from Apple, Sanchez’s father was her top priority. “I focused on him,” said Sanchez. “I gave everything I had just to make sure he was well and that he had everything he needed.”

Sanchez spent the next year and a half ensuring that her father received proper medicine and physician care. “After he passed away, my biggest obstacle was how to get back into high-tech,” said Sanchez. “Getting back into something like that for me wasn’t the most ideal situation.”

As Sanchez tried to figure out her next professional pursuit, she took note of a solar screen business started by relatives in the San Joaquin Valley. Although the company eventually went out of business, Sanchez noted its brief period of success, and thought she saw a way to build a stronger business model. “I just decided to go for it,” said Sanchez, “because I saw how lucrative it had been.”

According to Sanchez, solar screens, which are popular in sun-drenched climates like Texas and Arizona, can block 65 to 90 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Not only do they keep rooms cool without reducing visibility or blocking light, they can also lower utility costs by a whopping 30 percent, according to Sanchez. What’s more, the IRS helps pay for them, to the tune of a 30 percent tax credit.

Sanchez believes the Bay Area is a perfect location for solar screens because temperatures are volatile and can reach polarized extremes. But the market, she says, remains largely untapped because the region’s typically moderate climate doesn’t spur urgent demand as it does in consistently hot climates like Texas or Arizona. The challenge, she realized, would be to reach out to consumers and persuade them the screens were a good investment – even when it wasn’t sweltering outside. She plans to do that with an proactive sales force that approaches homeowners and sells them both on the efficiency and the environmental benefits the screens offer.

Sanchez uses a power saw to cut a strip of aluminum in her garage workshop. (Photo: Joe Ciolli)

In 2009, Sanchez launched California Solar Screens, converting her garage into her primary workspace. At the same time, she enrolled in a course at the local Women’s Initiative, a non-profit organization that specializes in female entrepreneurship, where she learned how to write and implement a business plan. Sanchez self-funded the early development of her company thanks to considerable savings from her Apple years. She points out, with a smile, that she bought some Apple stock long ago at $11. The company’s share price is currently about $300.

But Sanchez’s business plan and strong financial foundation would be nothing without a strong network of contacts. This is where the skills Sanchez developed through years of bureaucratic maneuvering come into play. When Fisher heard that Sanchez was starting her own business, she wasn’t surprised. “She has the networking skills,” said Fisher. “She knows how to get people on board for what she needs done.”

Sanchez makes many connections that help her business through volunteer work. “Through that networking I’ve received training, coaching support and contact information,” said Sanchez. “Just in speaking with people from the Center for Employment Training (CET) I’ve been able to hire men who are covered for workers comp and are trained with building materials – I use them for my installation.” Sanchez also credits the Women’s Initiative for keeping her connected in the community and providing leads for potential clients. The Women’s Initiative is also fond of Sanchez, having awarded her an Entrepreneur of the Year award for 2010.

One indirect result of Sanchez’s venture into entrepreneurship has been her growing influence as a minority community leader. It’s a role that surprised Sanchez, but one she has embraced. As her company has picked up momentum, she said, “I’ve started to really look at other minorities.” She volunteers regularly at the CET, the CEO Women organization and the Women’s Initiative.

Sanchez is part of a growing community of Hispanic owned businesses. According to a recently-released U.S. Census Bureau report, the number of Hispanic businesses nationwide increased from roughly 1.6 million in 2002 to 2.3 million in 2007 – a whopping 43.7 percent climb, compared with an 18 percent uptick on overall small business growth during the same period. California has seen a slightly lower rate of growth in Hispanic-owned firms – 32.5 percent increase between 2002-2007 – but it’s still impressive compared to the overall growth rate of 17.8 percent.

Dennis King, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Silicon Valley believes that business owners like Sanchez are helping the Hispanic community come of age. “As [the community] matures within its demographics, we’re more likely to see more entrepreneurs,” said King. “Community members are wiser than they were 10 years ago – more likely to identify market need.”

Sanchez has her own ideas relating to Hispanic business growth. “I think there’s been a shift in confidence for Latinos,” she said. “The first and second generations that were here really just wanted to feed their families – the family was the focus. Today there has been an expansion of confidence and knowledge and Latinos are branching out. I’m glad to see that shift.”

Back in the California Solar Screens workshop, Sanchez exudes this confidence while discussing her plans for expansion. Most of her current clients are already energy-conscious; she hopes to expand her customer base to include those who aren’t necessarily eco-conscious, but who do want to lower their power bills. To spread the word, Sanchez recently hired three commission-based salespeople, whom she’ll dispatch to neighborhoods where she believes solar screens are most needed. “The best thing is face-to-face contact,” says Sanchez. “My biggest problem is that people aren’t familiar with [solar screens].”

Dealing with a workforce is new territory for Sanchez, who previously took care of all aspects of the business by herself, including construction, installation, sales and marketing. Although Sanchez has also recently started contracting laborers from the CET, she plans to expand her staff to include full-time employees, such as an in-house sales team, installation experts and administrative workers.

“I want two jobs a day in the next six months,” says Sanchez. “And what I eventually want is $50,000 to $100,000 a month in revenue.” By Sanchez’s estimation, completing two jobs a day will get her to the $50,000 threshold. She points to the van parked out in front of her house. “Right now I have one van. But I’d like to have four or five.”

As Sanchez speaks, she reaches under the table and pulls out a three by three-foot wooden box, partitioned in two. The device is meant to simulate the product’s effectiveness against solar exposure. Both sides contain a light bulb behind a screen – one compartment contains a normal window screen, while the other features a solar screen. On the other side of the screens, in both partitions, are meters that measure how much light penetrates. Depending on how much light comes through, a vane spins inside each bulb, with more exposure meaning a faster rotation.

Sanchez flips a switch and steps back knowingly as the vane spins wildly on the window screen side, while the solar screen blocks the light so effectively its meter hardly budges. The difference between the two screens becomes clear – if not visible. “When I do trade shows, this is great,” says Sanchez, beaming.

Over the next several months, Sanchez plans to travel to garden shows, industry trade shows and fairs toting this demonstration. She believes that once people see the efficiency of solar screens first-hand, demand for her product will increase. This type of promotion is crucial for a company that aspires to complete two jobs a day, even though it has processed only 15 orders this year.

But as Sanchez works in her garage, she doesn’t seem worried about what the future holds. She is in her element, and seems content with her surroundings. “I’m 58,” says Sanchez. “People think I should be making spaghetti in a kitchen instead of attempting this construction-type job.”

Regardless of whether Sanchez makes money or hits her goals, just being her own boss and building something new, instead of making spaghetti, is a reward in itself.

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