Beth Williams is her father’s daughter.
To be sure, the Hyde Park-based business owner has earned her own accolades, including being honored last week as the region’s top entrepreneur. But she credits the values and business acumen she learned from her father as helping her become both a successful businesswoman and one who sees industry as a vehicle for social change.
It was her father who founded the Roxbury Technology Corporation, where Williams now serves as president and chief executive officer, and where her successful stewardship over the past eight years brought her the honor of being named last week as the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for New England.
Now in its 25th year, the prestigious awards program covers more than 140 cities and 50 countries around the world. The New England regional award was presented to Williams at a ceremony on June 15 at the Boston Renaissance Waterfront Hotel.
“I’m delighted and honored to have won that award,” she said in a recent phone interview. “It was a magical evening, and I appreciate being recognized for what I believe in.”
What Williams believes, like her father before her, is that businesses have an obligation to help the communities that support them. A Civil Rights attorney and founder of several firms that both employed and served members of Boston’s black community, Archie Williams dedicated his professional life to his belief that opportunity for communities of color needed to come from within.
And while he sent his daughters to prestigious private schools, the Williams family stayed in Roxbury, where the children could see that not everyone was so fortunate. Dinner conversation in the family often centered on the difficulties that their neighbors faced.
“He kept us in the community to see some of the challenges,” said Beth Williams, 46, “because he believed [the reason for] a lot of the social problems that we see in inner cities across the country, and particularly here in Boston, is that desperate people do desperate things. And we need to stop looking and reaching out for help from the government; we need to create opportunities ourselves to be able to become self-sufficient.”
Williams recalled her upbringing as putting her in “two different worlds”: the Roxbury neighborhood where so many were struggling and the privileged worlds of Cambridge’s Shady Hill School and later the Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill. Upon graduation, she followed in her father’s footsteps and attended Brown University, then returned to Boston to work for a year at one of her father’s ventures, Freedom Electronics.
She then struck out on her own, working for five years at Raytheon and then for nine at Blue Cross Blue Shield. While her career was flourishing at the health insurance giant, her father was continuing to explore new industries. In 1994, he founded Roxbury Technology Corporation, a distributor and remanufacturer of toner cartridges for laser printers, seeing both a business opportunity and a chance to create jobs for unskilled workers.
“He had the foresight at the time when the remanufacturing of cartridges was first sort of beginning,” his daughter recalled, “that this could potentially be a good area to open a manufacturing plant, because the manufacturing of it is low-skilled, low-barrier-to-entry labor, and he thought that it would be a good fit for the city.”
Roxbury Technology began as a small distribution company, but in 1998, Archie Williams met Tom Stemberg, the founder of the Staples office products chain, at the annual golf tournament hosted by Black & White Boston. Stemberg saw William’s business as one with great growth potential and made a commitment to partner with Roxbury Technology to help it build capacity.
The business was poised to open a manufacturing plant when Archie Williams unexpectedly died in his sleep on Thanksgiving 2002 at the age of 68. With no plan for succession and no other family member prepared to run the business, Beth Williams left her job at Blue Cross Blue Shield, officially taking over Roxbury Technology in March of 2003.
“I felt compelled to follow through on his legacy because I, too, believed it, because I saw it,” she said.
She said Stemberg remained an ally after her father’s death, telling her, “Take your time. Whatever you decide to do, I’ll support you.” He continued the business relationship that he had begun with her father, allowing Williams to delay some of the business’ expansion plans while she learned the ropes.
She opened the firm’s first manufacturing plant in Roxbury in August 2004 with 10 production staff. Now she has a staff of 65 and annual revenues of $14 million.
The operation moved to a new home in Jamaica Plain when it outgrew the Roxbury space, and it remained there until late last year, when it grew too large for that space as well and moved to a 35,000-square-foot manufacturing plant at the Boston-Dedham Commerce Park. A month after the business relocated, Williams herself moved into a new home in Readville, where she can be close to the factory and still live in Boston while enjoying “a great neighborhood,” she said.
As the business has grown and changed, so too has its mission, Williams said, evolving into her current goals of running a firm that is socially and environmentally responsible, recycling the plastic from toner cartridges that would otherwise wind up in landfills but also creating the blue-collar jobs that she believes are vital to the country’s prosperity.
Williams believes the loss of so many manufacturing jobs that paid a living wage is one of the reasons the country is still mired in an economic downturn, and that it’s absolutely vital that those jobs be available. Like her father before her, Williams has taken it upon herself to provide them.
“I’m trying to show that you can do it,” she said. “I don’t have the same margins as a company that’s doing the exact same thing that I’m doing but in China or Mexico or someplace else where you’re paying $2 an hour versus $8 an hour or $10 an hour. I don’t have the same margins, but I am profitable, and it’s not all about me getting rich.”
Email Jeremy C. Fox at email@example.com.