By Matthew Schniper
Despite military experience and more, Robin Bell felt institutional racism was depriving him of one job after another. So he created his own business, began employing other veterans and working to break down barriers to success for the disadvantaged.
Robin Bell has worked since he was eight years old, and he’s had to prove himself every step of the way. He started by mowing lawns and shoveling snow, and at age 11 he delivered newspapers, learning the basic lessons of reliability, punctuality and hard work: “You owe 110 percent of what you’re getting paid,” he believes, partly in acknowledgment of “that one step further” people of color have to go to succeed in the world. “Just like women in the workplace, whatever I do, I need to do twice as well… I’m being judged at another level.”
As a teenager, he was denied a job at a carwash twice, having to resort on a third approach to negotiate: “I said let me work two weeks, and if you don’t like me in any way, don’t pay me and tell me to leave and there’ll be no discussion.” Six months later he was a manager at the place.
Bell spent six years in the Air Force out of high school, learning missile mechanics, and another 14 later in the Army, nine of those as a Ranger, serving domestically and abroad.
“My curiosity is to take things apart and put them back together, that drives my understanding of things,” he says, noting the penchant for being mechanically inclined at a young age once got him in trouble with his parents for taking his bike apart. He’s also musically inclined, playing bass, percussion and keyboards, and he used to play in and manage touring bands. During his time in the military he also taught at and later directed IntelliTec College. He has instructed project, business and supply chain management, statistics and logistics in the Colorado Springs area.
But even with all that experience and knowledge, plus more than ample qualifications, he says he couldn’t get hired in his late 50’s, enduring interview round after interview round, only to be defeated at the finish line for reasons he believed were not based on his expertise, and led back to his being black, and older. “The system has been working against me,” he says, citing the message of the Black Lives Matter movement and institutional racism that has not really changed in the decades he’d spent in the workforce. After one particularly disappointing experience — in which he went through five interview rounds, received a $75,000 offer, said he would accept it, and then was told they worried he wouldn’t stay with the company because with his expertise he was worth more — he says he was “done beating my head against a tree, trying to get people to do the right thing — I shouldn’t have to beg someone for a job.”
So, instead, he decided to create his own business, and launched American Veterans Cleaning Service (AVCS) in 2015. He already possessed the business savvy and mechanical skills to do work with all types of machinery. The commercial and residential cleaning outfit now employs six people, three of them veterans and two others related to those who served in the military. Bell, now 65, targeted vets and their families with his hiring to create mentoring and entrepreneurial opportunities for veterans and disadvantaged entrepreneurs, to teach what he’s learned, and to serve other veterans as customers wherever possible, in hopes of helping some of those with special needs around physical limitations or mental health.
In working with disadvantaged communities, he acknowledges that often “you can’t succeed without help.” He knows this, because in order to start AVCS, he reached out for a lot of assistance from the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center (SBDC), as well as the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) and SCORE Colorado Springs.
Bell had worked with SCORE years prior when he’d wanted to launch a climbing business, starting from scratch when it came to learning how to write a business plan. PTAC later helped him understand the methods for landing government contracts once he was ready. While the SBDC proved a valuable link, connecting him both to classes and the mentorship he required. “They teach you what you need to know — it can be a better process than going to school,” he says, “and they’re free!”
The systemic racism had once again worked against him in earlier attempts to secure necessary loans to launch his ideas — even after 20 years of steady financial history at a bank and with a good credit score. In an SBDC class, he gleaned the importance of creating a strong relationship with a banker, and the instructor said “you come see me, we’ll make sure you’re square.” And they did.
“The SBDC is well aligned to connect you with the right people that will help your business,” he reiterates, noting that the lines of credit he finally accessed threw open the doors for AVCS to thrive. Sometimes big commercial cleaning contracts won’t pay out for as long as 30, 60 or 90 days, all the while Bell must pay his employees and account for the cost of supplies, his work trucks, equipment needs and much more. “We’re paid in arrears, so you need a safety net of extra cash on hand and a good credit line to back it up if you’re going to bid on the large projects,” he explains. Regular janitorial work provides consistency, and AVCS also specializes in post-construction work, working with many of the big-name builders in the area. Commercial contracts compose about 97 percent of Bell’s business, though he’s aiming to move the needle towards around 15 percent residential. It’s less consistent, but there’s better margins to be made in niche services such as carpet cleaning, and he’d love to expand locally, build up a fleet and employ more veterans.
Grateful for the education he received from our region’s free training agencies, Bell has made it a point to give back. He has had AVCS technicians go on to finish college, become teachers, and move from experiencing homelessness to becoming thriving community members. Since AVCS’ launch, the SBDC has used him as a resource to mentor others. Speaking to the black community in particular, he says: “It would be such a plus for minorities if they would utilize these free resources. It would change their lives, just connecting with a mentor. Often they’re just lacking the skills to succeed. They just need accessibility and opportunity, and they will succeed.”