"We sold our houses. We cashed in our 401(k)s. That was it. It was time to make it or break it."

This entrepreneurial determination, voiced by Nikole Stillman, co-founder of the Florida-based Just Like Family Home Care, is what helped her and her company win an award at the second annual SCORE award ceremony, which recognized the achievements of small businesses across America.

Awards were presented at a black-tie event in Washington, DC on September 16 to the owners and CEOs of five small businesses for their exceptional accomplishments in various categories.

SCORE, a nonprofit association dedicated to entrepreneur and small business growth and education with 370 chapters nationwide, asked each chapter to nominate businesses that they engaged with within their communities.  When nominations were sent in to the company's Washington, DC headquarters, SCORE CEO Ken Yancey (along with the help of his staff) selected the winning companies.

"The companies we selected were excellent examples of small business success in difficult environments, aided by SCORE," said Yancey. "There are a number of challenges that entrepreneurs face today," he said. "Small business owners are concerned about getting customers. They're concerned about cash flow." 

But Yancey also points out that confidence and optimism for entrepreneurship are on the rise, and recent innovation in technology makes becoming an entrepreneur more accessible than ever. "For folks with an interest, a desire and a passion," he says, "now is a great time to consider owning your own business."

Over 400 people attended the event, including U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D- Louisiana), who chairs the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and House of Representatives congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D- Florida). Other guests included officials from the Small Business Administration, over 30 corporate sponsor partners and several SCORE volunteers.  The evening was emceed by JJ Ramberg, host of MSNBC's Your Business.

"We went to SCORE with our business plan, and they helped with everything from filling out loan applications, to talking to private investors, to coming up with marketing strategies," said Stillman, whose home care business was founded in 2006 and now includes seven full-time employees and hundreds of independent home care contractors in seven counties.

It wasn't an easy start. Initially, she and her two co-founders were working with three attorneys who were venture capitalists, but it didn't work out. After some deliberation, she and her co-founders decided to do the business themselves. "We put it all on the line," she said, "and we had no choice but to succeed. It's hard to make the decision and it's very scary, but if you can realize your dreams, it's a wonderful thing."

Another award winner, John Walton, president and co-founder of the South Carolina-based O.K. Golf LLC, expressed his motivations for becoming an entrepreneur. 

"I use golf as a mentoring vehicle," he says. "The program's mission is to provide an after-school enrichment program that features golf for kids in kindergarten through 4th grade."

Walton worked as part of a management and operational retail team for Sears Roebuck for 29 years before retiring in 2002. Needless to say, his retirement didn't last long..."I don't believe in that word," he says. He and his business partner Steve Conrad, who has an extensive background in golf as a high school and college instructor, worked with SCORE to bridge the gaps of their business.

"You need to have some basic fundamentals in order to have a realistic chance at success in any business," he says. "The biggest thing an individual needs to identify is a passion for a particular venture. If that's where they find their energy, they'll find a way to make it successful. It's not going to be any easier, but the tougher times will be less of a trauma."

Here is a recap of the awards and winners:

  • Outstanding Woman-owned Business Award–Just Like Family Home Care, Naples, Fla.
  • Outstanding Socially Progressive Business Award–Raising Cane's, Baton Rouge, La.
  • Outstanding Minority-owned Business Award–O.K. Golf LLC, Charleston, S.C.
  • Outstanding Veteran-owned Business Award–Patriot Taxiway Industries, Lomira, Wis.
  • Outstanding Small Business Launched by an Individual aged 50:Translation Link, Cortez, Fla.