It seemed like a natural progression to Tierra Kavanaugh's family. In 2006, she left her position as executive director for then-Kentucky governor Ernie Fletcher's newly created Office of Minority Empowerment to launch her own business, Louisville-based consultancy and staffing service TKT & Associates. She had one co-founder--her mother, Sheila Kavanaugh.
Over the next 14 years, TKT grew to roughly 250 employees as it managed diversity spending and training and offered staffing services for cities, states, and Fortune 500 companies, including Deloitte and Toyota. From 2016 to 2019, TKT increased revenue a whopping 11,106.7 percent, earning the $135 million company a spot at No. 20 on the Inc. 5000--the highest ranking ever achieved by a Black female founder.
At the onset of the pandemic, the quickly growing company labored unsuccessfully to secure Paycheck Protection Program funding from Kentucky banks. Kavanaugh and members of her team began conversations to reassess strategic goals and shore up any emergency planning. Then, on April 30, four months before Inc. had finalized TKT's historic place on our list, Kavanaugh died unexpectedly of natural causes, leaving her mother, the company's executive vice president, in charge of keeping her daughter's legacy, and the company, alive.
I was a VP and human resources manager at TKT before my daughter passed. As co-founders, Tierra and I talked about succession planning. We just naturally assumed I would leave first. Now, I'm running TKT.
My husband has been a business owner for almost 45 years. When Tierra was a girl, she'd watch him do his paperwork. He taught her how to check his invoices. She felt she had a job. Even then, I could see her running her own company.
After earning an economics degree from the University of Louisville, Tierra worked in sales and development at American Express, and then ran her own courier service before going to work for Ernie Fletcher--advising government officials about economic development and policies affecting the state's less-advantaged communities.
In 2006, she decided that she wanted to start her diversity training and small-business consultancy. She called it TKT--which stood for Tierra Kavanaugh Turner, her married name at the time.
I'd worked in human resources at Panasonic for 35 years. When Tierra started, she said, "Mom, could you do some interviews for me?" I said, "Well, sure." And then, I got to thinking, "You know, I like this." So she asked me to come on board officially.
Our first office was small. It was just the two of us for about a year. Tierra put in a lot of late hours, looking at other businesses, at how they were growing.
At Panasonic, I'd helped with temporary staffing, so I kept pushing the staffing idea. Tierra was reluctant at first, but she grabbed it and ran with it. Eventually, we had every kind of client and staff for any position. Then, we branched out with diversity programs, and it just took off. We were doing business in Texas, New Jersey, all over.
It took about two to three years to sit back, take a deep breath and say, "This is working." We started forming a strategic partnership with Deloitte and secured IT and professional service contracts with Louisville and Michigan. Our biggest deal was with Toyota, a six-year contract managing workforce spending on diversity. Tierra capitalized on her relationships with clients in ways that are hard to put into words unless you are Tierra. She thrived on women-owned businesses.
One of Tierra's real strengths was her ability to look at a company and identify the gaps to create customized servicing and programming for it. She also excelled at documenting her strategic vision and putting the proper people into place to execute it. When the pandemic arrived, TKT was able to transition smoothly to remote work and virtual interactions with clients because they were already in practice. Tierra was good at identifying trends and patterns.
But going through the Small Business Administration PPP loan process was horrific. You had to document your financials and show what you're doing, where your employees are. We were able to do it all. Tierra was always optimistic, always, but this was very frustrating. For everyone. We had multiple relationships with banks--we were talking to five--that were unwilling to work with us. They kept us on a constant due-diligence cycle--never enough documentation, never enough paperwork. And then there were system glitches that provided an opportunity for the banks to use their discretion to say they didn't want to take a risk. We couldn't figure out what that risk was. So we missed the first round of the PPP loans.
That was a little bit of a surprise for us. We're on the list of Capital One's 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies--we're on a lot of lists, quite frankly. You would think we were the kind of company that would easily get a PPP loan. It was an eye-opener. I can't say for certain that it was because we were a minority-owned business, but I can tell you that once I saw the statistics around minority-owned businesses and PPP loans, I was like, "Wow! If we had that problem, a lot of smaller companies were probably struggling."
The virus has everything at a standstill right now, but I see a bright future for TKT. This was a role I was never expecting to have to fill, but I'm determined to do the best that I can, because I know that's what my baby would want me to do. She put me in this position, not knowing that it was going to end up the way it has. I'm not Tierra, and I'm not going to try to be Tierra, but I'm determined to fulfill her legacy.