Black business owners and workers too often face systemic biases: from underrepresentation in the boardroom to higher rates of unemployment. In Black-Owned and Proud, we profile innovative Black entrepreneurs building businesses and bringing much-needed change to the face of enterprise.
When George Odoi was in college, his mother, Williametta Woods, was faced with a choice: Lose the family business to save the house, or lose the house to save the family business.
Perhaps surprisingly, she chose the latter.
“I can always buy another house, but I won’t be able to start another good business; not like this one,” he remembers her saying.
Despite the fact that the business was financially struggling, Boss Transport & Family Services wasn’t just any car service transporting older people and folks with special needs—and Woods wasn’t just any businesswoman.
Her legacy is clear when you call Boss Transport today. Almost 15 years after the business was founded, it’s likely that Williametta’s grandson, William Woods, will answer. It’s something he’s been doing since he was 10 years old and the business was run out of Williametta’s basement with a single car.
Her gambit has paid off: Not only is Boss Transport no longer struggling financially, it is thriving. Operating out of WeWork Crystal City in Northern Virginia, Boss Transport has 12 vehicles and 14 employees who transport clients across the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to non-emergency medical appointments, surgeries, and essential errands. They transport clients in wheelchairs as well as those who don’t need physical assistance but do need help getting places. Soon they’ll also be offering stretcher transport.
At just 30 years old, Odoi is now at the helm of the business, and his nephew William Woods, 25, is his right-hand man. When Odoi inherited the business right after college, he wasn’t sure if he could keep it solvent. This year, the company is expecting to hit almost a million dollars in revenue and planning an upcoming expansion to California that William will lead. Boss Transport was also a recipient of WeWork’s grant for Black-owned businesses this year, which will help them continue to scale.
Odoi is proud of those accomplishments, but he says they’re not the most important part of the company’s success. What matters more, he says, is that even in the midst of a precipitous rise, the business has retained that community spirit his mother created all those years ago.
“I have that entrepreneurial side, but I also have a kind heart,” says Odoi. “I could have given up and gotten another job, but I knew I was making a difference.”
From Liberia to Virginia
Woods started the business after her native Liberia descended into civil war in the early 1990s. She had traveled to the United States from the small West African country for a medical procedure. During her trip, the violence in Liberia that would later spiral into two bloody conflicts with a death toll of almost a quarter million began to escalate. Despite the fact that she had packed only two weeks’ worth of clothing, it was clear she wasn’t going back to her home country.
She had a government job in Liberia before the war broke out, which helped her find a position at the World Bank. She settled into the Virginia suburbs of D.C. to start her new life in America. She was a born hustler, though, and Odoi remembers being a kid sitting around the kitchen table with his mom, brainstorming potential company names.
But it was never simply a business for Woods. She would cook dinner for her clients, as many of them were elderly and didn’t have family to help out. If she heard someone was going to be alone on Thanksgiving, she’d set a place for them at the table.
“My mom was just that type of person. Seeing that while growing up, all the social work, all the help she gave, that definitely inspired me,” says Odoi.
It’s that aspect of his mother’s vision that Odoi is most proud of sustaining: Boss Transport is a community business, through and through.
More than business
While Odoi doesn’t drive much anymore—he’s busy at the WeWork offices wrangling paperwork and fielding phone calls—he maintains close relationships with the clients his family has been serving for years. One of them he’s known for seven years, since she was blinded by complications from a brain tumor in high school. Today, he drives her and her guide dog where they need to go, sometimes joining them for walks or at her running club.
Odoi sees his job as more similar to a social worker’s than to a chauffeur’s, and he says that people are often surprised by the lengths he goes to in order to make sure his clients get what they need.
“Growing up, I saw what it means to love someone who isn’t really your family, what it means to still look after them and take care of them,” says Odoi.
The father of a family who has been a client of Boss Transport for 15 years passed away earlier this month. Odoi drove his son Joe to the funeral, a military service held at Arlington National Cemetery. Joe is blind and uses a wheelchair, so Odoi attended the funeral with him to make sure everything went smoothly. When everyone was asked to stand, Odoi extended Joe his hand so he could do so as well.
“I also wanted to thank you for helping Joe stand during the ceremony,” his sister texted Odoi afterward. “That showed great empathy and meant a lot to us.”
It’s in these moments that Odoi is reminded that the tough times were worth it. The financial success of the business wasn’t always certain—especially in those initial years after college when he had to take a salaried job to keep a roof over his head while trying to keep the business afloat.
“I just kept at it. I just persevered. I’m the kind of person who is never going to give up. I’m always going to focus on the goal or the vision,” says Odoi. “My mom always knew that I was determined.”
Navigating a pandemic
That perseverance was tested when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Odoi had just rounded out his fleet with five new vehicles, a huge investment for a growing business.
Despite the potential health risks, the company couldn’t afford to stop transporting patients, and many of their patients couldn’t afford to miss medical appointments.
As always, it was the business’s core community that sustained it. Odoi relied on his fiancée, who is a nurse in Baltimore, to stay up to date on the latest COVID-19 safety protocols. She even went so far as to transport some of the patients herself, to keep everyone safe.
They upped their safety precautions on all their vehicles: The mechanic Odoi worked with jury-rigged a plexiglass partition, carefully welding the edges to the inside of the vehicles to keep drivers and passengers safe. They took patient temperatures before they entered the car, and Odoi scoured stores for face shields, N95 masks, gloves, and sanitizing sprays to protect the drivers and clients.
In the end, the business has taken a hit, but it hasn’t been nearly as bad as it could’ve been.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere without the people behind me,” says Odoi. “They all have a part to play in where we are now. It’s beautiful, it really is.”
Armed with a degree in healthcare management, William had joined the company full-time only a couple months earlier, and he certainly didn’t expect to be improving workflow during a global pandemic. He noticed, however, what a difference it made for COVID-19 patients and elderly patients vulnerable to the virus to feel like members of society again. That realization made the risks worth it.
It’s a far cry from the faxes that William used to help his grandmother send when he was a kid, but literally growing into the business has made him passionate about its power.
“This business matters because we have the potential to decrease patient no-shows. I remember doing research in college and learning that millions of Americans lack transportation to medical care; getting them there means we can improve communities and families,” says William.
At the same time, he’s building a foundation for his own family.
“It’s such a good feeling,” William says. “You’re doing this work for the person who’s coming up under you, for the family to come in the future. It’s like we’re creating a generational gift.”
A.M. Higgins is a writer and content creator in Washington, D.C.