by Grace Barone
The Origin Story of VMS
Velocity Merchant Services is celebrating their 25th anniversary of being in business. The story of VMS begins with 18-year-old Dema Barakat. Fresh out of high school, going to college part time and pursuing a telemarketing job that sold merchant services. "I went through the training process at this company and at the end of training, they made you take a test. You had to pass it to get hired. I actually failed the first time and didn't get the job." Dema goes on to explained how she called and asked for second chance, she was determined to get this job. After some more studying she went back in the next day, re-took the test and was hired.
Dema loved the job. As she started her career in merchant services, she was really intrigued with the process of small businesses starting their own journeys. "I was talking to and getting to learn about small businesses all over the country. I liked being a part of them opening up and getting started. I would get their first location set up, then I'd get a call wanting me to help them get their second or third location set up and I just felt like I belonged in this industry."
After some time at the company, her and a co-worker decided to take a chance and start their own merchant services company. "That did not last more than one month, but I did not want to give up on my passion for merchant services." She had the vison and the passion but didn't have the money to properly start up a business. She went to her parents who gave her some financial help to purchase business cards, some leads and a few computers. "They believed in me and trusted me with basically their life savings and let me work out of their basement."
She recruited her cousin Nancy to help and they got to work. The basement business started to gain traction. Dema said that they started seeing a consistent stream of revenue and once she was able to save up enough money, she was able to move into a 500 square foot office in Oak Lawn, Illinois. "That's when I knew I wanted to continue this journey."
VMS Through the Years
The business continued to grow, she was able to hire more people and they eventually outgrew the Oak Lawn office. "We knew we needed to be in a place that had more diversity and an easier commute for people. I knew the move would also broaden our hiring pool." Again, Dema took a risk and moved her office to Oakbrook. "This was one of the most prestigious corporate areas in Illinois." Demas company went from her parents' basement to now being neighbors with some of the largest companies' corporate offices.
This is when Dema felt like she had truly made it, "The energy and motivation we had was at an all-time high. There was so much passion that we had when we got to Oakbrook. We were able to hire so many more employees, it was so much more diverse, we had access all the highways. It changed everything." Demas company had their home in Oakbrook from 2000 to 2010 "During that time, my husband who is now the CEO joined the company as well as the guys who are now sales managers and the sales director joined. Our growth skyrocketed."
While VMS had great success at their Oakbrook office, they wanted to have a building just for them. "We decided to purchase our own building, renovated the entire second floor for us and we lease out the first-floor space." She now had her own building, a loyal group of staff, many of them are still here today and the energy was reborn. "It was just so motivating to go from being 18, starting a company that I didn't even know if it would still be around, to now driving to our building. Every day I was inspired to add more technology, be a part of the software development that was happening, bring our own systems together and really be an all-in-one solution merchant service-based company."
Dema wanted her company to stand out from the competition. "We didn't just get small businesses set up to accept payment, we also help them get a website going, we have a working capital program, we're competitive with our rates and make sure we sell the best POS systems for each specific business type." Restaurants, convivence stores, salons, auto repair shops, you name it, VMS has a payment processing solution for it.
The Company Today
As Velocity Merchant Services enters its 25th year in business, Dema could not be prouder of what she has built. She now has two children and is grateful that she has built her team up to the point where she doesn't necessarily need to be at the office everyday. Dema is able to be a successful business owner, as well as a mother now. She did the same thing her parents did with her all those years ago, she trusted and believed in her staff. "When you start your own business, you have your hands in every single department, you control everything. When you let go of some of that control and you let the people, you're hiring take on some of it. You're letting them evolve and you let them grow. That has been one of the best things that I've learned to do as an entrepreneur"
Dema knows her staff has put the same trust and belief in her as well. "They've trusted my guidance and knew we all had one vision, to grow. It wasn't just for me to grow; it was for everyone to grow. Everyone that's been here for a while sees that it's not just "Dema's company" It's our company. We're a team and we built this company together." Dema may have started the company but she brought the right people along to help build and nurture it. She couldn't be happier with her staff and with where the company is today.
"After 25 years in Business This is What I've Learned"
I got to sit down with Dema for this interview and ask her to share some knowledge. I wanted to know what kind of business advice she had for people wanting to start their own business as well as women that are pursuing the same dream as she did.
What inspired you to start your own business, and what have been the most rewarding aspects of being a business owner?
"I never really thought I wanted to start my own business or wanted to be an entrepreneur growing up. But as I started to learn business skills on my own and learn how to network and negotiate deals, I was like "Hey, I'm pretty good at this!" I started to really learn the basics on opening a business, accounting, marketing, training, new products. Once you have a taste of that, it's hard to go back and work for a company. Being a business owner and especially being a woman who took this leap at 19 and now being in my 40's, I think the most rewarding part of it all is just seeing the opportunities that have come for myself, my employees and for our merchants and the growth that has happened within 25 years."
As a woman business owner, what unique challenges have you faced in your industry, and how have you overcome them?
"When I started not only was I a woman, but I was also really young. A lot of these companies did not take me seriously, especially with negotiating and contracts. So, I really had to prove myself. While this was a challenge, It really pushed me even harder to exceed the expectations and make it happen. That was my major goal back then. If I said I was going to deliver 30 contracts I was going to deliver 60."
What advice would you give to other people who want to start their own business?
"Put a plan together, learn the ins and outs of the industry that you want to be in. You must be passionate about that industry; you must love what you do. If you don't and you don't have that passion. If you're waking up and you're not excited to get to work, it's not going to work. I would wake up at 6 a.m. and I could not wait for 7:30 to hit and so I could start the work day. I would get there early and I would stay until everything was done. You have to never give up. I think about all the moments that I could have given up. If I didn't ask to retake the test, if I just gave up because I didn't have the funds, if I didn't take the leap to move offices. I can't even count how many mistakes I've made, but they've all taught me something and made me stronger and have taken me to the next level."
How have you built and maintained a diverse and inclusive team, and what steps have you taken to ensure that women and other minorities have equal opportunities to succeed?
"I love diversity, different ethnicities, different languages. I think one of the reasons VMS has been so successful is because we are so diverse. We have Arabic speaking sales reps, we have Spanish, we've had Chinese speaking staff. And when you think about it, the businesses that we sell to are also minorities. We're selling to the Spanish Taquerias, the convenience stores that may have Arabic or Indian owners. That is what I think sets us apart from others. When we hire, were looking for diversity. I think that has helped the company tremendously."
What are some common misconceptions about women-owned businesses, and how do you counter them in yours?
"I think there is a misconception that women don't work as hard as men. Everyone has a different work ethic. When you're a woman you may also be a mother and that comes with a whole other list of responsibilities and obligations. Women have to learn how to multi-task a lot more I think and really organize our time. I don't know if that's a misconception but I do think that is a factor that plays into a women-owned business. Sometimes you can't do it all. There's a lot involved if you're a mom and a business owner. You're not just waking up getting a coffee and heading to work. You have to learn how to take a break. Work hard, manage your time right but also make sure you're managing a work life balance. Figuring out how to structure my days where one aspect of my life isn't suffering because of another I think is how I counter it."
How do you prioritize mentorship and networking?
"I love motivating people. Because if I did this, anyone can. I believe that mentoring other people is like paying it forward. When you build someone up and you mentor someone and the advice, you're giving them actually works and you see success that really motivates me. You just want to keep going. There's something about being able to help someone succeed that just gives me the most rewarding feeling, I can't even explain it."
How do you see the landscape for women-owned businesses evolving in the future?
"I think women are realizing that they can do it all. There seeing that they can have a career while still having a family and raising kids. I think the more that women realize they can do it and have a business and be successful. I believe that once you trust in yourself that you can succeed, you will succeed.
Some final advice Dema has for people wanting to start their own business, "Do not doubt yourself, I think doubt it the worst thing you can do to yourself. Keep learning, keep developing not only in your business knowledge but develop yourself. Figure out who you are. Make sure you're nurturing your passion but you're nurturing yourself as well."
If you're interested in learning more about VMS head to getvms.com