When Liz Perez returned home to Southern California in 2006 after serving in the Navy, the combat veteran found herself in another trying chapter. The single mother was pregnant with her second child, and homeless after fleeing a verbally abusive relationship. She was also recovering from muscular and skeletal injuries caused by an accident sustained while on active duty in Bahrain. While living in a Motel 6 near Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, she worked full-time at Xnergy, a construction company. She used her disability check and savings to buy a home and set aside $5,000 to start GC Green. The Vista, Calif.-based installation and consulting business specializes in environmentally efficient solutions for older buildings — be it LED lighting, solar panels or updated boiler systems. Even though checking the box for 6 different minority groups would get her into a host of small business workshops, the female, disabled veteran with Native American and Latin roots couldn’t get funding for her clean energy upstart. She discovered a common practice among prime contractors is scamming veteran-owned small businesses by using their credentials to win contracts but then failing to share the business. Instead of taking them to court, she turned to networking and negotiating for survival. In this interview, which has been edited and condensed, Perez discusses how she rose above her scammers and built GC Green to $2.3 million in revenue with 25 employees, one-third of whom are veterans.
Tanya Klich: What sparked your interest in clean energy?
Liz Perez: While I was deployed to the Middle East, I learned that a terrorist attack killed my friend, Seaman Nicole Palmer, who was on board the USS Cole while it was refueling off the coast of Yemen. This is why I am part of a group of veterans who advocate for energy policies that contribute to national security. Also, my mother’s family is from the Native Mono Indian Tribe so I’ve been raised to take care of Mother Earth and not to abuse it. From updating the Indian Legal Services Building in Escondido with a water conservation system, to installing a chiller upgrade for a VA Hospital in La Jolla, my Native roots play a major part in my mission.
Klich: How did you get started?
Perez: After the military, I worked in sales at Xnergy then later pitched the idea of opening an energy-efficient department. But when their headcount fell from 65 to 18 during the recession, owners Joey Patalano and Jason Davis encouraged me to start it as a business of my own. They mentored me and told me, ‘Look, you’re a women, you’re a veteran, you’re Native. There are a lot of advantages for you.’
Klich: What advantages were available to you?
Perez: In 2008, I attended a business course at the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California (AICC), which helped me formulate a business plan. Then I took a Veteran’s Entrepreneur Bootcamp at Syracuse University, which encouraged me to pursue my MBA through a live online program.
Klich: Has your status helped you receive funding?
Perez: No. I never got a loan or any financial assistance from the government. In the first four years, I applied for the SBA Patriot Loan but was disapproved three times without any feedback. I got approved for a bank loan but the rates were astronomical. Everyone thinks ‘Oh you’re a minority you must have a lot of money.’ But the minority and veteran status only helps us get our foot in the door. Just because you’re a small disadvantaged business with several certifications does not guarantee you work. Past performance is key.