Dorothy J. White's father always said, "It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do a good job."
Her father was a Georgia cotton factory worker who never learned to read or write. Growing up in the deep South of the 1950s, White, too, found her choices limited. Still, she took her father's words to heart.
As a young girl, she'd pick cotton in the fields of Valdosta in southern Georgia, for $3 a day. Or she'd scrub houses clean and leave them spotless.
Never did she imagine the eventual payoff for all of her sweat. Never did she think another three decades would find herbehind a polished desk in her own suite of offices near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the president of Miracle Services Inc.
Today, she oversees a staff of 600 and an office cleaning operation that extends from Maryland to Virginia.
"I didn't plan on being in this position," White said. "It's something that happened.
"Ijust started it to make ends meet. You never know in life what's going to happen to you."
White, 54, is proof enough of that, especially since she was perfectly satisfied in the early 1980s as a housewife and mother of three living in Columbia. Previously, she had worked as a beautician and in 1970 became Columbia's first black hairdresser.
When her husband, James, fell ill and no longer could work as anoffice machine salesman, White was thrust back into the job market to help support her family.
As she considered what to do, she used to hear the women at her Columbia health club complain they couldn't find anyone to give their homes a thorough cleaning. White knew she could out-clean just about anyone.
She answered a help-wanted ad for house cleaning, but faced stiff competition for the job. It seemed that larger, more established cleaning services had lined up ahead ofher.
Undaunted, White simply told the woman who'd placed the ad, "You want your house clean? I can clean your house."
Having no idea of the going rate, she set her fee at $20. She got not only that job, but after spending eight hours cleaning found herself with five more customers on the same block.
She'd spend her days cleaning homes and her evenings distributing fliers or knocking on doors. The response was overwhelming.
"Sometimes I'd knock on a door, and they'd give me the keys and a check," she said.
She got so many requests to clean homes, she had to turn some down. She brought in a friend tohelp.
It didn't seem to matter that by then she'd raised her rates. White's reputation for making a house shine earned her the reputation, "The Miracle Lady." When real estate agents wanted to put a spotless house on the market, they knew who to call.
After two years, White's client list topped 150. She hired more people, setting up twoteams of four workers each. A team could wrap up a cleaning job in an hour.
One of her customers suggested she start cleaning offices.To her surprise, White found offices easier jobs than houses. When she established Miracle Services in 1982, she applied the same philosophy to cleaning offices that she did to homes, doing whatever it tookto keep customers happy. Eventually, office cleaning overtook house cleaning, which she dropped.
To ensure that all work met her own high standards, White hired project managers for each office building site. She tried to keep her workers happy and motivated, paying them well and offering benefits and a $100 incentive award each month. Sherewards good work with promotions.
"We try to hold on to them," she said, adding that she tells her workers, "Whatever you're doing, I've done it and don't mind doing it."
The jobs kept coming, thoughWhite said she always has faced resistance as a minority head of a business.
"Being a woman and black, it's hard," she said. "You get jobs and people find out you're black. They want to know who's in charge.
"You try to ignore it, but it's out there," White said. "I don't think it will ever go away. You just keep pushing."
Her persistance has won her recognition by the U.S. Department of the Interior,which in 1989 gave her the Minority Entrepreneur of the Year award, and by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which in 1990 chose her as both the Baltimore District's Minority Small Business Person of the Year and Small Service Business Owner of the Year.
Today, she has satellite offices with project managers at Fort Detrick in Frederick, the U.S. Geological Survey in Virginia, Fort Myer in Arlington, the Coast Guard at Curtis Bay, Baltimore Gas & Electric and several Westinghouse offices, among others.
Her husband now serves as the company's vice president, while the couple's two daughters and son returned to work in the company after college.
Though she never was able to go to college, White occasionally finds herself on college campuses, as a speaker. She said students appreciate her honesty, even when she advises them to straighten up if they want to make it in the work world.
Speaking from experience, she tells students to never give up.
"I'm always telling the kids, there's something you can do."