This article appears in a series on Black and Latinx entrepreneurship in Philadelphia and is underwritten by PIDC and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. It was independently reported and not reviewed by these partners before publication.
Growing up in West Oak Lane, EREflow founder LeRoy Jones always had an instinct for making it on his own.
He sold bus tokens at one point before eventually pursuing his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and later his master’s degree in management of technology from the University of Pennsylvania.
In his role as chief technology officer at a medtech company in the early aughts, Jones was in a favorable position. He had cultivated healthy, valuable relationships with his customers and colleagues at a lucrative company.
When his employer was acquired, it changed everything.
“Once they got bought, there were other chief technology officers around,” Jones told Technical.ly. “I had a choice to make it in a new company and against them, or do something else.”
Jones opted to do something else, and started the business that would later become GSI Health. In 2003, he started brokering relationships between onshore companies seeking services and offshore companies doing technical and data work. Many of his clients became healthcare clients, which ultimately led to GSI Health focusing on selling workflow software to health systems.
Like many entrepreneurs, Jones found himself working against time and learned a valuable lesson in the process. He started this first business using approximately $100,000 in stock options he had cashed out from his CTO role at his previous job. What he had not considered was lowering personal expenses to adapt to his new budget, and he quickly ran low on funds during the early stages of GSI Health. He eventually grew the company to sustainability by moving from multiple smaller contracts to fewer large ones, but the lesson taught him a great deal about money management as an entrepreneur.
During his time at GSI Health, Jones had success in raising $5 million over several rounds of funding, including from Ben Franklin Technology Partners and Rittenhouse Ventures. Getting his company to be seen as more than a minority-owned business was a challenge, however, and Jones faced many of the same obstacles as other Black and Latinx founders.
“[When] trying to raise money for company, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me on either side of the table,” he said. “We had such a hard time getting access to capital, even though we had a good track record, customers and leadership.”
While Jones said he never felt overt racism, after seeing peers with similar backgrounds have success in business, he wondered what the difference was between their work and his own.
A new endeavor would allow Jones to assist business owners who also had challenging experiences along their journeys.
Launching and learning
Jones started management consulting firm EREflow in May after he successfully exited from the company he launched and grew over 16 years: GSI Health was acquired by Dallas-based Medecision in October 2019. In addition to the money he earned from the exit, he had also gained extensive experience in managing a business. He hopes to impart that experience upon the founders EREflow mentors and whose experiences mirror those of many Black and Latinx businesspeople navigating the pandemic.
“I have five companies I’m mentoring facing all of these different challenges,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not, ‘Can I apply and get this loan?’ A lot of times its awareness of what’s available to them. Getting over the intimidation of applying for them. A lot of it is changing people’s mindset.”
Jones said that “small business” does not mean entrepreneurs can’t have loftier goals for their companies like scaling up or significantly increasing profits.
Tracy Flint is the owner and principal consultant for Heart to HR, one of the five companies Jones is currently mentoring via EREflow. Flint was previously at an employee at GSI Health until Jones sold it to Medecision, and she consulted with the Dallas company for months before being displaced during the pandemic.
After months of frustration from a job search further exacerbated by the pandemic, Flint followed Jones’ advice and started her own company that she said is now doing well.
“It’s been a good learning experience to see how smart he is and how he gets things done,” she said. “His encouragement and giving me the tools and leadership of going out there and doing it [on my own] has been so encouraging. I can go to him with any questions.”
In addition to offering professional guidance, Jones recommended that Flint pursue minority and women-owned business certifications available to her as a Black woman entrepreneur.
Accountability and resources
As the sole proprietor of EREflow working only with contractors, Jones did not apply for pandemic financial assistance because he did not believe he would qualify — and more importantly, he said, did not want to receive funding that could go to another business more in need.
One of the most important things that helped Jones in his journey as an entrepreneur was taking an accounting class. Getting comfortable with numbers and being able to discuss ideas in terms of dollars and cents is something he heavily recommends for other founders. Joining Vistage, a membership organization that supports CEOs, 10 years ago also allowed Jones to help build his network and connect with likeminded individuals.
Jones believes that business owners should consider starting boards to help their companies make decisions. During his time with GSI Health, he found that having a board to defer to brought him and his organization an added level of discipline.
“Having some sort of board brings outside accountability,” he said. “You have to show someone, every three months, your financials, and that gives you motivation to pay attention to those things.”
Throughout Jones’ career, he’s noticed a lack of mentorship and community resources for Black business owners in Philadelphia. As an early advocate for healthcare technology, he said few other professionals could relate to his vision. When he still owned GSI Health, he sought to work with local companies, but most of his customers came from New York and when he sold he had none from Philadelphia.
For all the talk of Philly as a fledgling tech economy, he pointed out that a lack of good incentives for business owners to launch here as well as high taxes don’t make it easy for the city’s economic growth. Jones mentioned one Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia program, its CEO Council for Growth’s Health Care Innovation Collaborative, from a few years back that sought to connect local tech companies with partnerships, but while GSI Health made it through initial rounds of conversation with other companies, no new business materialized.
As Jones continues the latest chapter in his entrepreneurial journey, he remains undeterred and hopes to inspire and mentor other founders in his hometown.
“I wanted to really be an example for Philly, but Philly had a lot of talk of wanting to do these things, but was not helpful at end of day,” he said of the lack of institutional support he sees. “I was able to be successful despite that. You can’t be a victim. You just keep going, no matter what.”
- City of Philadelphia’s Office of Economic Opportunity for minority business certifications
- Peer groups
- Board leadership
- Management consulting
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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