By SCOTT HOLLERAN
Last month, Rena Burns stood before an audience that included President Clinton and spoke about an issue with which she has had plenty of experience: getting off welfare and finding a job.
The 47-year-old former welfare recipient has done more than just get a job: She has created a successful, growing company that is providing a livelihood to dozens of others including welfare recipients.
Which is why Burns was back in Washington, addressing the Welfare to Work Partnership Conference, and also why Vice President Al Gore earlier this year personally recognized her achievements when Burns was named the Welfare to Work Small Business Owner of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Burns' company, Automated Data Sciences/CADScan, designs and develops computer software that state and local governments need in order to comply with the 1996 Welfare to Work law. The law requires that state welfare agencies offer recipients one-stop management of their cases, and Burns' software enables those agencies to do that.
While Burns clearly appreciates the public recognition of her accomplishments, she seems to take it all in stride. After all, she had never planned on a career related to the welfare system, even though it formerly helped support her and her family.
Burns started her career working for a real estate finance company in 1986. Like many other people, she was able to cash in on the booming Southern California market. But then the recession hit, and Burns was financially devastated. That's when she decided to start over in a new field.
After a little research, Burns, who is Latino, discovered that she qualified for a Small Business Administration program dedicated to helping minority-owned businesses land government procurement contracts.
Because the government regularly contracts for computer services, Burns decided to go into designing and developing information technology systems and applications for government agencies.
It was Burns' former boss, Murray Moss, chief executive of Long Beach-based Spectrum Distributing and Marketing, who provided her with financial backing in 1994 to aid Automated Data Sciences.
"Now she's being courted for merger possibilities," Moss said.
Under the SBA preference program, Automated Data Sciences has been able to win contracts without being subjected to competitive bidding. It wasn't long before the SBA itself contracted with ADS to redesign its own business systems.
Today, ADS provides support services for half the computer programs on SBA Web sites, as well as for 80 percent of SBA's databases. Those contracts alone generate $2.5 million in annual revenue for ADS.
Burns estimates that the SBA currently accounts for about 70 percent of her total business but is projecting that portion will shrink to 40 percent within 12 months as she lands new contracts.
Last year's total revenues topped $3.5 million.
"It's pretty incredible considering I knew nothing about the industry," Burns said during an interview at her Santa Monica office. "There was a whole learning curve in working with government because they aren't as current with technology and its uses. It's part of the challenge of working with government."
Burns is certainly no stranger to challenges. Her father died while she was young, leaving her mother to raise five children. Her mother eventually had a nervous breakdown, after which her family ended up on welfare. Burns managed to graduate from North High School in Torrance and later enrolled in community college courses.
"I remember being hungry and not having lunch in high school. I washed cars to raise money for the family," she recalled.
But those tough times are behind her. Today, Burns earns enough to support herself, help her mother financially, and put her 24-year-old son through UC Berkeley.
Generating income for Burns, her family and her employees is ADS, which charges its customers an average hourly rate of $100 or a fixed fee, which can run into the mid-six figures, depending on the complexity of software design and development tasks.
The financial picture at ADS has become complicated somewhat in recent years, Burns said, by the fact that computer programmers' wages have been steadily escalating.
The most satisfying aspect for Burns of running the company is its practice of hiring of lower-skilled workers, many of whom are trying to get off welfare.
ADS has employed several welfare recipients since its 1993 founding, though it currently has only one on the payroll. Burns hopes to help an increasing number of welfare recipients as they transition to work in the years ahead. Burns recalls that one former ADS employee, a single mother whom Burns had encouraged to take the high school equivalency exam, recently left ADS to attend college and move toward her goal of becoming a social worker.
The welfare recipient currently employed at ADS, a woman in her 40s, has been on welfare for the past six years.
"I was moving around a lot, being evicted constantly, and I lost my job. My kids didn't have health insurance so I went on welfare," said the worker, who asked that her name be withheld. "Welfare to Work is a great program as long as you're serious. I want to get ahead. I want a house and a nice car. I want my kids to work. I want to make something of myself."
According to Burns, the worker has already accomplished that during her two years at ADS. She works on recruiting-related tasks and writes proposals under tight deadline pressure.
The worker's welfare payments will terminate in 2001, but she said, "I expect to be off welfare within a few months."
She added that she is grateful for the opportunity ADS has afforded her.
"Rena's great. She's fair. She expects you to earn a raise," the worker said.
Recently, the employee received a modest annual salary increase to $24,000, which supplements her $450 monthly welfare payment.
"Helping others fulfills me," Burns said. "I like that I can support the empowerment of people."
Automated Data Sciences/CADScan
Year Founded: 1993
Core Business: Information technology services
Employees in 1993: 2
Employees in 1998: 47
Revenue in 1993: $951,000
Revenue in 1998: $3.6 million
Goal: To provide software solutions, especially to public-sector agencies
Driving Force: Federal welfare reform legislation
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