For many small businesses, zeroing in on a niche market is difficult, especially when starting. For EJ Odom, however, taking the niche approach provided the runway he needed to launch a business working exclusively within the aviation industry. EJO Ventures was founded in 2004 in Nashville, Tennessee. Sixteen years later, it has grown into one of the top suppliers of technology enablement, aviation IT consulting and systems integrations at major airports around the Southeast region.
Before starting EJO Ventures, EJ was on the corporate fast track. He obtained core skills in business, sales, marketing, and profit and loss administration while racking up frequent flyer miles traveling for work domestically and internationally. Due to his superior ability to manage the details, EJ found himself working alongside colleagues in technology, and later acquiring that skillset himself. EJ compares his extensive training to that of a “mini MBA program” that continues to pay dividends today.
But what EJ didn’t enjoy about his corporate experience was the uncertainty. Growing up in New York and frequently moving around as a child, EJ drew inspiration from his father’s work ethic as a career marketer. He taught him to work diligently until he achieved his goals. So that’s what he did. But, he realized that no matter how much achieved, his future at the company was at the mercy of someone else. He didn’t want to be another corporate casualty. It was during a business trip in Chicago that he finally felt like he was ready to strike out on his own and pursue a career as an entrepreneur. “I was willing to bet on myself,” he says as he reflects on that moment.
“I was blessed to be raised by a family of movers and shakers. I think that instilled a certain fearlessness and drive in me that has benefited me as I’ve gotten older. Both of my grandparents went to Ivy League schools. My grandfather served as the National Secretary of the NAACP at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s. These ideals were passed down to me over a lifetime of dinner conversations which later prepared me for the ups and downs of my journey.”
Once the decision was made to found his own company, EJ set out to make it successful. Being solely focused on the aviation industry, EJ knew that the first step was connecting with the Metro Nashville Airport Authority. So, in the early 2000s, he began attending pre-bid meetings and networking events at airport trade shows, building rapport with key decision-makers on large airport projects. Then, after a pivotal meeting in 2004, he successfully landed his first contract with the Nashville International Airport. “We installed flat-panel LCDs above baggage claim to direct people to the right belts to find their bags. This technology was one of the first flat-panel LCD monitors installed during that time.” Over the past 16 years, EJO Ventures has since positioned itself as a “trusted technology partner” and broadened its relationships at the Nashville airport and others to include airlines and airport tenants, such as food, beverage, and retail concession.
Today, EJO Ventures employs seven employees and maintains a deep bench of technology and construction talent to help execute and manage complex multi-million dollar IT System integrations at six airports throughout the Southeast: Nashville, TN, Memphis, TN, Birmingham, AL, Jackson, MS, Raleigh-Durham, NC, and Cleveland, OH. The company is also DBE, SMWBE, and ACDBE certified, and was named the Nashville Airport’s 2017-18 “SMWBE Minority Business of the Year.”
But despite his notable successes, EJ recognized the need to improve the company’s back-office management operations and streamline specific tasks within his team.
So, last year, EJ enthusiastically accepted an invitation to join the Nashville Airport’s Mentor Protégé Program. It was here that he first heard about the Nashville Business Incubation Center. “I drove down to the NBIC building and introduced myself to Angela, who quickly took me under her wing and helped me dig into the NBIC way and curriculum. On the first day of classes, I arrived early because I was so eager to learn, and Angela was not surprised (laughs). I was extremely impressed with their track record of success and highly recommend them to anyone interested in furthering their business.”
Under the guidance of the NBIC, EJ learned how to streamline banking, accounting, insurance, and legal representation more efficiently. He has since integrated these practices into his business model and plans on utilizing them in the future as he continues to grow EJO Ventures.
Looking ahead, EJ is betting on his ability to scale EJO Ventures into one of the largest aviation systems integration firms in the United States.
EJ considers the success of EJO Ventures as a “sixteen-year overnight sensation.” He and his team have been diligently toiling for years to establish credibility, leveraging their minority certifications when necessary but more so proving they can do exceptional work. EJ shares, “we are at a point that we can do business in multiple airports with large companies who, in turn, ask us if they can do business with us in another city.” The key to being able to scale beyond state borders has been collaboration. “No company has employees in every state and county. I told myself that I would have partners so I can work in multiple places at once.”And that collaborative approach has been the linchpin of their success.