Success largely depends on how hard you’re willing to work — but it also depends on who you know through networking.
Take Zawadi Bryant. She was working in the oil and gas industry when a church friend named Dr. Anastasia Gentles approached her with an idea to start Houston’s first pediatric urgent care clinic. Bryant had never run a business, but she decided to dive in headfirst as the company’s CEO back in 2007. She and her team spent the next 14 years growing Nightlight Pediatric Urgent Care to serve more than 90,000 patients annually across eight locations. In March 2021, the company was acquired by Mednax National Medical Group with plans to expand across the United States.
Bryant acknowledged that there was a huge learning curve throughout her business journey, but she was able to succeed by building a vast network that ensured free advice and a supportive community were just a phone call away. Bryant even credits Nighlight’s acquisition by Mednax to a mutual connection.
Hello Alice recently spoke with Bryant about how she funded her business, learning to manage people, and why you should always go to the next conference or networking event. What follows are highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
On finding a business niche:
“What we were hearing and seeing is that, especially the younger kids, some of their illnesses are more subtle than what you would see in an adult. People that don’t see kids a lot can miss things that a pediatrician would not miss. Something that we hear a lot about is ear infections. One of our doctors can look in an ear and immediately be like, ‘Yep, that’s an ear infection, and you need this particular antibiotic to cure it.’ One mom told us that she went to a few different urgent cares, and they tried to tell her that her child’s fine, give him a Motrin. She was like, ‘I know I’m not crazy! My child is screaming — something’s wrong with my child.’ Then she came to us, where we diagnosed an ear infection. When you see it over and over again, you can quickly see and identify what it is.”
[Hello Alice Guide: Communicate Your Value Proposition]
On funding her business:
“We self-funded the first location with some savings and investment from family, and then we received an SBA loan for the buildout. Initially, both Dr. Gentles and I kept our day jobs. So I kept my job at BP, and she worked as a pediatrician during the day, and then we would come to NightLight in the evenings. We did that for about a year until we stabilized the business. It was really bootstrap, bootstrap, bootstrap. Eventually we opened up our second location, and then it was just too hard to have a day job. As we grew, we pretty much funded our locations through either operating cash flow for some of our locations, and then we took out SBA loans for some of the others. It was a combination of that for the eight locations that we have.”
[Hello Alice Guide: Bootstrap Your Business]
On the limits of bank loans:
“We want to expand to other cities, and when you go to other cities, you have to drop four or five locations in one year to keep up with the competition. The bank was not willing to give us that much money. That’s the kind of frustration I think a lot of small businesses have about the bank because they’re only going to give you so much money. You’re going to lose out to these other companies that are better funded. It’s this conundrum because bank loans are great because you don’t give up any ownership and you don’t give up any equity, but banks are super risk averse and you’re not going to get the amount of capital you need. On the other hand, with private equity you have to give up some of your ownership to get the capital that you need. You really can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
[Hello Alice Guide: Choose the Right Capital]
On learning to manage people:
“I’m managing clinicians, front desk people, nurses — it’s a whole other level of leadership that I had to really develop over time. I had to take courses in emotional intelligence, how to inspire and motivate people, how to develop people and develop performance. Most of us underestimate how much work and intentionality you have to put into managing a team.
Really, at the end of the day, I think anybody that’s in business is in the people business. I don’t see patients, I don’t interact with patients, but my team does. That means that the tone I set and the culture that I set is eventually what’s going to provide the level of service that our patients deserve.”
On the importance of networking — and using that network!
“Whatever I do developing relationships, I think it really pays off. The time you put into building your network and going to events is always worth it. Now I just pick up the phone and call people instead of paying for consulting! [laughs] My life is now constant networking, constant reaching out to people that will refer me to people if they don’t know themselves. To be successful, you just have to get in the practice and habit of reaching out to folks and staying in touch with folks.”
[Hello Alice Guide: Find a Mentor]
On how networking led to her acquisition:
“In 2019 we started to run a formal process where we had an investment banker work with us. Eventually, we got to the point in February of 2020 where we had a couple of really good offers. And then COVID happened. Those deals ultimately did not go through because of the pandemic, so we had to regroup.
Then in October 2020, the CEO of Mednax called me out of the blue. To be honest, I had never even heard of Mednax or the CEO. And he called me and he’s like, ‘I really think that this would be a great opportunity for both of us, hear me out. I’m coming to Houston in a couple of days and would love to meet with you and talk about this in detail.’ And that was the beginning of the acquisition process.
As for how he got my number, it all goes back to building your public profile. He and I sit on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board together, and we know mutual people. Mednax had already identified they wanted to get into the pediatric urgent care space, and he was doing searches on who has pediatric urgent care and saw me in a picture next to someone he knew. So he called that person and got my phone number. That’s why I tell people that you never know how things are going to transpire. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, but we knew the same people. So much of life is about those connections.”
On balancing motherhood and entrepreneurship:
“My children always have something going on, and I always want to participate. That’s why I block off time on my calendar for events or activities I need to do with my children. I could work all day, especially with COVID, so I focus on being very intentional about carving out time to help my daughter with her homework or help my son get ready for his Boy Scouts. Those blocks on my calendar are sacred. What that also means is that after I cook dinner and put the kids to bed, I’m back on the computer again.”
On asking for help:
“Knowing that I’d have an extra load on me during the company’s transition, I recently asked my mom to come and help with the kids, and she was very accommodating to do that. I’m not able to cook as often as I like to right now, so she’s picked that up while I’m going through this. It really takes a village.
Asking for help like that is something I’ve learned over time. I was not good at this initially. Honestly, I was one of those people who was like, ‘I got it, I got it, don’t worry!’ I quickly realized that I absolutely need help, and now I will be the first one to ask for it. That took some years to get to that place.”