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A Showcase for Minorities 'Making It'

Entrepreneur: Nelson Davis' TV program highlights a growing sector of the state's economy.


Rustling through his Hollywood office, Nelson Davis finds the three-ring binder that holds a typewritten list of his dreams.

Davis has always kept such a list of goals and aspirations, just like the business heroes he admired as a youth growing up poor in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

He was fascinated by success stories such as those of Aristotle Onassis and John Johnson, founder of Ebony magazine. He sought out people who knew about these entrepreneurs and read about their careers.

What he most wanted to know was how they became successful. He wanted to discover "what made the difference from those who succeed and those who don't."

Now on his weekly TV show, he gets an opportunity to do just that.

Davis is executive producer and creator of "Making It! Minority Success Stories," a show that highlights minority-owned businesses in Southern California.

The program, which receives corporate backing from companies such as AT&T Corp. and BankAmerica Corp., features every type of enterprise, from mom-and-pop shops to multimillion-dollar corporations.

If you use a Thomas Bros. Guide or a VCR Plus machine to tape your favorite programs, then you are buying products from minority-owned businesses. One of the largest black-owned businesses in the state, Surface Protection Industries Inc., provides paint to such companies as Universal's film studios. All these businesses have been profiled on Davis' show.

He has showcased more than 450 entrepreneurs in the seven-year run of the program, which airs at 6:30 a.m. Sunday and 1 a.m. Monday on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles. "Making It!" reaches approximately 150,000 Southland viewers; more see the program through PBS station KMTP-TV in San Francisco. The show is also broadcast on cable stations throughout the nation. "Making It!" has won two local Emmys and is hosted by Larry McCormick and Michele Ruiz of the KTLA news staff.

Davis believes the program fulfills TV's higher purpose to instruct, inform and unify the community it serves. The show also highlights a rapidly growing part of the California economy.

According to the nonprofit organization RLA (formerly Rebuild L.A.), the county is home to about 54,000 businesses owned by Latinos, 24,000 owned by blacks and 63,000 owned by Asian Americans.

From the fan letters he receives, Davis knows his show is having an effect. He tells the story of one businesswoman who saw a profile on African American-owned Founders National Bank in Los Angeles and its struggle to gain more black depositors. The next day she switched $100,000 of her company's money to the financial institution.

"Nelson [Davis] is one of those people who covers all the bases," said Frank Moran, head of the Latin Business Assn. in Los Angeles. Not only does Davis bring the minority community together with his show, Moran said, he challenges traditional stereotypes of minority-owned businesses as surviving on government handouts.

Moran himself was inspired by "Making It!" He said that after watching the show, he "realized how tangible it was to become an entrepreneur."

Moran, who grew up in East L.A., started his own temporary-staffing business in 1989. Davis profiled the business a year later, and today Westwood-based Team-One Staffing has three offices.

"Making It!" serves as a bridge between the minority business community and local governments and corporations, said Diane Castano Sallee, executive director of Mayor Richard Riordan's Minority Business Opportunity Committee. The committee has helped firms that have appeared on the program get loans from banks and business from large companies.

Davis himself is a successful entrepreneur who has worked in TV for nearly two decades and founded his own production company, Nelson Davis Television Productions, which creates "Making It!" The company also produces the annual "All-Star Challenge," a college bowl featuring black colleges and sponsored by Honda Motor Co.

A job interview that went sour was the catalyst that prompted Davis to start his own firm. After spending a decade in the television business--including as an executive at KNBC-TV in Burbank for daytime programming and as a producer on the pilot of the current "Jeopardy!"--he had an appointment to interview with a small production firm about becoming vice president of development.

He felt he was treated so brusquely that he decided never to sit for a job interview again.

In 1988, with the money he received from the sale of a vacant lot he owned, Davis opened a bank account in the name of Nelson Davis Television Productions and went into business.

This was not Davis' first stab at running his own firm. At 12, he had a newspaper route; while working on radio, he worked as a dance club promoter; while an executive at KNBC, he was part owner of a pilot training school; and when he first arrived in Los Angeles, he and his partner opened a submarine sandwich business, which eventually slid into bankruptcy.

That business failure proved instructive to Davis, who said the closure only convinced him that he should start the business again, which he did, this time making the operation a success.

The guiding influence in his life was his mother, who only had a few years of schooling but always reminded her son that "you can have what you want, there are no limitations."

With that in mind, Davis is planning to expand his production company. He also plans to create a weekly quiz show featuring high school students.

Both goals are typed out neatly in his three-ring binder.

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