Graphitti and More LLC, an embroidery, screen printing, awards and trophy manufacturer in Mexico, is now federally recognized as a women-owned business.

Graphitti is certified as a Women's Business Enterprise through the Women's Business Enterprise National Council. The application process for this certification took more than six months, owner Nikki Leach said. The certification will allow Leach to seek contracts with government agencies, military branches and other businesses that contract with the federal government. Leach also is working on the state-level certification.

"The certification process opens you up to be able to bid on state and federal jobs that are by diversified suppliers," Leach said.

Graphitti is considered a minority-owned business since it is run by a woman. Government contracts include requirements for corporations and agencies to seek out underrepresented or disadvantaged businesses, such as those owned by women.

She learned about the certification opportunity when seeking to sell products through Amazon.

Leach may go to a specialized vendor fair in November to present Graphitti to all the U.S. Military branches, Boeing and other businesses. She would not be able to attend without her federal certification.

"The Women's Enterprise group, they help you a lot," Leach said. "They ask you what sets you apart. We are with [customers] every step of the way. You don't just place an order and never hear from us until your order is done. We walk you through the process. We do nothing without approval. We always make sure the customer is in the loop."

Leach started Graphitti about 28 years ago when she decided to create her own business. She had previously worked for a different screen printing business in Mexico. Leach was doing screen printing and trophy and awards manufacturing when she first started. The business expanded to include embroidery and a newer printing method known as sublimation, which uses heat-activated inks to bond to T-shirts and other items, such as coffee mugs. Graphitti also can create small signs and banners.

"I just made my own job and went from there. I'm self-taught [in business]. Made all the mistakes on my own," Leach said.

Leach has a bachelor of fine art degree in graphic design from Columbia College, and she now works with her daughter, Brandy Myers, who has a similar background. "Between us, we have everything covered," Leach said.

Graphitti has stood the test of time. There were other screen printing businesses in Mexico, but they have closed, with Leach taking over equipment, clients and products from those businesses.

"We're a woman-owned business in a man's world, because nine out of 10 screen printers are men. Why, I don't know,” Leach said. “It's not very often that screen printing business owners are women.”

Bringing on Myers allowed Graphitti to incorporate an online store into its business model, Leach said. Online customers can design their own products and make orders.

Leach works to champion women-owned businesses. Mexico is a unique community because it has a significant number of them in the downtown square alone, she said.

Women-owned businesses are a small percentage of all businesses in the U.S. and receive less financial support than businesses owned and operated by men, Leach said. According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, approximately 39% of U.S. businesses are owned by women. A study from BCG/MassChallenge found that women owned startups receive less in investment funds, but overall generate more revenue than male-owned businesses.

"Even though, technically, women are moving up in the world, there's still a huge gap," she said.

Leach has attended small business conferences and business diversity trainings and said they were an eye opener because other attendees were surprised a business as small as Graphitti was certified.

"Most of the people there were from companies with 20 to 50 employees and $1.2 million budget. So, we're not really small business here, we're like, still Mom and Pop," Leach said.

The small-business owners at the conference still had misconceptions about Graphitti, she said. They had asked her if she would have no problem with a 1,000 piece order, when Leach and her employees have completed 10,000 piece orders.

"We wouldn't be here if we didn't think we could handle it," Leach said. "Even in small businesses, there are small businesses."

Along with the local work, Graphitti also works nationally as a subcontractor for Walt Disney Co. Amusement park visitors may see Leach and her staff's handiwork on park employees. She subcontracts with Continental Bag, also of Mexico, to do embroidery work for uniforms and shirts.

"We've done quite a bit for at least five years. If you go to Disney, chances are you'll stuff made in Mexico, Missouri, there worn by the workers," Leach said, adding work done ranges to those who operate rides, work in restaurants or are general park employees.

Leach likes the creative aspect of her business and interacting with her customers because they always bring something new in, she said.

"We're always looking to expand in different areas to try to keep up products and different things people are doing," she said. "The market is always changing."

cdunlap@gatehousemedia.com