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Tech firm pursues trade with Vietnam
June 2005. Elizabeth Millard. The Business Journal

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Sometimes, a pink slip can be a beautiful thing.
When Paul Smallwood was laid off from engineering firm Burkert in 2001, at the height of the recession, he felt like it was an opportunity to finally pursue an entrepreneurial path.

Born in Hanoi, Smallwood emigrated to the United States with his mother in 1974, and later became an electronics technician in the Air Force in the 1980s. After getting an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, he yearned to strike out on his own, but always found himself with a comfortable desk chair at a large company instead, bringing his engineering talents to Westinghouse, McQuay International and Honeywell, as well as Burkert.

"I was like Lemony Snicket," he laughed, referring to the line of popular children's books."There was always a series of unfortunate events that kept me working for other people. But entrepreneurship has always been in my blood."

In 2001, he made the leap by founding FlowSense, a technology company that distributes products in biometric security, environmental systems and fluid handling. Products range from a portable, handheld carbon dioxide detector to an iris scanner that uses video rather than laser beams. Although it may seem that this is a wide swath of areas, they fall under a common theme, Smallwood said.

"The focus is on making this a cleaner and safer world," he said. "We look at how to keep clients safe, and in some cases, that requires physical security, but in other cases it's more about preventing bioterrorism or protecting health."

In developing the company, Smallwood has juggled a number of challenges - one of the side effects of jumping head first, as he said. Money was an issue, since he was starting the company during the recession. Fortunately, he was able to fund the venture himself. There was a moment of pause, however, while draining his bank account - not an easy task for a father of three children.

"Your a small company going head to head with larger,established companies, and you've just put all your money into it," Smallwood said. "That's a tough situation. But you just have to trust in you drive to succeed."

So far, Smallwood is the company's only employee. He prefers to spend time crafting partnerships and putting together outsourcing teams rather than hiring. When choosing subcontractors, he leans toward using other minority-owned businesses or women-owned companies because he finds there is more camaraderie.

"There are common goals when you have two minority-owned businesses working together." he said. "There's a strong synergy between partners."

The reason Smallwood's company feels like a multi-employee operation rather than a one-man business has much to do with the entrepreneur's drive, said Ron Christenson, chief technology officer and corporate vice president of Cargill Inc. Christenson has been a business mentor for Smallwood for a number of years, and now has become a customer, as well.

"The guy has so much energy, it's unbelievable," Christenson said. "His enthusiasm really makes him stand out. Also, he's a very creative thinker. You can have lunch with Paul and it'll be one of the most fascinating discussions you've had in awhile."

Because Christenson has seen Smallwood through several stages of his entrepreneurial journey, he's been able to watch that energy get harnessed and directed toward a purpose. "In the last year or two, Paul has gotten more focused. He's begun to hone in on an area where he can really make his mark. My guess is that you'll be hearing a lot about him."

The company has already been gaining traction within the past few years. Revenue was at $250,000 for the year and Smallwood received the 2004 Supplier of the Year award from the Minnesota Minority Supplier Development Council.

Smallwood uses his energy for more than just business issues. He's dedicated to sparking more education on environmental issues in Vietnam, and has been working with the Vietnamese government to develop an environmental education program. He's also been conducting seminars there about topics ranging from adequate ventilation when using wood stoves to possible policy directions for government agencies.

In 2004, Smallwood traveled with the state of Minnesota on an environmental trade mission to Vietnam to conduct indoor air quality seminars in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

"It's our responsibility to look at the community on a global scale," he said. "What happens in developing countries affects us all. And both personally and professionally, I'm happy to be helping to drive change."

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