My team knows how much I believe in kindness and that I expect the same from them. When they’re working in a client’s home, they’re usually providing emergency services. I ask my employees to find one thing they can do to help that individual who’s probably feeling overwhelmed by the situation.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry,I had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Diana Rodriguez-Zaba, President of ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba, stands as a pillar of strength for her staff, clients, family and community. In the middle of the 2008 recession, she launched two ServiceMaster brands. Her business has grown to become one of Illinois’ most successful franchises, proudly serving one of the largest territories in the Chicagoland area and Suburbs.
With an extensive background in real estate rehabbing, human resource development, business management and franchising, Diana brings a unique perspective to running her company. Most recently, she quickly shifted gears and focused on helping area businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic. Her re-opening strategies have also targeted much-needed restoration work in minority neighborhoods impacted by waves of riots and protests.
Growing the franchise into a profitable disaster restoration business is one of Diana’s proudest achievements. She continually develops marketing initiatives and builds solid relationships with local and national insurance carriers.
Diana is truly passionate about reaching out and helping new entrepreneurs grow their own success. She especially enjoys sharing her experiences with other women in business, listening to their plans for the future and providing real-world insight.
She constantly looks for ways to give back to the community that’s given so much to her. Diana remains committed to donating her time and resources to supporting local companies. Currently, she works with Step Up Chicago, the Miracle Center and the Niles Food Pantry. Diana is also a member of the Forbes Chicago Business Council where she shares her expertise as an established leader in her industry.
Diana is a graduate of Crain’s Leadership Academy and an alumnus of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program. She recently completed the Latino Entrepreneurship Certification Program at Stanford University School of Business. Diana is also a member of the Illinois State Comptrollers Advisory Collective.
One of her biggest accomplishments to date is her position as one of 40 founders of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Institute in the Coleman Center at DePaul University. This remarkable institute is the nation’s first to integrate academic learning, research, incubation, funding and public policy studies specifically for women.
In her capacity at the WEI, she focuses on academic research and program development as well as initiatives that enable the success and sustainability of women-owned businesses. Diana is very excited to see the impact this will have on the future of women entrepreneurs across Chicago.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My professional history is filled with years of franchising experience. At one point, I took a break and moved into government work, but I came to realize the position would not allow me to pursue my passion. In 2008, I received notice that I would be laid off. That’s when I knew that I had to start my own business.
It was one of the worst years on record for startups, but we had no choice. No one was hiring. Businesses were closing. My husband was a union carpenter, I had real estate investing experience, and I had successfully rehabbed several properties. We combined our skills, bought our franchise and launched ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba. We were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to buy a license.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
When I first opened my business, there weren’t many women in this field. I knew some who were involved in the industry, but they were clerical workers and cleaning techs. I knew women were underrepresented. As the face of my company, I needed to be experienced, knowledgeable and in charge of decision-making.
As I got to know the business better, I started writing about women in the male-dominated restoration industry. I covered topics like breaking down barriers and empowering women on the job. Over the years, my views gained credibility. It was so satisfying to see more and more women acknowledged in my field.
I’m very much focused on joining groups where our voices can be heard. Our ideas deserve to be implemented. As women, we bring a different perspective to running a business, and we’re finally being accepted as leaders in this industry. We still have plenty of work ahead of us, but we’re up to the challenge.
For example, my team responded to the COVID-19 pandemic back in March by expanding our specialty cleaning services to affected businesses. We also developed detailed plans for preventative cleaning in all types of workplaces. Our years of experience positioned us to offer unique services, and we review and enhance our training every week. When EPA guidelines change, we adapt. We’re currently helping local businesses prepare for safe re-openings.
Our construction services have also expanded to provide secure property board-up during the recent demonstrations. The work includes graffiti removal and vandalism cleanup. Every day, we help business owners impacted by the pandemic or some form of vandalism. My teams work hard assisting with everything from navigating insurance claims to establishing safety protocols for both in-house operations and customers.
The experiences have been humbling and rewarding. We’re grateful that we can provide services that make a positive difference. We’re thankful for the ability to quickly shift gears and help rebuild our local economy and communities.
Looking back, we could have downsized and laid off employees. Instead, we took skills we already possessed and came up with a game plan. My company reached out to insurance agents, property managers, chambers of commerce and community associations. We’re proud of the credibility gained through new clients. It’s resulted in great referrals.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My father was and still is my rock. He only has an elementary school education, but he taught me all my important life lessons. I grew up watching him work seven days a week providing for my mom and my three brothers. He taught me everything from how to change a tire to how to install a toilet. He tried his hand as an entrepreneur, but things didn’t work out. Still, he learned so much from those experiences, and he taught it all to us kids.
We learned about failure and how to get up and get going again. My father helped us understand why we should be willing to take risks. He taught us to be humble, eliminate barriers and be fearless. The most important thing he taught me was this: I will never let anyone treat me with less respect than they would show a man. I know my worth because he pushed me to do more than my brothers.
As a Mexican man and father, he instilled in me the sense that I should always be treated as an equal. Not everyone in our community thought that way, but my father did. I saw how deeply he respected my mother and how much he valued her as a person. It is from all of this that I draw my strength.
My other mentor was the most amazing woman. I got to know Vanessa Rich at my government job. For 10 years, we worked side by side, and I learned so much about people. She taught me to be kind, loving and understanding. Vanessa pushed me out of my comfort zone and mentored me through my startup years.
She showed me how to be a compassionate leader, build a strong business and earn employee loyalty. I keep her picture in my office. Sadly, she passed away several years ago, but I think of her and the positive impact she had on my life every day. I want to be that special person for someone else starting up their own business.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. Always Ask Questions — I was raised to believe that to succeed, you have to raise your hand. Ask questions. Don’t worry about what other people think because the answers will help you get the job done right.
I remember preparing to submit my first job proposal. I was in a room packed with experienced contractors. No one asked questions. I felt intimidated. There was so much I didn’t understand yet. I went ahead and asked a bunch of questions. Using the information, I worked on my proposal and won a portion of the contract. It gave me an amazing sense of accomplishment.
2. Know the Worth of Your Services — Today’s service options seem unlimited. Everyone shops around for the lowest price. As much as we want to be competitive, that’s not always fair to business owners who shoulder so much.
For example, my employees receive ongoing training and certification renewal. They have a good benefits package. I pay employer taxes, cover business insurance and so much more. I charge a fair rate for my services without ever compromising quality. We aren’t the cheapest or the most expensive. We are the best. I reserve the right to walk away if I feel that our work isn’t valued. One door closes, another one opens.
3. It’s Your Responsibility to Provide Leadership and Opportunity — I was told that you can have the very best business model, but without the right people, you will fail. As entrepreneurs, it’s our responsibility to empower our employees with solid guidance and strong leadership.
As a female entrepreneur, I want to open doors for other women in this male-dominated industry, so I mentor them. The individuals I hire have so much potential. I’m grateful to provide them with the opportunity to be better and move up. My team is great. I couldn’t be more happy or proud.
How are you going to shake things up next?
Currently, I’m remodeling a 30,000-square foot facility for showcasing all our services. We’ll have a state-of-the-art training room available for local colleges and universities. I plan on providing training for school credits and showing students what this field has to offer. We’ll cover it all: disaster restoration, fire contents cleaning, residential services, construction design and entrepreneurship.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
When I’m looking for answers, I pray, and I read the Bible. This is where I go because it gives me clarity and peace. I also enjoy Richard Branson’s books and blogs. They’re a great source of wisdom.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
When I started my business, I implemented our Act of Kindness Policy. It’s on the first pages of our employee handbook. My team knows how much I believe in kindness and that I expect the same from them. When they’re working in a client’s home, they’re usually providing emergency services. I ask my employees to find one thing they can do to help that individual who’s probably feeling overwhelmed by the situation.
They might take out the garbage, bring the customer some coffee or buy them lunch. It helps them understand clients and identify with what they’re going through. It puts a smile on everyone’s face.
We’ve been doing this for more than 10 years, and we all love it. We also do nice things for each other in-house and out in the field. I encourage other businesses to try a similar policy. Today’s world can seem so disconnected. Our attention shifts too quickly. Especially during the pandemic, it’s so important to be kind and courteous to one another.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
During my Entrepreneurship class at Stanford University, I read a book called “Scaling Up Excellence.” It’s a great book, and it helped me with clarity on an issue that was hurting my company’s growth. The idea is that the best path is never the easiest when you’re scaling a business. The book explains the Bad Apple principle and how that bad apple can infect and spoil an entire team.
Sometimes, we hold on to employees because we’ve invested so much in their training. Still, they aren’t helping the team. I went through this a few years ago. I finally decided to let go of three key employees. As scary as that was, it was one of the best moves I ever made. The rest of my team pulled through. We got the work done, and we’ve actually become much closer. My Life Lesson Quote? “Get rid of the Bad Apples.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!