ShaKeia Kegler, 25, knew she wanted to start a business. After serving for five years in the U.S. Navy and working for one year at a pharmaceutical company, she was ready to branch out on her own.
Her first idea was for a memorabilia company that would make molds of pregnant women’s bellies. It didn’t pan out.
Her second idea was for a location service that would help people find space to host pop-up events. That didn’t work out either. She consulted her mentor.
“She said, ‘Find something that you have a problem with and try to fix that, whether it’s in your personal life or at work,’ ” Kegler says. The first thing that popped into her mind was the procurement process, because she worked with it both during her time in the Navy and at the pharmaceutical company.
“That’s when I decided to find a way to simplify [the procurement process] at the state and local level, and find a way to make it more inclusive and unify it,” she says.
That’s when GovLia was born. The four-person company helmed by Kegler helps small businesses in Florida procure state and local government contracts.
“It came down a long line of bad ideas, and ended up working out,” Kegler says.
A Modest Start
Immediately after graduating from high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kegler enlisted in the Navy. Her first duty station was in Yokosuka, Japan.
While enlisted, Kegler’s primary responsibilities were managing compliance and quality assurance, as well as purchasing supplies for her department. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in business management while in the Navy.
Quentin Hodges, who served in the Navy with Kegler, says he always admired her boldness. “She has a genuine attitude, and it’s almost like a fire ignited,” he says. “Once she’s ignited, you’re not putting her out. She’s going for it. Her eyes are set on the prize.”
Upon being honorably discharged from the Navy and returning to Florida, Kegler took a job at a pharmaceutical company that sold medical supplies and equipment to the government. After one year there, she decided she wanted a change. She visited the Careers for Broward County website and saw a pop-up that said, “Have you ever wanted to start a business?”
“I literally had this conversation in my mind and I was like, yeah, you know, I have,” she says. Kegler participated in a six-month accelerator project, Start-Up Now, which allows aspiring entrepreneurs to test out different business ideas.
Here, after two failed ideas, she came up with GovLia.
Simplify and Unify
Kegler wanted to provide an opportunity for women-, veteran- and minority-owned small businesses to land government contracts. Right now, a startlingly low number of these contracts go to small businesses, let alone those run by minorities, veterans and women.
Most of the time, government agencies purchase in bulk, Kegler says, and therefore securing these contracts can allow small businesses to grow exponentially while also gaining credibility from working with the government.
GovLia—a combination of the words government and liaison—helps small businesses secure state and local contracts.
“Most of the time, people tend to do business with the federal government,” Kegler says. “They fail to realize that the city that you live in and the county that you live in—any of these local municipalities—they’re purchasing products and services as well. If they purchase them from a local business in that area, the money goes back into the economy.”
GovLia works like this: Small businesses can use the cloud-based platform to build a profile and register with multiple government agencies to try to secure contracts. They can then use the software to track their suppliers, the overall procurement process and payment all in one place.
Kegler, who serves as the company’s CEO, says that when people think of government contracts, they often think of things like construction. But Kegler says the types of services and products government agencies are looking for runs the gamut. It can be anything from copy paper to a yoga instructor for an event.
GovLia officially launched in 2017, and it already has four employees. One big challenge Kegler faced early on was that she didn’t have the technical knowledge necessary to build the platform.
“Because I didn’t have a technical background, one of the biggest challenges for me was finding a technical partner and then learning how to code and develop,” she says. She solved this problem by outsourcing some of the technical work at the beginning before hiring technical employees.
The oldest of five girls, Kegler didn’t grow up in an area that encouraged her to learn about technology and potential career paths in the field.
“Where I grew up, we didn’t necessarily have these big, grand ideas of technology and innovation and all of that,” she says. “If you grow up in a [certain] location, you’re not exposed to certain things. As I grew, that’s when I began to see this stuff and it intrigued me. It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Starting her own business made Kegler feel empowered—as though she would have control over her own future, as well as her family’s future. “I saw that it would be my way of changing the trajectory of my family,” she says.
“Where I grew up, we didn’t necessarily have these big, grand ideas of technology and innovation and all of that.”
Kegler’s family lacked stability. Some of her family members struggled to find their footing in life, and she wanted to bring a sense of economic opportunity to them. She hoped growing her business would also help the community behind it. “I just wanted to be able to provide something that’s more transparent and is a real opportunity.”
Kegler says her family’s support has been crucial for growing her business. “They are behind me 100 percent, even though they have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” she says, laughing.
Early on, Kegler’s family raised money to help her fund GovLia, something that still makes her tear up to this day. “They gave me a gift to start my business off with,” she says. “More than anything, that was great because we haven’t always had financial opportunities to do this. Everyone came together… they raised $20 here, $30 there. I think it’s just the effort that it took that made it so impactful.”
Despite being just a couple of years old, GovLia has already made impressive strides. In October 2018, the company won first place in the AnitaB.org PitcHER contest. AnitaB.org is an organization that helps women in technology flourish. Ten finalists were selected to compete in the competition, and GovLia took first place.
The company has also won several other awards, including the pitch competition at the Women Empower Expo hosted by PS27 Ventures and the innovation impact award at the Military Impact Awards.
GovLia operates out of Florida for now, but Kegler anticipates national growth in the future. “Within the next two years, we want to be operating within at least six different states,” she says. “That’s the goal.”
Jessica Tabbert, the founder and CEO of J. Gisele, an events and entertainment agency in South Florida, had heard of Kegler before they met. “Her name kept coming up whenever people were talking about women in tech in South Florida,” says Tabbert, who is also a veteran. “I was like, ‘I need to meet her, I need to meet her.’ ”
“She’s a unicorn. She’s a female, minority, veteran entrepreneur. I don’t know how many of us there are in the country, I just know there aren’t enough.”
Early in 2018, Tabbert founded a cohort that offered a co-working space for veteran and military entrepreneurs, which eventually connected her with Kegler. The two clicked and have been close ever since.
“She just embodies the type of tenacity, I think, that people love to see,” Tabbert says. “She’s a unicorn. She’s a female, minority, veteran entrepreneur. I don’t know how many of us there are in the country, I just know there aren’t enough. Being affiliated with someone like her has been a blessing to me because she reminds me why I keep doing what I do.”
Tabbert says she anticipates Kegler will do big things in the years to come. “She’s very small in stature, but she’s huge in possibility, potential and opportunity,” Tabbert says. “I think she’s definitely somebody you want to pay attention to over the next few years.”
Hodges agrees, going so far as to say he believes ShaKeia Kegler will be a name everyone knows. “In the future, I see her being on top,” he says. “Actually, I see her being a household name we see every day.”
Kegler attributes part of her success to never letting anyone tell her who or what she could be.
“There is no version of who you have to be to be successful,” Kegler says.
Being in the military for five years could have set her back. “But I’m still doing it,” she says.
Being a woman in a male-dominated fieldcould have scared her away. “But I’m still doing it,” she says.
Being a founder who is a person of color and knowing the opportunities for funding are low could have stopped her. But, she says, “I’m still doing it.”
Best Practices: Perfect the Pivot
After her first two business ideas failed, ShaKeia Kegler received the nickname “Pivot Queen” from colleagues at her entrepreneurs program.
Kegler learned about the importance of pivoting during her time in the Navy. If something didn’t work on her post—for example, the power suddenly went out—the sailors still had to figure out how to make
“I would say hardship and struggle help you be better prepared to pivot or find a way in unfortunate or unforeseeable circumstances,” Kegler says.
This knack for adjusting her sails has also given Kegler a unique viewpoint on failure. For her, it’s all about perspective. The day before interviewing for this story, Kegler had participated in a pitch competition. She didn’t win.
“Even though I didn’t win the pitch competition, 900 people put in applications, and they selected nine businesses,” she says. “That’s a win. Take the failures with the successes, no matter how big or how small.”
On the Side: Hustle When You Can
ShaKeia Kegler is no stranger to the side hustle. While in the U.S. Navy, she started her own side business. Every time someone makes rank in the Navy, she says, they change the curls (which rest on the shoulder) of their uniform.
Kegler decided to start a side business sewing these curls on for her colleagues.
“I went out and purchased a filler machine and in my barracks, I was actually taking orders,” she says. “I’ve always had that ambition to really just start something of my own.”