As an African-American man entering a Caucasian-dominated industry, Solomon Graham wasn’t intimidated when he founded Quality Biological in 1983, investing $10,000 of his own money to start the business.
The Gaithersburg company is one of the longest-operating biotechs in Montgomery County and has grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. It provides products and supplies for molecular and cell biology laboratories to use in infectious disease and cancer research.
Race was never an issue, Graham said.
“I worked with most all of the biotech CEOs in the early days,” said Graham, 70, known to many as Sol. “I started in the Navy in the 1960s making images of the human skin and went through technical school to learn how to preserve tissue cultures. ... I grew up with the industry here, so I had a comfort level.”
Graham has been a vital business and community leader in Montgomery for more than 30 years, said Robert L. Orndorff, founder and president of RLO Contractors and chairman of the board of Sandy Spring Bancorp. Graham served on the Olney-based bank’s board for 18 years through last May.
“He has never hesitated to offer his leadership, support and judgment whenever it was needed,” Orndorff said.
Graham is one of five leaders who will be inducted Tuesday as the second class of the Montgomery County Business Hall of Fame, a program founded by Grossberg Co. LLP and Monument Bank. The event at the Universities of Shady Grove will include an address by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
Other honorees are John S. Hendricks, executive chairman of Discovery Communications; Carmen Ortiz Larsen, CEO of Aquas Inc.; Ray Schoenke, founder of Schoenke & Associates; and James A. Soltesz, CEO of Soltesz Inc.
Graham’s road to business success started from humble roots, growing up on a family farm in one of the poorest areas of Georgia.
“That farm has been in my family since right after slavery ended,” Graham said. “My mother still lives in the house today.”
He graduated with honors from high school and immediately joined the Navy. For four years, he learned skills that would serve him well in the biotech industry, including attending the Navy’s tissue culture school.
Once out of the armed forces, Graham attended community colleges in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties long enough to earn an associate’s degree in business management. He studied marketing at University College, University of Maryland, but decided to start his business before he could earn a bachelor’s degree.
“I had the idea for the business and had to devote my full time to building a business,” Graham said.
Along the way, he has gotten involved with almost every local business and trade group, from the Tech Council of Maryland to the Economic Advisory Council of Montgomery County. He has served on hospital and bank boards, and the Montgomery College Foundation. He has won awards from the U.S. Small Business Administation, Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and others.
“The key to building a business is to find a niche and supply people with what they need,” Graham said.
In the past year or so, Graham turned Quality Biological over to his daughter, Angela Graham Whitaker, who is now president. He still is board chairman.
He is amazed how the biotech industry has developed in the county in the past three decades.
“The growth did not come without some effort,” Graham said. “Montgomery County was pretty much a bedroom community for the federal government when I moved here. ... The leadership has done a pretty good job establishing an employment base other than government.”