Marjorie Perry ’05, president and CEO of MZM Construction and Management, sits in a meeting room inside NJIT’s Enterprise Development Center (EDC). Her well-manicured hands are folded on top of a large conference table. Pink nail polish adds a pop of color to her all-black ensemble. She removes a Harvard-emblazoned lanyard from around her neck and lays it on the table. “I’m scared to death,” she says.
Just moments before, Perry gave me a tour of MZM’s new office, headquartered at EDC. It’s been taken down to the studs, but her vision for the space is clear. Glass wall panels will open the office to light and collaboration. There will be a conference room to seal important business deals. The walls will have an eggshell finish, picking up the earth tones in the carpet. A plaque, currently wrapped in plastic, commemorating MZM as one of 2018’s 100 fastest-growing inner city companies, as ranked by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and featured in Fortune magazine, will hang in her new digs.
“I am very honored,” she says of the commendation. “We’ve been in business for 25 years and it’s said now that we’re one of the fastest-growing urban businesses. Where were they 20 years ago?” She lets out a deep chuckle. “But that tells you how much you have to grow, learn and become.”
Now, back in the meeting room, Perry — who sits at the helm of a multimillion dollar enterprise; who recently became the first woman and first African-American chair of the NJIT Board of Overseers; who, in 2012, was inducted into the New Jersey Business Hall of Fame; who former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie selected to be a member of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority— admits her stomach is in knots thinking about her next academic endeavor.
“I applied to Harvard’s Owner/President Management program — and they accepted me,” she says, visibly stunned. “I thought my age would be an issue. I thought being in business too long would be an issue, but I got in.” She pauses to ponder this for a moment. A great big smile spreads across her face. “I’m going to Harvard.”
It’s rare for someone of Perry’s stature to be so open about what frightens her and what feels out of her grasp. Folks on her level are inclined to rest on their laurels, but that’s not her bag. Despite her many successes, the Newark native still retains a childlike curiosity. In fact, Perry takes giddy pride in what she calls a “thirst for knowledge.” But there was a time when her struggles with low self-esteem nearly swallowed her whole.
“I grew up with a lot of self-doubt,” she says. “It was scary. I wasn’t sure who I was or who I was going to become.” Living in the projects, she recalls having dreams and professional ambitions that often defied her environment. “I came out of a household where women weren’t allowed to show their strength and power. I would go home to a family who said mediocrity was okay.”
With the help of teachers and mentors, Perry soon realized her own potential, earning a B.A. from Kean College, while working a full-time job at night. Upon graduation, she taught health and physical education within the Newark public school system, where she was laid off multiple times. But she didn’t let the pink slips get her down.
“I’m a Newark girl,” says Perry, with aplomb. “The streets taught me how to navigate madness, and how to survive. If life throws me failures, I don’t fall apart.”
She shelved her teaching career to work in sales and marketing for big-name companies like United Airlines and Johnson & Johnson. But the corporate structure wasn’t a good fit. “Sit, stand, dress, move, talk and sound alike,” she says, shaking her head. “There was no individuality. You had to assimilate. I was a rebel coming out of the projects. That didn’t work for me.”
MZM was born out of Perry’s next venture: a consulting business to support budding entrepreneurs. She helped two clients launch the construction company before buying them out to become the sole principal.
“I had strategy, but I didn’t have the financial acumen. I needed to combine the two,” she says about her early days of trying to grow the business. “That’s when I decided to go back to school.”
NJIT’s MBA program taught Perry how to read financial statements and executive dashboards in a deep way. She learned how to calculate profit margins. She studied the differences between EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) and net income. And she continued to retool her skillset in software and technology programs after graduating from Martin Tuchman School of Management.
“I was over 40 at the time,” says Perry. “I needed to stay up to date. NJIT became my sounding board and my research center. It turned out to be a lasting relationship.”
Today, MZM boasts a five-year growth rate of 170 percent and a 2017 revenue stream of $4.5 million. So, what’s her secret to success?
“Integrity,” she says, without skipping a beat. “Keep your word. And do your job. If I tell you I’m going to do something, I do it. If I tell someone I’m going to pay them, I pay them, even if it’s at a loss to me.”
Perry’s veracity and reputation for excellence has led to MZM’s involvement in multiple high-profile projects, including MetLife Stadium and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Now she’s setting her sights on expanding the company to merge with other businesses.
“It’s not my strong suit,” she admits. “That’s why I’m going to Harvard — to learn how to work with venture capitalists and investors to move my business from point A to point B. By this time next year, I’ll be having another conversation about my equity partners and how we’re expanding the business.”
Also on her to-do list: start a school for entrepreneurship. Perry recently made a $100,000 donation to NJIT. A portion of the gift was created to launch an annual women's leadership lecture in the Marjorie A. Perry Theatre on the first floor of the Wellness and Events Center.
“God has blessed me with the fire to keep going,” she says. “That’s where the thirst for knowledge comes from.”
Perry grabs the lanyard and proudly hangs it around her neck. Her NJIT badge hangs from a clip attached to the end.
“I’m not done. If there’s something else I need to learn, rest assured, I’m going to learn it.”