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Shalonda Washington stepped into the Collier County ACCESS Florida center hoping to make ends meet with government assistance. She was 15, pregnant and working multiple low-wage jobs. What a worker said to her triggered something inside.

“She said, ‘Honey, you would get more money from us paying your rent and giving you food stamps and a check than you would working all these jobs,’” she remembers. “Then I said, ‘but when do I get an increase? Do I just stay on that level?’ I saw limitations. I didn’t want to be limited.”

Washington wanted something more than the pattern she’d seen all her life while being raised by her grandmother, who was on assistance, in Naples’ River Park public housing. (Her mother had battled—and ultimately died from—drug addiction.) “I wanted to be free,” she says.

The memory seems far behind her now, as she settles into the newly expanded, 2,558-square-foot Reliable Permitting & Business Support Services office—the company she founded 22 years ago and runs with her family. The Naples-based firm helps 415 local and national clients from an array of industries with permitting or construction administration needs.

Washington credits her bubbly personality (and a few key people who took chances on her throughout life) for being able to grow Reliable Permitting from a side venture run out of the trunk of her Nissan Altima to a successful business that recently began securing permits for a preferred builder at Babcock Ranch, the new solar-powered community in Southwest Florida.

But it’s also something else: her ability to recognize a greater goal and create a path to reach it.

For instance, early on, Washington noticed there wasn’t a job title for the basic permitting needs she handled in an office—it was just labeled as secretarial work. So she began offering them independently to new-home contractors. To help fund her endeavor, she set up small, home-based firms on QuickBooks in the mornings, while heavily pregnant with her third child, and dropped fliers off around town for her new business in the afternoons.

“I had my kids with me and my stomach was big, but whatever worked, that’s what I did,” Washington says. Soon, the calls poured in.

When the economy dropped a few years later, Washington shifted her focus from permitting services for new construction to assisting clients with existing construction, obtaining her Community Association Managers (CAM) license in the process. She participated in condo association meetings, prepared lien packages, restored contractors’ license registration and updated insurance.

Today, clients can come to Washington, nicknamed “The Permit Queen,” for anything from completing and submitting government agency applications to delivering approved plans, permits, inspection cards and receipts to necessary parties.

The foundation for Reliable Permitting’s future is set, Washington says. Now it’s time to grow. “My ultimate goal is to be in more than one location.”

The business has allowed Washington to start a nonprofit organization, Washington Family Ministries. Washington and her family regularly meet with Collier County youth to help them through some of the unfortunate experiences she had as a child. She shows them what’s possible through example.

“It’s such an amazing feeling when I see the light bulbs go off in them,” Washington says. “I need to show them what [success] looks like … to show them that this can be for them.” 

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