Dr. Lunique Estimé was still only a young graduate student on the day in 1993 when, strolling through the newsstand on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and 17th Street in Washington, DC, a magazine cover caught his eye. The publication featured the top ten businesses at the time, and when he flipped through, he was surprised to find a janitorial supplies company. “I had always dreamed of starting my own business,” he recounts today. “I thought, well, that’s simple enough.”
At the time, Lunique was completing his masters degree and preparing to embark on a PhD in environmental cleanup, but he decided now was as good a time as any to begin exploring his entrepreneurial potential. He immediately thought of the friend who had tried to convince him to sell Amway products, including a selection of cleaning products. He decided that he, too, wanted to sell cleaning products, though not door-to-door like his friend. Instead, he opted to focus on contracts selling cleaning supplies to janitorial companies.
With that, in 1994, Lunique became a sole proprietor, and in 1996 incorporated his business as Estimé Enterprises. As he completed his science education and research, he built the foundation of his company slowly, setting the stage for future business success as he set the stage for scientific discovery in his other line of work. “With the scientific method, you must first ask a question and construct a hypothesis,” he explains. “I did the same with my business. How could I design a livelihood that would allow me freedom, flexibility, and the ability to control my own destiny, while solving environmental issues in the world around me? I hypothesized that I could get my feet wet selling cleaning supplies, later developing the business into an environmental cleanup biotech company using plants to clean up hazardous waste materials.”
It’s taken many experiments, recalibrations, and trips back to the drawing board, but Estimé has since blossomed into a strategic solutions consulting firm providing construction management, environmental consulting, program management, and green solutions to clients in the government, private, and academic spheres. Notable projects include interior buildouts for the MGM National Harbor project, a DC United project, and the Cannon House Office Building renewal project for the U.S. House of Representatives, and Estimé Enterprises is currently on a team in the running for the regional medical center project underway in Prince George’s County.
While the majority of the company’s revenues draw from construction and the building of storm water devices, Lunique is working to expand its biotech line of business. For instance, he helped launch a research lab at Peking University in Beijing to examine how plants can be used to clean up crude oil pollution, and is currently investigating the use of plants to degrade polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a group of manufactured products now banned in the U.S. “If we’re going to meet the goals set by the EPA and rise to the environmental challenges of our time, we need new solutions,” Lunique points out. “That’s why we’re now focused on developing innovative technologies that will allow plants to be an integral part of the solution. It’s taken a while, but I’m now circling the wagons back to what I originally envisioned when I first launched the company.”
Driven by challenge, Lunique has never shied away from the hard work it takes to start and run your own business—a trait instilled in him by his parents when he was very young. His parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti shortly after 1960, and his oldest sister was born in Florida in 1962. Their second daughter was born in 1964 in New York City, and their third came three years later. Lunique, their only son, was born in 1969.
Lunique’s father worked as a cab driver, while his mother worked as a janitor for Verizon. They saved up enough to buy a four-unit house, where the Estimés lived all through Lunique’s childhood. They rented out the other units, and soon made enough to buy two more four-unit houses to rent out. Every time a tenant moved out, Lunique’s father would take him along to fix up the unit, though he was too young at first to provide much assistance. “He would sit me down on a 5-gallon bucket and say, ‘You’re too young to help me paint and renovate, but you’re not too young to watch me,’” Lunique remembers. “So I’d sit there watching my dad paint. By age eleven, I was painting, too. My mom would bring us lunch, and I thought I had the meanest dad in the world, keeping me inside to work while everyone else got to go out and play. But looking back, it taught me a work ethic that was truly unparalleled.”
Lunique’s sisters never had to help with renovation work, but were instead expected to prepare dinner and work in the kitchen. In many ways, the Estimé household was very traditional, and the children were taught to respect their elders and carry themselves well. “On Sundays, when we’d go to visit family members nearby, we were expected to dress up and wear our nice shoes,” he recounts. “Our parents always wanted us to be presentable and well-behaved.”
When he was only five years old, spurred by his desire to be able to help people in need, Lunique told his parents he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. Staunch believers in the power of education, they loved the idea and encouraged him along the way. He and his sisters attended private Catholic school from the time they were very young, and it was always understood that they’d go to college one day.
As a kid, Lunique loved putting toy cars together and playing with his older cousins who lived in the neighborhood. After school, on weekends, and through the summer, he dedicated his time to football, basketball, and baseball, though his schools were too small to have competitive teams. He was a good student, though he talked a lot in elementary school. His parents always told him they knew he could do better, so he buckled down in his sophomore year of high school and began to apply himself in earnest.
In addition to helping out with the family real estate, Lunique washed his father’s car, swept the leaves of Brooklyn’s tree-lined streets, and cleared snow in the winter in exchange for an allowance. He started formally working for his father’s properties when he was thirteen. Until that time, he had spent one month every summer in Haiti—an annual family trip that Lunique never much enjoyed. The country wasn’t as impoverished then as it is now, but he still preferred summer days in New York, where he could play with his friends.
Eager to pursue his vow to one day become a doctor, Lunique planned to go to Syracuse University because he was drawn to their athletics reputation. But during his senior year, he ran into an old friend from elementary school, who invited Lunique to come visit him at Howard University. “He had his own apartment, and we had a great time all weekend,” Lunique recalls. “I decided that’s where I belonged, so Howard was the only school I applied to.”
Lunique spent his freshman year acclimating to college life and then buckled down academically in his sophomore year. He picked up a job at the campus art gallery for extra spending money and developed close bonds with his professors, who were role models of hard work with solid academic, personal, and professional reputations. Because he had taken summer classes through college, he didn’t have to take a full course load during his senior year, so he did an independent research course with a highly-respected professor named Dr. Frederick.
Lunique came to love his research course studying Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that destroys elm trees, for reasons beyond just the content and methodology. “Dr. Frederick was straight as an arrow—always there, always working,” Lunique remembers. “He reminded me of the hard work ethic I grew up observing as a child, guiding me in the direction I’ve since followed.” Around the same time, he also read several articles about medical doctors that painted a bleak picture. “I learned that the average retirement age was 55 years old because many of them leave the profession due to burnout,” he recounts. “Then I read an article by a pediatrician who described the pain of knowing a child from birth and then watch them die in front of her, powerless. I knew it would deeply affect me to go through something like that.”
This confluence of events prompted Lunique to look into becoming a different kind of doctor. He learned about the option of getting a PhD, and was drawn to the idea of doing research. “In a sense, research is challenging because you have to create your own hypothesis and set your own stage for whatever problem you want to solve,” he said. “I liked that independent way of thinking and how it was similar to the entrepreneurial mindset you need to start your own business—something I still wanted to do.”
Lunique completed his bachelor’s degree in Microbiology in 1991 and went straight into his master’s in Biology with a focus in Molecular Genetics and a concentration in research. When he completed that degree in 1993, there were certainly times he was tempted to leave his education at that. But the thought of having to tell his mother that he wasn’t going to be a doctor was enough to keep him going. “I always wanted to fulfill that goal for myself, but also for her,” he says. “My father passed away while I was in my master’s program, and while that was hard, I knew I had to stay on task with my work because that was the person he was. I would have disappointed him if I hadn’t pushed forward.”
With that, Lunique leapt immediately into his PhD program, tackling a hot issue of widespread concern at the time—superfund site cleanup. Working under Professor John Rier, a premier plant anatomist who was appointed by President Nixon to the board that formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he conducted a study using plants to clean up hazardous waste materials. Tragically, Dr. Rier passed away a month before Lunique’s graduation, so the professor didn’t get to see his student receive his dissertation award. But pressing forward as he had done after his own father’s death, Lunique was able to get their research published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, a prestigious journal. His professor’s name was included—an important honor to the man who helped pave the way for Lunique’s success.
When Lunique completed his PhD in 1998, he immediately set to work on his postdoc, which marked an important milestone in his professional development. “During your PhD research, you’re working on your advisor’s project, and that person sets the direction and tone of the work,” he explains. “Your postdoc is the first truly independent project that you develop and handle on your own. You set your hypothesis, map out what you need to do to get it done, figure out your funding, and go. It’s the time you get your wings and fly on your own.”
Living at home with his family in Brooklyn, Lunique began work on his postdoc with the EPA and commuted to the Urban Watershed Management Branch in Edison, New Jersey. There, he managed two 10,000-square-foot greenhouses and studied how plants could be used to clean nutrients, heavy metals, and hazardous waste materials out of storm water. “Cleaning storm water was hardly a blip on anyone’s radar at that time,” he remarks. “But now, localities all across the U.S.—and around the world—are dedicating billions of dollars to storm water management because it’s been shown to be such a huge environmental problem. That’s why, for instance, you see storm water fees added on to your tax bill every year in Northern Virginia. It’s a big concern.”
Over the next four years, while working four 10-hour days a week at the greenhouses in New Jersey and living in New York, Lunique kept his apartment in DC and drove down every Thursday to work on his business. On those days, he took meetings and attended seminars and conferences, which began advancing his prospects in the construction arena. In time, his success in construction overtook his success in the environmental space, and Estimé Enterprises evolved accordingly. “Even while working at the EPA, I never lost sight of what I wanted to do in the long run,” he remembers. “It took a lot of hard work, but I kept my office and business going.”
When Lunique completed his postdoc research in 2002, his colleagues and superiors at the EPA wanted him to stay and set up a research lab, but his goals and passion lay elsewhere. “When you go into academia to help solve a problem, the goal is publication,” he explains. “Very often, you’re doing the same thing every day for decades as you complete your research. That just wasn’t me. I wanted to get out in the private sector, which has a very different way of solving problems.”
With that, Lunique went full steam ahead with his company. Diving into the world of biotech entrepreneurship, his technology garnered some publication, but he soon realized he would need more bench research to actually commercialize it. He began looking for lab space and funding, but found that grant opportunities were slim for private companies. “It’s often assumed that for-profit businesses have their own revenue streams,” he explains. “As a startup, I found that dynamic surprising, and quite challenging.”
Through that time, Lunique was grateful for the support and love of Wanda, the woman he met at a restaurant in New York in 1999. They dated long-distance for several years, and later got married in 2008. “Wanda’s a CPA and accountant, and I can’t tell you how many times she’s been there for me professionally through the years,” he recounts. “As a small business owner, my tendency has been to work in the business, not on the business. For instance, I had always wanted to implement project management software, but I never had the time to actually do it, so she took it upon herself. We had been using an outside estimator that underbid us on several projects, causing us substantial losses. Just as we were about to take on another project, Wanda got the project management software up and running, which revealed that it would turn out to be another huge loss.”
Even more remarkable is the personal journey Lunique and Wanda have undertaken together—the one that’s brought their two young children, Ethan and Alexis, into the world. Wanda left a very successful career in accounting to be home with the children through their earliest years, and now works for Estimé Enterprises making a fraction of what she could make elsewhere. She’s also since launched a CPA firm of her own, and Lunique hopes to be as helpful to her career as she has been to his. “Later this year, I’d like to help her transition to her own office and staff up, with a focus on finding a great business development person,” he says. “It’s my goal to help her establish her business.”
Today, Lunique works to develop himself as a leader through reading and participating in a CEO academy, where he developed a strategic growth plan for the company. He places an emphasis on effective communication with his team members—a trait he has aimed to develop in the wake of his more solitary days doing PhD research. Acknowledging that the world is made up of strategic planners, operations specialists who guide people according to those plans, and doers who execute on the frontlines, he strives to put people in their best roles according to their personalities and strengths. And that begins with him. “I’m a strategic planner, and the key to success is communicating that plan and vision to my team,” he explains.
In advising young people entering the working world today, Lunique underscores the importance of following your passion and never giving up. “Once you have a goal or something you want to accomplish, work hard and just keep plugging away at it,” he encourages. “You’ll run into all kinds of challenges that can divert you from accomplishing your goal, so it’s important to stay focused and stick with it.”
Beyond that, Lunique is a testament to the power of hypothesis and hard work. In bringing a scientific method to the challenges of business, he has succeeded in designing a company that draws on his strengths to garner results that have proven to be solid and reproducible. “We’ve certainly come a long way, and we’ve got a long way yet to go,” he acknowledges. “My uncle has a saying in Creole that roughly translates to, ‘only the eyes are afraid of work.’ If you see a long list of things you need to do and feel overwhelmed, just take it one step at a time. Don’t worry about the whole thing, because you’ll get bogged down by how long you think it’ll take you. Just take it day by day, and eventually, you’ll get there.”