3 Steps To Identifying Local Small Business Resources.

Karl Franz Williams

As a small business owner, I know firsthand that the challenges do not end once you officially start your business. In fact, they are just beginning. The dream behind entrepreneurship is to grow your business from a startup to a viable, financially stable enterprise that can support your desired livelihood.

Making that dream a reality is extremely challenging, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and people of color who may have limited access to small business resources, including capital, informational/educational materials, mentors, peer groups, and opportunities for exposure and PR. There is no seat at the table for these entrepreneurs and therefore they face a lower probability of success. According to a report by McKinsey & Company in May of 2020, 57% of Black-owned businesses were classified as at risk or distressed vs 27% of white-owned businesses.1

This reality was searing in our minds, when nine of us local small business owners in Harlem, NY got together during the Great Recession to form Harlem Park to Park (HP2P). Honored in 2018 on the annual list of the Top Civic and Business organizations in the state, HP2P currently has over 250 Harlem small business members, 60% of which are Black owned and 80% are woman owned.

Originally envisioned with a primary focus on providing marketing and resource support, we discovered over the years that much more was needed to increase the success rate of some of our member businesses. With this in mind, we formed a new division of the organization called the Harlem Local Vendor Program (HLVP).

This program is specifically designed to provide tools that member businesses need to rapidly scale to a viable level of sales and income. In other words, we had created a Business Accelerator. The program includes intensive business education, ongoing support, contracting opportunities, and promotion.

I sat down with one of the original HP2P Nine, Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, who has served as the Executive Director of the organization since the beginning, to discuss the process of creating a program like the HLVP.

Through our conversation several takeaways stood out. Below you’ll find three tangible actions you can take to be intentional about searching and engaging with local opportunities for partnership and support, as well as information on how to find small business resources for education and training.

 

Step 1: Identify your current & future needs.

This step is the first and most crucial step. As a small business owner, you need a firm understanding of your current and future needs. This level of clarity creates space for you to seek resources that serve your distinct business needs for success.

The more clearly you define your needs, the better you can identify prospective programs to address them. Look out for opportunities to participate in grassroots research and surveys powered by local government, accelerators, nonprofits, and other community groups such as Harlem Park to Park.

By understanding your needs and expressing them through the right channels, you can be more strategic in your search for small business resources, while playing an active role in the development of programs directly connected to your aspirations. Nikoa talks more about how Harlem Park to Park assessed community needs to inform programming and expand the organization's focus.

Karl: So, what was the reasoning behind expanding HP2P’s focus?

Nikoa: HP2P was producing an annual outdoor fair called the Harlem Harvest Fest, which featured our members. It started as mostly restaurants and storefront vendors. However, over the years we noticed a trend toward more “makers” participating than storefront businesses.

We had a partnership with a national grocer for three years as a brand partner for the Harlem Harvest Festival and realized with mentoring and support these makers could scale their businesses and become suppliers for the new store opening in Harlem. It was an experiment at first.

Karl: How did HLVP source the needs of local businesses to ensure that the program created would be tangibly impactful?

Nikoa: What I did is what we do well in HP2P, sitting at a table and having a creative brainstorming session. I don’t assume I’m smarter; I let them tell me what they need. I had a meeting and asked, “what do you need, where do you want to go?” With the Harlem Harvest Festival suppliers, we essentially had a focus group, if you will: 60 vendors who had participated for several years and were all eager to share info. It’s all about engagements.

Step 2: Understand your ideal strategic partnerships.

One of the biggest hurdles for Black small business owners is access to resources for growth and scale. Strategic Partnerships can be help small businesses in this department. When searching for community resources to accelerate your small business growth, it’s important to identify the types of partnerships that can help drive current and future business success—and make those a part of your search criteria.

For example, HLVP leveraged relationships with national wholesale chains, educational institutions, and a retail marketplace to create new business pathways for local business owners. These relationships were positioned as partnerships where local food & beverage entrepreneurs could learn to optimize business operations, transition from home to commercial production, and eventually gain wholesale distribution.

Strategic partnerships can create opportunities for scale, pipelines to procurement opportunities, and access to industry information not accessible to the general public. In my conversation with Nikoa, she outlines how strategic partnerships are especially beneficial for small businesses who are not quite in a position to access the lending capital needed for this type of growth.

Karl: How exactly does an organization like HLVP help its small business clients?

Nikoa: We ask the question: What does it take to be national grocer ready? Having a national partner at the table was gold; being in their stores opens other doors for suppliers.

Many did not know what it meant to truly be a manufacturing business. When we met with Whole Foods, they identified the components needed. Then we established a relationship with a commercial kitchen, which helped transition suppliers’ production out of their homes.

Columbia University Business School brought in the education piece – business management, finance, operations, marketing, and packaging. They have a professor who is world renowned for advising manufacturers on scaling and positioning their businesses. He became the key instructor.

To bridge the gap from home-based to full manufacturer, we started to produce vendor fairs so they could refine their plans, sample, improve their brand presentations, and design booths for in-store demos, making them more purposeful. We also partnered with a national retail chain’s visual merchandising division to teach vendors design for booths and marketing at retail.

The challenges for Black-owned businesses in the manufacturing space are greater than in the storefront retail. The funding is limited, and a lot of the incubator programs are expensive. These are tiny businesses who are doing maybe $20k in sales, so getting loans and the needed resources is hard – including Paycheck Protection Program funds and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

Also, getting to a buyer is hard – it is not just the capital, but access to the buyer community. If you have direct access to the procurement side you are good, but that’s the hard part. HLVP has created a relationship of trust where we can endorse businesses and get them through to buyers.

Step 3: Search for well-integrated programming.

Once you’ve identified your needs and solidified ideal partnerships for your small business, it’s time to focus on programming. How are small business accelerators on the local and state level designed to integrate resources and activities geared toward your forward progression? How is programming crafted to introduce you to a supportive community, while amplifying your reputation and ultimately impacting your bottom line?

This has been the secret sauce for Harlem Park 2 Park and the Harlem Local Vendor Program. We spent years creating great programming that provided marketing, created community, and offered exposure and recognition. When combined with the business-centric objectives we were honing with the HLVP, it created a rare and unique opportunity for our members. This combination is what we call 360 Degree Programming.

Karl: How can our readers find small business resources like what HB2B and HLVP offer, in their own local areas?

Nikoa: A great place to start is with a Community Economic Development Organization, because they have a lot of the relationships with civic and local business leaders. They also already have the education and programming. If you do not have a community economic development organization, you can also look to your local SBA Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Working with an advisor there can get you connected to other resources.

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