Isabella Guzman, who heads the federal Small Business Administration, speaks to reporters after a meeting with entrepreneurs in Nubian Square. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, OFFICE OF THE MAYOR
When a group of 50 local entrepreneurs and activists met with Small Business Administration chief Isabella Guzman last Wednesday to discuss ways the federal government can better help local entrepreneurs, there was no shortage of ideas.
Like businesses across the country, those in Boston have struggled with pandemic shutdowns, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and, most recently, the effects of rising inflation.
In a press conference after the rally, Guzman said the SBA is shifting from a focus on bailing out small businesses during the height of the pandemic to helping many of those same businesses scale. That’s why the SBA is asking local community development funding agencies and local governments to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
“Now as we turn around and look to make sure we can continue to serve those small businesses and help them build sustainable, resilient businesses in the future, the networks that are in place are so critical,” she said.
Among those in the room were Initiative for a Competitive Inner City CEO Steve Grossman and Business Capital Foundation CEO Glynn Lloyd.
Guzman said convening business owners with business boosters and the SBA will help grow the local economy.
“The power of networks is what gets you the capital to start your business, to grow your business, and the SBA is trying to help businesses achieve that American dream of business ownership,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re here for this community. I think the partnership we’re going to continue to have with the City of Boston and Mayor Wu is to continue to build bridges to communities that have been underserved to fill some of the gaps and ensure that the American economy can continue to grow strongly. I hope so.”
City officials have also committed funds to help businesses during the pandemic. Economic Opportunity and Inclusion Chief Segun Idowu noted that the city has channeled $34 million in ARPA funds and operating funds to support legacy businesses. In addition, the city allocated $9 million for a rebate program and $9 million for business expansion assistance. Additional investments include $5 million for the city’s main street programs, which help revitalize local business districts, and $1 million in investments in a legacy business grant fund and a restaurant assistance fund.
“We are working to do everything we can at the local level, to move faster than other levels of government can sometimes get more money out the door right away,” she said.
Wu noted that the city has prioritized minority-owned businesses in its contracting through the sheltered marketplace program, citing a $72 million contract her administration recently signed with City Fresh Foods to provide meals to Boston Public Schools.
“We are very excited about that partnership,” Wu told reporters.
Idowu said Guzman’s visit to Nubia Square underscored the city’s commitment to supporting small businesses.
“It’s confirmation that we’re going in the right direction,” he told the Banner.
Chris Grant, who co-owns Black Market, said the meeting gave him insight. The Nubian Square space hosts multiple vendors, many of whom are looking for ways to grow their business.
“We work with a lot of startups,” he said. “If we know where to direct people, that’s helpful.”
Grant said one hurdle small startups face is the paperwork and prerequisites entrepreneurs must meet to qualify for aid.
Ease of access to capital means a lot to them, he said.
For the Small Business Administration, balancing ease of access to capital with protection against misuse of such funds has been a challenge. The Paycheck Protection Program SBA loans it managed during the pandemic led to large-scale fraud.
Guzman said the SBA has learned from efforts to mitigate the pandemic.
“Agencies have increased dramatically,” she noted. “They provided over $1.2 trillion in relief during COVID. Going forward, we want to make sure we implement the best practices that the Biden/Harris administration has prioritized in 2021 to ensure that funding gets into the hands of the businesses it was intended for.