Isabella Guzman, who heads the federal Small Business Administration, speaks with reporters after a meeting with entrepreneursin Nubian Square. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE
When a group of 50 local business owners and activists sat down with Small Business Administration head Isabella Guzman last Wednesday to discuss ways the federal government can better help local entrepreneurs, there was no lack of ideas.
Like businesses across the country, those in Boston have struggled through pandemic shutdowns, supply chain shortages, a scarcity of workers and, most recently, the effects of rising inflation.
Meeting with reporters after the gathering, Guzman said the SBA is moving from its focus on saving small businesses during the height of the pandemic to helping many of those same businesses scale up. For that, the SBA is looking to local community development finance agencies and local government to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
“Now as we pivot and look toward making sure we can continue to serve those small businesses and help them build sustainable, resilient businesses into the future, the networks that are established are so critical,” she said.
Among those in the room were Initiative for a Competitive Inner City CEO Steve Grossman and Foundation for Business Equity Executive Director Glynn Lloyd.
Guzman said that convening business owners with business boosters and the SBA will help grow local economies.
“The power of networks is what leads you to capital to start your business, to grow your business and the SBA is about trying to help businesses get that American dream of business ownership,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re here for this community. I think the partnership that we’re going to continue to have with the City of Boston and Mayor Wu to continue to build bridges to communities who have been underserved to fill some gaps and make sure the American economy can continue to grow strong is what gives me hope.”
City officials have also dedicated resources to helping businesses through the pandemic. Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion Segun Idowu noted that the city has channeled $34 million in ARPA funds and operating funds to support legacy businesses. Additionally, the city has committed $9 million for a rebate program and $9 million to help scale businesses. Additional investments include $5 million for the city’s Main Streets programs, which help to revitalize local business districts and $1 million investments in a legacy business grant fund and a restaurant relief fund.
“We’re working to do everything within our power locally, to move faster than other levels of government sometimes can to get more money out the door right away,” she said.
Wu noted that the city has prioritized minority-owned businesses in its contracting through its Sheltered Markets Program, citing the $72 million contract her administration recently inked with City Fresh Foods to provide meals to the Boston Public Schools.
“We’re very excited about that partnership,” Wu told reporters.
Idowu said Guzman’s visit to Nubian Square underscored the city’s commitment to supporting small businesses.
“It’s an affirmation that we’re heading in the right direction,” he told the Banner.
Chris Grant, who co-owns Black Market, said the meeting gave him insights. The Nubian Square space hosts multiple vendors, many of whom are seeking ways to grow their businesses.
“We work with a lot of startups,” he said. “If we know where to steer people, it’s helpful.”
Grant said one hurdle small startups face is the paperwork and prerequisites entrepreneurs must navigate to qualify for assistance.
“Ease of access to capital means a lot to them,” he said.
For the Small Business Administration, balancing ease of access to capital with protections against misuse of such funds has been a challenge. The Paycheck Protection Program loans the SBA administered through the pandemic led to high-profile instances of fraud.
Guzman said the SBA has learned from the pandemic relief efforts.
“Agencies scaled dramatically,” she noted. “They delivered 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 prioritized in 2021 to ensure funds got into the hands of businesses it was intended to serve.”