When Samantha Grace became a mom of two, her schedule as a property manager became unsustainable. She branched out on her own, starting her own business specializing in post-construction clean up. But like many small business owners, Grace faced hurdles in establishing her business, especially through the pandemic. With tailored, one-on-one support from a small business adviser, she has not only solidified the foundation of her University Place business but expanded to an additional location.
This type of small technical assistance, from loan application support to understanding how to hire employees, is invaluable, especially for those in communities furthest from opportunity — microenterprises owned by women, people of color, low-income and rural entrepreneurs. These groups face historic and systemic barriers to success, and technical assistance providers are often the link to creating thriving businesses.
The Washington State Department of Commerce recently published a report examining the current landscape of small business support, referred to as technical assistance. Technical assistance programs provide training and guidance to help small businesses succeed, as well as share resources and education to help entrepreneurs tap into government and philanthropic aid programs.
Surveying technical assistance providers from across the state, the report is the first ever exploration of how such providers responded to the pandemic, the gaps that exist in support, and how we can prioritize state and philanthropic resources to fill those gaps, especially for businesses furthest from opportunity.
The report highlights three keys to effective technical assistance — time, trust and technology. For Grace, a technical assistance provider came to her house, twice a week, for support that was tailored for her specific needs. Trust is crucial for business assistance, but it takes time and resources to build it.
We also learned that financing is the No. 1 need for these business owners. Getting them access to loans designed by and for their communities can help them establish good credit and get loans, which are essential to their success.
With more than 600,000 small businesses in Washington state, I know that our government resources must be focused and intentional so we can strengthen small businesses and dismantle barriers that have historically prevented them from thriving. I believe strongly that our role at Commerce is to work alongside small businesses and technical assistance providers to reach the visions of success they have for themselves.
The technical assistance providers we surveyed said that small businesses furthest from opportunity need culturally — and linguistically — appropriate outreach and assistance. It needs to be time-intensive and flexible, and provided on the business owner’s schedule. That’s why we created a network of 30 trusted community organizations — Commerce’s Small Business Resiliency Network — in 2019. For this fiscal year, July 2022 through June 2023, Commerce has invested $3.1 million in funding for the program.
One of our network partners — Faaluaina Pritchard with the Asian Pacific Cultural Center — told us that they often provide technical assistance in the evening or at night, to accommodate business owners’ work schedules.
Providing business assistance “is basically 24/7,” Pritchard explained. “I get called Saturday and Sunday, different hours, sometimes morning, sometimes evening …”
Washingtonians have a desire for an economy that works for everyone, especially as we rebuild from the pandemic. Rebuilding an equitable economy means addressing the unique needs of all communities with culturally, linguistically relevant and community-driven resources.
The Department of Commerce exists at the unique intersection of communities and our economy that allows us to facilitate connections between public and private resources to intentionally strengthen our current small business resources and programs so that they reach the microenterprises that are the lifeblood of their local economies and communities.
With more than 1.1 million people employed by businesses with fewer than 50 employees, offering appropriate supports to all small businesses is key to rebuilding an equitable economy and allowing families to gain economic self-sufficiency. Yet, a number of these small businesses cannot grow and build generational wealth. The result is that entire families and communities are being left behind in the economic recovery.
As we continue to work together to strengthen communities and our economy, I look forward to supporting and investing in these technical assistance providers so they can best serve small businesses furthest from opportunity and create a Washington economy that works for all.