Hands-on help is on the way for small businesses in a recovering economy
New grants supported by Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund offer technical assistance — connecting small businesses to critical resources in some of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
Yolanda Diaz, an immigrant from El Salvador, supported her family by cleaning houses. Her version of networking with other micro-business entrepreneurs — even before the terms were common — consisted of talking with fellow domestic workers on the bus during their commutes. They shared information with each other about the best economic opportunities and job resources available, overcoming language barriers and working together to help each other succeed.
Her daughter, Diana Matamoros, is now an MBA student at California State University, Los Angeles. On a recent Saturday, armed with a handful of informational flyers and an understanding of the importance of small business owners making connections, Matamoros canvassed locally owned shops to speak to business leaders about their needs, sometimes in Spanish.
She is taking part in the first stages of Cal State LA’s Leading for Equity in Entrepreneurship Accelerator and Fellowship, or LEEAF, program, which will not only equip her with foundational knowledge in entrepreneurship, but will also allow her to work alongside entrepreneurs and position them to thrive in the difficult post-pandemic economic landscape. LEEAF is a partnership between Cal State LA and Community Health Council Inc., or CHC, with support from the Los Angeles Small Business Development Center.
The LEEAF program is one of several recipients in the latest round of funding from Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund. The fund is awarding grants to Cal State LA and 92 other nonprofits nationwide to support multilingual and culturally informed technical assistance for diverse entrepreneurs in underserved neighborhoods, with the goal of helping them stay open, maintain jobs, and recover from the economic effects of COVID-19.
“Programs like LEEAF can have a ripple effect. When you help small businesses, you are helping families as well as local economies and communities.” — Diana Matamoros
“Capital is critical, but most small business owners also need access to technical support and experts who can help them adapt and sustain their business,” said Jenny Flores, head of Philanthropy at Wells Fargo. She notes that small businesses can experience up to 30% revenue growth and grow employment by 10% in low-wealth communities alone with the right mix of resources and support systems, according to the Association for Economic Opportunity research.
By providing hands-on help for business owners to bolster online marketing, connect to specialized funding resources, develop strategies to hire and retain the best employees, and more, the funded programs can help small businesses overcome operational challenges while also increasing revenue opportunities and building on their resilience.
Dr. Michelle Burton, chief strategy officer at CHC, identified the inspiration for LEEAF as “when we observed that people in our communities are not only hungry and qualified for jobs in their communities, but are also desirous to create jobs and those enterprises that would build those jobs locally.”
“This was the spark behind LEEAF and we never looked back,” Burton said. “The partnership with Cal State LA and the generous funding allowed this program to be launched with the hope to demonstrate that policy and systems-change work is also possible in our communities using positive reinforcement and equitable business practices.”
Matamoros applied for the LEEAF program because she realizes that small business owners are currently facing unprecedented challenges. The pandemic has separated them from their networks as well as customers. And in historically marginalized and underserved communities, where language barriers, income disparities, and other issues persist, business owners face disproportionate difficulties in accessing capital and information.
“Programs like LEEAF can have a ripple effect,” said Matamoros. “When you help small businesses, you are helping families as well as local economies and communities.”
The yearlong LEEAF program offers a stipend to students and gives them intensive training on entrepreneurial principles ranging from financial planning to leadership development. Students like Matamoros will then pair with organizational leaders, mainly women and people from minority communities, and Cal State LA will support the logistical needs of their placement throughout their engagement with business owners.
“We have selected students from a variety of disciplines who represent a wide range of experiences and knowledge which they can share,” said Dr. Marla A. Parker, Cal State LA professor and LEEAF program co-director. “Their multi-faceted expertise can serve as ‘brain gain,’ contributing to the economic and social growth of small businesses.”
Cal State LA, which has been ranked No. 1 nationally to propel upward mobility (PDF), designed the program so that students would benefit as well as the businesses they work with. The program positions them to gain vital career readiness skills they can use beyond the program, especially if they have entrepreneurial aspirations, like Alex Duarte Xicay, another student selected for the LEEAF program.
Like Matamoros, he has seen firsthand how families and small businesses can be impacted by lack of access to important resources.
“Just two blocks from my house, there was a taco spot, one of my favorites, and family-owned. During the pandemic, one day they were there, and the next they were gone,” Xicay said. “It was heartbreaking because I know they worked so hard.”
Xicay, a sociology major, is particularly excited to bring social media marketing skills to businesses such as these, as well as connections to capital and other assistive resources.
He also hopes to gain from the experience some of the knowledge he may need to run his own small business one day. He is interested in eventually starting his own nonprofit that serves historically marginalized communities.
“I would like to try to be part of the solution wherever I can,” said Xicay, the father of two daughters, “and also be prepared for whatever is thrown at me.”