A group of entrepreneurs sat in a conference room on a recent Wednesday for diverse reasons: one woman sought guidance on solidifying her cookie business with a brick-and-mortar store; another hoped to develop an online interior design magazine, while one man wanted advice on the transition from employee to employer.
In search of answers, they attended a bimonthly two-hour workshop on the basics of establishing a business. Called a Startup Seminar, the session is hosted by The Enterprise Center, which has dozens of programs meant to accelerate minority- and women-owned businesses.
The seminars were introduced after clients visited TEC for other services but were still unsure of how to write a business plan or apply for loans.
“A lot of people have shared their business idea with family and friends but they haven’t fully thought it out yet,” said Director of Education and Training Aleea Slappy, who teaches the seminars. “This session can help them figure out what steps they need to take to grow a business.”
Situated under the tracks of the Market-Frankford Line in West Philadelphia, TEC opened in 1989 to provide rental space for businesses. When the organization moved to its current location at 45th and Market streets four years later, its focus shifted to assisting local entrepreneurs.
Philadelphia’s economy is largely comprised of small businesses: firms with less than 50 employees make up 98 percent of the city’s businesses and generate more than half of the jobs here, according to a 2011 report by the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia.
Establishing small startups is also vital to staving off the gradual decline of Philadelphia’s unemployment rate, as data from the SBN study showed that 68 percent of local jobs are created by businesses less than 5 years old.
In the years since TEC’s switch from incubator to business accelerator, becoming an entrepreneur requires much less time, materials and money.
“With the virtual economy and the Internet, now people can start their businesses from home or on their cellphone,” said Art Gimenez, director of TEC’s Capital Corporation, who also spoke at the Startup Seminar.
The Capital Corporation is a micro-lending nonprofit that loans between $2,500-50,000 to small businesses, many of which, Gimenez said, are overlooked by commercial lenders.
“It’s hard to start a business, but to start a business and be a minority is a double challenge,” he said. “For a lot of people, they can’t find employment anywhere else, so they have to start a business to support their family.”
According to a national report commissioned by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, women are more likely than men to abstain from applying for a loan out of fear of rejection, while minorities are twice as likely.
Of those who applied for small business loans during the final three years of the study, the approval rate for men was consistently higher than women, while black and Hispanic business owners were turned down the most; in 2010, 60 percent of applicants were approved overall, compared to 28 percent of black and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
“One of the things we seek to do is level the playing field and make sure that minority entrepreneurs have the same resources that other people may have,” Slappy said.
Many clients, she added, are first-time entrepreneurs with no business education. In 2011, musicians Jeffrey Ziga, Martin Brown and Pete Angevine found themselves in that position as they opened a store for Little Baby’s Ice Cream on Frankford Avenue. At the time, its ice cream was primarily served via a custom-made tricycle.
By mid-2013, the co-owners planned to establish another location at 49th and Catherine streets with the help of a loan from the Capital Corporation.
“As a mobile ice cream vendor, we always had an enthusiastic response when doing events in West Philly,” Ziga said. “All of the feedback seemed, to us, to say that we should open up for business in the neighborhood.”
The location, called Little Baby’s Cedar Park Embassy, opened in spring of last year.
When weighing the decision to finance a business, Gimenez said staff members consider the entrepreneur’s sales and whether the funds will go toward financing growth or compensating for losses.
A credit counselor from Clarifi also visits TEC monthly. This service, as well as Startup Seminars and other programs at TEC, isn’t solely meant to encourage entrepreneurs to move forward with their aspirations.
“One of the basic things we see as a plus that people may perceive as a negative is that we may deter some people from going into business, so we present them with the information they need to ensure they have a viable idea,” Slappy said.
For entrepreneurs who utilize TEC’s programs, Gimenez said the organization’s goal is to act as one substantial step in the process of growing a business.
“We love to have our clients but it’s like a doctor’s office, where we don’t want them to always be here because they have an ‘illness,’ ” Gimenez said. “We want them to graduate so they can be a part of mainstream finance and succeed.”
– Text, video and images by Cheyenne Shaffer.