Insights from an Expert in Strengthening Small Businesses

by the editorial team at Citi |September 21, 2020

Small business development and community development go hand-in-hand.

Lawyer-turned-nonprofit-founder Jennifer DaSilva is deeply familiar with the confluence of those forces, thanks to a career that has included microfinance initiatives in Cambodia, a youth leadership program in the Bronx, NY, and an economic development alliance in San Francisco, CA.

Today she serves as executive director of Start Small Think Big, a nonprofit she helped found that provides small businesses with critical resources and guidance when they need those most.

As many small, independent enterprises face extraordinary challenges, Start Small Think Big has dramatically up-scaled its efforts to support a growing network of businesses — efforts made possible in part by avid financial supporters like Citi.

What does this moment mean for small businesses? Life and Money by Citi talked to DaSilva recently to find out.

You founded Start Small Think Big in 2010. How would you sum up the organization's impact over the past 10 years?

Jennifer: We have developed a really unique model that I think fills a very critical gap in the small business ecosystem. First, we target a population of entrepreneurs that typically goes underserved by other small business Technical Assistance providers.

Start Small works to target those entrepreneurs that fall in the middle: Those who have launched, but are still very early stage, but really need quite individualized and one-on-one support to get to that next level of growth. Women- and minority-led businesses within that population are an important focus for us.

We do that by offering a very highly curated blend of one-on-one legal, financial and marketing assistance. And we really are the only program in the country that engages legal and non-legal staff to provide that kind of very comprehensive wrap-around support that is designed to promote not only the sustainability of these entrepreneurs and their businesses, but also longer term growth.

That model has proven itself to be quite effective. So, within the first year of getting Start Small services, clients have seen an increase in business revenue of over 50%. Typically, businesses are creating or retaining at least two to three jobs. And it's also a very scaleable and adaptable model. So, the last year, over 2,000 volunteers provided over 1,300 entrepreneurs with one-on-one support, valued at over $14 million.

This model has really enabled us to offer very responsive programming and services nationally to expand our reach very quickly — in the last two months alone — and provide the kind of support that businesses are really needing right now in particular.

Is the organization on track to have its most effective or impactful year?

Jennifer: We are very much on track to be serving more businesses than we have ever served in the past. Again, we're looking at numbers that have increased by over 150% just in the last two months alone [in terms of businesses engaged]. It is very hard to project what the next three to six months are going to look like.

But our goal, organizationally, is to continue to expand nationally and continue to expand our capacity to absorb that need. We have developed and are continuing to build a model that is really designed to expand and contract based on the need. So it's because of how we have built this model, it has proven itself to be quite adaptable as the need has expanded so dramatically. We have, so far, been able to expand our capacity to absorb that need.

How did you arrive at the work you do?

Jennifer: After law school, I clerked for two years with a judge in DC and then started working at a law firm in New York. When my partner, and now husband, was offered a job in Hague at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, we took it and moved abroad.

We were in Holland for two years and then moved to Cambodia, again for my husband's job. And it was there that I started to work at a microfinance organization and was then, for the first time, introduced to entrepreneurship and began to see the intersection between small business development and community development.

I started Start Small as we were headed back to New York after those three years abroad…because I saw how many people find their way into small business and entrepreneurship for very similar reasons to my own.

Portrait of Fawziyya Sugai

How does a dollar spent by a consumer at a small business compare to the one given to, say, a big retail chain?

Jennifer: At the most basic level, when you buy from a small or locally owned business, more money stays in the community. On average, about a half of every purchase at your local small business is recirculated locally, in the form of payroll, goods or services purchased locally, spent locally, donations to area charities. So that means that those purchases at your small business, they're that much more efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive.

Gwell – a wellness food company based in Harlem, NY, supported by Start Small – shows how local businesses can help lift up their communities. The founder, Fawziyya Sugai, sought to make wellness foods more approachable. She built the business in her local neighborhood, where food deserts are common. Gwell partners with local organizations to expand access to wellness education and contributes to organizations that support improving equitable access to food. Fawziyya is committed to improving food equity; in 2020, Gwell has pledged to donate 2,500 meals to children in need.

A lot of local economies fail, not so much because too little cash comes in, but more because of what happened to that money. When you buy locally from small businesses, more money stays local. It circulates more quickly at the local level. That means that more people get the benefit of that money in what's purchased.

What is the most common challenge you see small businesses facing, and what have you learned is the most effective solution?

Jennifer: Right now, cash is a huge issue. But I think what we're seeing, again and again, is that it's not just cash it's really access to capital. And equitable and inclusive processes and systems that enable that access.

That's how we're organized. We partner with organizations that provide capital, and part of that access to capital is in ensuring that businesses have that sound legal and financial infrastructure in place so that they are loan-ready. Once they get a loan, once they get that capital, they are able to manage that capital effectively and grow that capital, deploy that capital.

Start Small Think Big is out to help businesses run by women and members of groups that may face discrimination. How can we all work to level the playing field when it comes to entrepreneurial opportunity and support?

Jennifer: At Start Small we are really trying to do a better job listening to and actively sharing the stories of the Black-owned businesses that we support and the businesses owned by people of color and women in particular — really trying to better educate ourselves to understand the systemic and embedded obstacles that they face. We then translate those learnings into our programming and services so that we can better take into account those experiences on a daily basis.

We are attempting to, much more proactively, promote those businesses and encourage our networks, our volunteers, our pro bono and community partners, our donors to business specifically with those companies. And finally, we are really recognizing, I think, in ways that we haven't before, that colorblind policies and programs are not enough, that our Black and Brown businesses have been so disproportionately affected by all of this, and that we are working to build an actively anti-racist organization. That means increasing equitable outcomes by explicitly including diversity, equity, and inclusion in our mission statement, continuing to diversify our staff and our board, and providing ongoing DEI training.

That's not an exhaustive list, but it is our start, again, to just be much more proactive and really articulate much more clearly our attempt in this space.

Small businesses are navigating unprecedented times. What can they do to sustain themselves for the future?

Jennifer: Businesses are going to need to reinvent themselves and adjust their original vision for their business to accommodate that change in demand. And they're going to need to keep doing that. Businesses that can't make that pivot and do whatever that new business is in some kind of online capacity, are going to struggle.

We are seeing many of our businesses really coming together. They're switching their business models. And despite having even more limited resources of their own, they're giving to others.

In California we have a business, it's a spice importing company. She [the owner] put out a call to her community to raise money to help support farmers who she works with around the world. And in just a few days, she was able to raise enough money to pay them all through the rest of the year.

I think that the learning there is that businesses really need to collaborate and come together. And those that seize the power of generosity and collaboration are going to come out of this much, much stronger. So ironically, I think this crisis is compelling people closer together.

Tell us a business turnaround story you feel particularly proud of.

Jennifer: A brother and sister team, originally from Venezuela, came to Start Small about four years ago, working to open a bakery. At first they were cooking only out of a small kitchen incubator. We worked with them to get two microloans, which they used to open their own coffee shop in 2019.

Their business really started to expand, and things were going really well for them. But in March of this year they had to close and lay off most of their staff. But they kept trying to bake and sell things through phone and online orders.

They put together this pastry box which people could buy and donate to local hospitals. And the box was so successful that the brother and sister team was able to hire back all of their staff, plus a few more people to help them with this increase in demand that they saw. And over the last couple of months, they have been partnering with another business, which sells chocolate, to create these specialty food boxes. Those specialty food boxes have been particularly popular on Mother's Day and Father's Day.

I think the story of this business and this business' collaboration with this other business is a wonderful example of the creativity and collaboration that all businesses really need to show in order to be able to survive right now.

What are your best pieces of advice for someone starting their first business?

Jennifer: A challenging time can be a potentially good time to start a business. We're seeing everything going through this massive reset — all kinds of new customer needs, ways of doing things. That's at the core of any new business, determining what customers need now.

That's where the opportunity is, offering solutions to the challenges that people are facing, whether that's figuring out how to educate your kids at home or get your haircut. That doesn't mean it's easy to start a business right now, but there are definitely different opportunities and challenges that present themselves for a first-time entrepreneur.

This interview has been edited and condensed.