New $1 million grant to support socially, economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs

Springfield’s Small Business Development Center has been awarded a $1 million grant to implement a program it calls “Level the Field,” in which it will seek to engage with and assist socially and economically disadvantaged small business owners.

Local SBDC Executive Director Rob Alexander says the entire program will be based on building trust in order to reach out first-hand to minority and other underserved business communities in Springfield and Clark County.

“The whole reason this grant came about is because the U.S. SBA (Small Business Administration) realized that all these populations we are targeting don’t get the same help that other populations do,” he says. “We want to help people apply for grants and loans and win those grants and loans, and we want to point them to the right resources and to help them grow in general.”

The competitive grant comes from the SBA and was a nationwide opportunity with more than 750 applicants, Alexander says, adding that Springfield’s SBDC was selected as one of only 50 grantees.

“Once we saw the opportunity fit so well into what we want to do strategically – reach out to some of the harder to reach populations in the city – we knew we wanted the City of Springfield to throw their hat in the ring,” he says. “It’s a lot of money to point directly at some types of business owners who don’t typically get included in the services they need to thrive.”

Alexander says his organization knew that to make the kind of difference and impact they intend to make, SBDC couldn’t do it alone. So the SBDC has partnered with nine local non-profit organizations to focus on the range of business sectors they want to engage. Those sectors include minorities, immigrant entrepreneurs, Southside business owners, rural business owners, aging adults, people with criminal backgrounds, and people with developmental disabilities.

The non-profits are the Springfield Promise Neighborhood Association, 1159 South Community Development Corp., Clark County Local Food Council, Conscious Connect, Opportunities Industrialization Center, Developmental Disabilities of Clark County, United Senior Services, Del Pueblo, and Welcome Springfield.

The 2-year grant will fund 10 new positions, including a strategic planner and nine community navigators, who will be hired by each of the nine non-profit partners.

“Each community navigators will go out and meet people where they’re at,” Alexander says. “They’ll be hiring people from within these communities because they’re the ones who are already trusted and who have relationships. They’ll be able to point entrepreneurs to resources that can help them.”

The community navigators will help connect business owners with bankers, accountants, attorneys and other partners who can help them build and run their business correctly and efficiently, Alexander says.

The outreach portion of Level the Field will be what sets the program apart, in that the community navigators will truly be on the ground where the entrepreneurs already feel comfortable. Whether it’s making connections in a local barber shop, a frequent breakfast meet-up, or a local community gathering, Alexander says that Level the Field will be custom fit to connect with business owners “where community happens.”

“We have to go where they are, and we have to go there with people they know – someone who’s trusted,” he says. “And that’s what I think is so unique about this – I think it’s going to change the game and build a lot of trust among all people in Springfield and Clark County.”

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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