Last month I was back in Sacramento, this time with small business advisers, policy makers, researchers and advocates to celebrate our state industry association CAMEO’s (CA Association of Microenterprise Organizations) 20th Anniversary. Collectively, the folks at the gathering represented a large portion of the nonprofit support system that serves small businesses across our state with financing and advising. As a lifelong Californian, I always take special pride in meeting people from the far flung corners of our state who are hard at work building a strong local economy. Two of the seemingly contradictory things I learned at the event were the importance of staying centered and focused, even while changing with the times.
Staying Centered: Judy Wicks, (co-founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, long-time entrepreneur and a personal heroine of mine), shared her story of starting up a small café which, over time, became a major force for positive change in her Philadelphia community. Her successful model shows that it is possible to run a profitable small business that is also contributing to local environmental sustainability, and community involvement. For me the key takeaway from Judy’s inspiring speech was that anything is possible if you stay centered and focused. Judy stayed in one neighborhood for nearly 40 years, building a strong local economy piece by piece, day by day. By keeping her business small and local, she was able to accomplish so much more than if growth had been her singular goal.
Changing with the Times: Later that afternoon, we talked about the changing landscape of services for microbusiness. Some of it is good – affordable crowd-funding, maker spaces and lots of online support to grow a business. Some of it is bad – high-cost alternative financing, reduced funding to business advising services targeted for low-income entrepreneurs. What is clear is that conditions are changing rapidly and organizations that serve microbusiness owners are struggling to keep up. Technology poses a particular challenge – because while investing in online services and apps can be a cost-effective way to reach more businesses, it also runs the risk of excluding many of the highest-need business owners, exactly who these organizations are trying to serve.
It is a challenge to simultaneously stay focused on your community (however you define it) and be nimble enough to refine what you do to as circumstances evolve. Perhaps the most important thing is to separate what is simply noise from the relevant and important trends that impact your community.