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Q&A: Support for minority-owned small businesses is crucial to the vitality of the Fresno metro area

American Cities

The Kresge Foundation recently had an opportunity to discuss the minority-owned and small business landscape of Fresno, California, with Cassandra Little of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce (FMBCC). Little, who has a doctorate in philosophy, serves as the executive director and CEO of the FMBCC, an American Cities Program grantee dedicated to engaging, educating and empowering Black businesses in the Central Valley. In this Q&A, Little shares more about the Chamber’s “Betting Big” program, efforts for creating strong ecosystems that support the unique needs of its members and how the success of small businesses benefits all of Fresno.

Q: For someone new to Fresno, can you share what the entrepreneurship environment is like — a “state of things” as they are today.

A: Fresno is at a pivotal moment in its economic journey.

Cassandra D. Little, President and CEO, Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce
Cassandra D. Little, President and CEO, Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce

We have witnessed significant growth in the entrepreneurial sector, a testament to the resilience, creativity and determination of our business community. Despite facing unprecedented challenges in recent years, Fresno’s entrepreneurs have shown remarkable adaptability, pivoted their business models and embraced new ways to thrive during and after COVID.

The growth of minority-owned businesses, including those led by African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, has been a driving force in our economy. These businesses not only contribute to our economic fabric but also bring a wealth of cultural diversity and innovation to our community. The Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce (FMBCC) has been at the forefront of supporting these businesses. We have focused on providing resources, mentorship and advocacy to help entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of starting and growing their businesses. Our efforts are particularly geared towards addressing the unique challenges faced by minority entrepreneurs, including access to capital, networking opportunities and navigating bureaucratic processes.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Access to funding remains a significant barrier for many small business owners, especially those in minority communities. We are actively working with local and national financial institutions to increase the availability of affordable financing options for small businesses. Additionally, we are advocating for policies that support small business growth and create a more equitable business environment.

Q: Can you share more about the Betting Big on Small Black Businesses program and what gaps or services it provides for Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs in Fresno?

A: The Betting Big on BIPOC and Women Small Businesses program is more than just a financial investment; it’s a comprehensive support system designed to address the unique challenges and barriers that these business owners face. We understand that access to resources, networks, and mentorship can be transformative for small businesses, particularly those led by individuals from historically marginalized communities. Our program offers a suite of services tailored to the needs of BIPOC and women entrepreneurs. This includes access to capital and low-interest loans, business mentoring from seasoned professionals, and workshops on key topics such as financial management, marketing and strategic planning.

Additionally, we provide networking opportunities with established business leaders and potential customers, helping to integrate these small businesses more fully into the economic fabric of Fresno. This program is focused on developing a long-term ecosystem for the participants.

Q: How does Betting Big complement your other programs and what role do they play in Fresno?

A: Betting Big set the foundation for all of our programs. When we say betting big, we are saying there should not be a limit to how we support our small businesses. We bet big on all our programming. From our Bonding, Technical Assistance and Contracting program to our Clean Mobility and Electric Vehicle accelerator program.

Q: According to a 2022 study by the US Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, African-American firms do not do as well under the current financing system. African-Americans have less financing at start-up, and a relative lack and size of bank loans later in the firm life cycle. As a result, African Americans are more likely to use personal assets and credit cards to fund their small business. This is a systemic issue. How does this program help minority entrepreneurs approach financing?

A: Our main goal within Betting Big and all our programming is to make sure that our small businesses are in the best position, structurally, to gain access to capital. We also spend a tremendous amount of time adding to the mindset of our small business owners.

A person at a Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce event holds an oversized check for $2,000 for a pitch competition.
The Betting Big program is an incubator for diverse founders to clear obstacles on their path to entrepreneurship by providing support, training and advice from seasoned professionals, and hands-on educational workshops and signature events to strengthen their skills.

The challenges that you mention still exist. Our businesses have a shelf life of three years due to lack of access to capital and support. The chamber has developed intentional relationships with financial institutions such as CDFIs and community banks. We have developed partnerships that make these entities not only part of our ecosystem, but they become a part of the small business ecosystem also.

A lot of work, research and planning has gone into this project. I feel we are just getting started. We are planning to package the Betting Big framework and share it throughout California. We also have a zero interest Kiva loan representative on our team that helps with micro loans. But our big push this year is to work with two of our financial partners, Lendistry and Access Plus Capital, on Betting Big 2.0. We want to interview six of our Betting Big cohort members and work with Access Plus Capital to create capacity to access capital that will allow them to scale their business. They will learn all things financial and have access to an ecosystem of attorneys, accountants and financial advisors. This project will start early summer.

Q: Speaking of financing, your team is doing some interesting things with federal and state dollars. Can you share how the organization has been able to lean into that stream of funds?

A: Our organization has been able to obtain grant funding to provide technical assistance to our small businesses and entrepreneurs. By having access to the funds, we can connect our small businesses to industry experts that assist with developing financial statements, business planning, marketing, accounting and bookkeeping as well as legal services, and credit education when needed.

Q: Besides financing, what are some of the other individual and collective barriers that are preventing small business ownership success in the metro area?

A: Having space to run their businesses. Many of our businesses would benefit from a shared space or incubator space for operations. They also would benefit from education and information about innovation and creative business ideas.

Q: Fresno is a diverse place, how is the Chamber partnering with other organizations to advance racial justice?

A: We are strong proponents of advocacy and social justice. For the past four years we have been active supporters of the California Black Power Network, we work closely with the social justice organizations in the community.

We understand that it is essential to address the core of the issues that are related to being BIPOC or a woman in our society today, as well as a business owner. There are layers to the barriers our community of small business owners face daily.

Q: The Chamber has some unique programming, and you’ve mentioned the importance of culturally competent offerings for members. What does some of that programming look like?

A: The Chamber is 100% committed to providing culturally competent and trauma-informed support to anyone that walks through our doors. The FMBCC stands at the forefront of empowering BIPOC and women-owned small businesses through our unique and innovative programming.

Recognizing the specific challenges and historical barriers faced by these groups, we are committed to providing culturally competent and trauma-informed technical assistance. Our programs are designed not only to address the technical aspects of business development but also to acknowledge and work within the cultural and socioeconomic contexts of our clients.

Our approach is rooted in a deep understanding that entrepreneurship for BIPOC and women often comes with unique hurdles. These include systemic challenges, historical disenfranchisement and, in some cases, trauma related to marginalization. Therefore, our technical assistance program is not just about imparting business knowledge; it’s about creating a supportive environment where entrepreneurs can thrive while respecting their cultural heritage and addressing the impacts of past traumas.

We offer a comprehensive range of services, including business planning, financial literacy, marketing strategies and legal compliance, all tailored to meet the specific needs of BIPOC and women entrepreneurs. Our expert team, equipped with an understanding of diverse cultural backgrounds, works closely with each business owner to ensure that the assistance provided resonates with their unique experiences and business goals. Our trauma-informed approach ensures that we recognize the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledge the role trauma may play in the lives of the entrepreneurs we assist. We strive to create a business advisory environment that is safe, respectful and collaborative, allowing our clients to feel valued and understood. The FMBCC’s commitment to culturally competent and trauma-informed programming represents our dedication to building a more inclusive and equitable business landscape. We believe that by addressing the specific needs of BIPOC and women entrepreneurs, we are not only aiding individual businesses but also contributing to the broader economic empowerment of our communities.

Q: Finally, can you talk about how a strong minority small business ecosystem benefits Fresno and the metro area?

A: The vitality of the Fresno metro area is deeply intertwined with the health and robustness of its small business ecosystem, particularly its minority-owned businesses. A strong minority small business sector is not merely a component of economic health — it is a cornerstone of our community’s vibrancy, innovation and resilience. I believe that minority small businesses drive economic growth and job creation. These enterprises are often agile and innovative, bringing new products and services to the market. By doing so, they generate employment opportunities, often in underserved communities, thereby stimulating local economies. This growth is not confined to the minority communities; it ripples across the entire Fresno metro area, enhancing overall economic health and stability.

When we have a thriving minority small business ecosystem it contributes to the cultural richness of Fresno. These businesses bring diverse perspectives and practices, enriching the community with a wide range of cultural experiences. From unique dining experiences and distinctive retail offerings to specialized services, they deepen the cultural fabric of our city, making it more vibrant and inclusive. Also, minority-owned businesses often foster strong community ties. They are not just economic entities; they are integral parts of their neighborhoods with the unique ability to understand and address hyperlocal needs. This connection leads to a more engaged and cohesive community, where mutual support and collaboration are commonplace.

Our community of small businesses often serve as role models and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, particularly in minority communities. They show that business success is attainable and that it can be a powerful tool for personal and community advancement. This inspiration is crucial for fostering a culture of entrepreneurship and self-reliance, which is vital for the long-term economic health of the Fresno area. Having a robust minority small business sector helps in reducing economic disparities. By providing opportunities for wealth creation and economic advancement in minority communities, these businesses play a critical role in bridging the economic divide. This not only benefits the individual business owners and their employees but also contributes to a more equitable and just society.

By supporting diverse small businesses, we are not just fostering economic growth — we are nurturing a community that is rich in diversity, strong in its social fabric, and resilient in the face of economic challenges. The success of minority small businesses is, therefore, integral to the success of the entire Fresno metro area.