By Edward M. Mazze
Much of the discussion about the Rhode Island economy revolves around attracting and retaining new businesses and creating jobs. With all the programs, events and financial assistance to turn the economy around initiated by local and state government agencies, nonprofit organizations, foundations and chambers of commerce, Rhode Island continues to have one the highest unemployment and underemployment rates in the country and the highest in the New England states.
These efforts should be applauded for trying, but the results have not been as good as desired. Many of these organizations know how to communicate with medium and large businesses but do not understand the obstacles faced by individuals who want to start or grow a small business in urban areas. In Rhode Island, these are the underserved individuals and businesses. And, there is the continuing perception that urban area businesses generate little in terms of jobs and dollars and that individuals in these communities are unable to start and grow businesses.
Urban Ventures Inc., started by a legislative grant in 1999, was formed to work with this underserved market. The objective of the organization is to support community small businesses, increase the business knowledge and skills of individuals in the community interested in going into business and increase their chances of getting financing to start or grow a business.
Since its beginnings, Urban Ventures has had a small full-time staff because of funding. Currently, there is only one professional staff member assisted by a nine-member board of directors. In the last 14 years, the organization has worked with hundreds of different clients in 10 urban areas and 13 industries.
In the urban communities, many people want to work for themselves rather than work for someone else so that they can build a business for their families and have control over their destiny. Some of these people are not employable by larger businesses because they do not have the skills to work for them nor the transportation to get to the job.
In fiscal year 2013, Urban Ventures had 43 clients, which included Hispanics, Caucasians, African-Americans, American Indians and other ethnic groups. Forty percent of the clients were female. Many of these businesses were home-based or home-headquartered.
If a cost-benefit analysis were done by the General Assembly, Urban Ventures would be found to be a great investment in turning Rhode Island’s urban areas economy around. This year’s budget was $73,000. Imagine how many more clients could be served if the new budget allowed for hiring one additional professional staff member — how many new businesses would be created, and how many new jobs would come to the urban areas.
Urban Ventures has been successful in the urban community because the organization recognizes the importance of small and minority owned businesses in their communities and for the Rhode Island economy. The organization listens first to what the community needs and then builds a program to meet these needs. Some examples of their new programs include the Certified Bankability, Certified Investability and Adopt a Rhode Island Small Business program. In addition, Urban Ventures has offered training programs for specific skills and industries. Working together, these programs are directed at eliminating many of the barriers that prevent individuals from establishing small businesses in the urban areas.
It is important to recognize that the changing demographics in Rhode Island have created new business communities in the urban areas that need the support of Urban Ventures. The urban areas in Rhode Island are not going to slip away. While these businesses may not generate as much money and create as many jobs as large businesses, they are a critical component of the community. Over time, some of these small businesses may become large corporations.
Urban businesses also provide tax revenue to support government services. Locally owned businesses in urban areas build a strong economic and social base for the city and keep money in the community. Local businesses that are successful generate opportunities for other businesses and more opportunities for people to start a business in the community. Urban Ventures is the “sparkplug” to make this happen.
For more information about Urban Ventures, go to www. urbanventuresri.org.
Edward M. Mazze is a professor business administration at the University of Rhode Island and a member of the board of directors of Urban Ventures Inc.