Teaching ‘the ABCs of business'

SUSTAINING POTENTIAL: Jr Neville Songwe, executive director of Urban Ventures, a state-funded nonprofit providing entrepreneurship assistance to small businesses, says higher education offers the greatest potential for innovation growth in R.I., but there needs to be a stronger effort to retain these "phenomenal minds." PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

By Paul E. Kandarian | Contributing Writer


Jr Neville Songwe, principal of Joneso Design, is also executive director of Urban Ventures Inc., a state-funded, nonprofit organization providing entrepreneurship assistance to the general public and small businesses through education, training and consultation. Its mission is to work with businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and was founded by the state legislature under the Rhode Island Economic Initiative in 1999. Since that time, Urban Ventures has assisted approximately 500 small community businesses in the state in accessing services, from microbusiness boot camps, to incubators, to microbusiness coaching and startups. Urban Ventures' future is uncertain; the state has eliminated its budget, Songwe said.

What are the biggest hurdles to starting a business in Rhode Island?

The way resources are allocated, it's literally skewed against microbusinesses, in things [such as] simply trying to access a contract. The state and feds are some of the biggest buyers of small to micro to medium products or services. But the way the contracts are tailored, it's painstaking for microbusinesses with low capacity or who have been in business less than two years to get a contract. The modality is presenting three years of tax returns; so if you open a business, you have to find a way to stay alive for three years. The fact is, 90 percent of small businesses fail, and the question I always ask is, if the system fails 90 percent of the people, what's wrong with the system? People aren't stupid; they're not lazy or poor. It's the system.My contention is there needs to be a distinction between microbusiness and small business. From the Urban Ventures standpoint, the board, staff and I strongly research and advocate the business continuum. When you start as a microbusiness, there are specific places you can go, and can attain a level of being a small business and access SBA [U.S. Small Business Administration] resources, networks, contracts, and move into becoming medium and large businesses.

Does Rhode Island have the resources to help companies develop innovative products and services?

Rhode Island has the pride of having phenomenal institutions [such as] the Rhode Island School of Design, of which I am a product. It's where I got my master's in industrial design in 2005. We're producing the best minds in the world of innovation, we have schools of engineering at Brown University, the University of Rhode Island. We have an intellectual capacity rivaled by the folks in Massachusetts, but few in the United States and the world can compete in terms of brainpower that Rhode Island provides. The question is, can we retain and sustain an environment to keep these phenomenal minds here to mentor and educate? Innovation means being able to sustain intellectual minds. If I can't find a way to do things here, as soon as I move out, I've taken intellectual capacity away from the state.

What industry offers the greatest potential for growth through innovation in Rhode Island and why?

If I had to pick one, I'd say higher education. We know the best innovation is higher education, it's still producing great minds. But we're not seeing direct return on the dollars there; it's tough to tell if that impact vibrates throughout the economy as it should. Rhode Island has to decide what we want to boast of, what we want to be when we grow up. Product development of anything touches research, it touches uses, graphic design, website design, manufacturing … up and down the economic-development checklist.

How can the state help microbusiness?

We worked with state Sen. Juan Pichardo and state Rep. Jean Philippe Barros [and] saw Rhode Island become the first state to pass a resolution recognizing microbusiness as a separate category. We're very proud of that work. Not that this is a slap on the SBA, but we need to have a diversity of resources to target the continuum of business. The SBA is not equipped to deal with microbusiness issues, and I'll debate anyone who thinks otherwise. We define microbusiness as those with less than nine employees and with a half-million dollars or less in assets, and that's 80-plus percent of business in Rhode Island. … We feel presenting more debt for microbusinesses should not be encouraged.

The state has eliminated your $140,000 annual budget, so what will you do?

The board and I are working hard to change that reality, and it's a lingering distraction from what we need to do. We'll write grants, unless the legislature reconsiders. It's like asking the worth of investing in pre-kindergarten education, and that's what Urban Ventures is to the business world – we teach the ABCs of business. •