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Big Help for Small Businesses

How the CSU partners with Small Business Development Centers to help California entrepreneurs navigate uncertain times.


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2020 has been one of the most daunting years for California businesses. But as small business owners continue to push forward through economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, several allies across the state are there to help—many anchored at California State University campuses in the form of Small Business Development Centers (SBDC).

Funded in part through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and a Grant with the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz)​, along with local and regional dollars, the network of California's SBDCs have been called upon to offer extra support to organizations facing the uncertainty of the current business landscape. As partners in their communities and regions, several CSU campuses host Small Business Development Centers, and two campuses host lead centers for their entire regions.

With free business consulting, expert advice and helpful resources, the CSU's SBDCs are doing their part to help California recover, while providing real-world experience for CSU student interns.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

The Central California SBDC Network includes seven centers across the region, with two hosted by CSU campuses—CSU Bakersfield and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Since 2010 the CSU Bakersfield SBDC has provided free one-on-one consulting, training and resources to small businesses throughout the Kern County region. “We use our resources best for the community, and that is for the creation of jobs, the expansion of business. And of course, more so this year—the retention of small businesses that are so impacted by the pandemic," says Kelly Bearden, director.

Bearden says that prior to the pandemic, about half of the center's clients were new or startup businesses and the other half existing firms. But since March 2020, the demand has shifted to mostly existing business owners. Key services include access to pandemic relief programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) from the Small Business Administration (SBA), as well as local CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) act funds from the initial stimulus, says Bearden.

The center's “Webinar Wednesdays" training sessions saw record attendance in the early stages of the pandemic, with more than 700 attendees during their biggest week. It has offered this key resource on a weekly basis since March and is on track to complete its 40th consecutive webinar by the end of 2020.

“I'm really most proud of what our response to the pandemic has been," Bearden says, explaining that they received about a hundred questions per webinar during the peak. “And that lasted for quite a while, but we were able to answer them all."


“The CSU Bakersfield SBDC has been a great resource for the community and great visibility for the university and for people to see what we can do.”

—Kelly Bearden, CSUB Small Business Development Center director


Nestled in the San Joaquin Valley, the center helps support small enterprises in some of the region's key industries, including agriculture, energy and technology. There are a lot of unique activities taking place in the region, Bearden says, adding that Kern County is by far the largest generator of alternative energy in the state. There are also expanding opportunities around value-added agricultural production, he says.

“It's been a great resource for the community and great visibility for the university and for people to see what we can do," he says.

Although hampered by the pandemic in 2020, CSUB student interns typically play an important role at the center as associate consultants, working alongside the senior consultants and gaining real-world experience to augment what they're learning in the classroom, Bearden says. “They work with clients on business plans, assisting with financial packages, and with accounting."

Further west in the Central California SBDC Network is the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) and Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which offers small business support, as well as an incubator for both student and community-based entrepreneurs with innovative ventures.

Entrepreneurs behind the startup Bridge hold up their $10,000 check

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) helps local businesses through its SBDC, as well as budding entrepreneurs, like  this alumni-owned startup, Imperium which benefitted from CIE's accelerator and now its incubator programs.  Photo courtesy of Miranda Knight 

While typically focused on its incubating companies and innovative startups, the Cal Poly SBDC has also shifted its support to help existing businesses stay afloat since the start of the pandemic, says Judy Mahan, Cal Poly CIE economic development director.  

“When COVID hit, we definitely took on a whole new target market that we didn't typically work with—more main street type businesses," including those in the hospitality and health and wellness sectors, as well as retail and restaurants.

Mahan says that in 2019, the Cal Poly SBDC worked with about 350 businesses throughout the region. This year, they are expecting to hit about 600 for 2020—resulting in nearly $30 million in capital funding. “We've practically doubled our activity, and the key reason is that we became somewhat 'first responders' for helping local businesses navigate the PPP and EIDL loan process at the start of the pandemic."

Mahan explains that COVID has accelerated the need to tap into technologies and leverage them more quickly. To that end, the center has been helping local retailers get up to speed on delivery services and online ordering systems.  

“It's exciting to help businesses become more current with available technology," she says, describing this as a silver lining of the pandemic cloud. “Out of crises comes great innovation and we're certainly starting to see some of that bubble up. And we're seeing these technologies getting adopted in a much faster way than they would have, had COVID not hit."

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The Orange County Inland Empire (OCIE) SBDC Network serves businesses throughout Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties with seven service centers throughout the region. The OCIE lead center is hosted by Cal State Fullerton and the Inland Empire SBDC is hosted by Cal State San Bernardino, in conjunction with CSUSB's Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship (IECE).

Since March, the OCIE has helped more than 10,500 small businesses obtain more than $290 million in relief, which translates into 57,000 local jobs, says Mike Daniel, regional director and CSUF alumnus. Daniel explains that when the pandemic hit, the center dropped everything and only focused on COVID-related relief, investing in a 1-800 number for increased call capacity and hosting daily conference calls to keep businesses up to date on the latest developments.

In fact, the tri-county network hired additional staff to handle the increased call load. “Since March, we've helped 20,000 callers and provided 25,000 hours of one-on-one business consulting compared to 10,000 hours the year before." 

The Orange County Inland Empire SBDC team is made up of dedicated staff and experienced business consultant

The Orange County Inland Empire SBDC team is made up of dedicated staff and experienced business consultants who are committed to assisting entrepreneurs throughout the region. 

In addition to assisting with funding and helping businesses transition online, Daniels says the CSUF-based lead center also plans to help businesses with record-keeping when the health crisis ends. He and his colleagues discovered that some entrepreneurs were challenged with obtaining COVID-19 funding relief due to lack of record-keeping—particularly in underserved communities. “We plan to engage CSUF accounting and finance students to consult with these firms and establish bookkeeping systems," he says.

CSU campuses are also supporting small businesses beyond SBDCs. The Small Business Consulting Program at CSUN's David Nazarian College of Business and Economics offers free assistance to San Fernando Valley-based small businesses dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic. With support from a Wells Fargo Foundation grant, the program increased its consulting capacity in 2020 to help even more clients, while providing crucial experiential learning for business students.

And at CSU San Marcos, the College of Business Administration launched its Business Response, Recovery and Resource Program this summer to help local businesses impacted by the pandemic.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Like its regional counterparts, the Northern California Regional SBDC also expanded its services due to increased demand during the pandemic.

In June, the regional network received federal emergency funding to help meet that demand. Administered by the Humboldt State University-hosted lead center, the grant is helping the country's third largest SBDC network add more staff to handle the surge in call volume, revamp its training workshops to push content online, expand its Finance Center and launch an outreach program for business communities in which English is a second language.

SBDC Northern California store front

The Northern California Regional SBDC , hosted by Humboldt State, is the country's third largest SBDC network. In 2019, it relocated its expanded lead center off the HSU campus and into to the city of Eureka to better serve the community.

Regional Director Kristin Johnson explains that the 20 centers of the NorCal SBDC network cover 36 counties comprising an incredibly diverse business region from innovative tech firms to small-town main street shops. When the SBA declared an economic crisis in March, the network became an even more critical resource for thousands of organizations.

For the 2019-20 federal fiscal year, the NorCal network helped businesses access nearly half a billion dollars in capital, drew more than 40,000 workshop attendees and served more than 19,000 clients with one-on-one consulting—the most of any SBDC network in the country. These services—offered at no cost to small businesses—serve as a lifeline for entrepreneurs during one of the most unstable economic climates in history. 

“Across our region, we've seen demand increase from two to six times the normal business activity," Johnson says. And although her staff is now assisting businesses from their homes through Zoom and cell phones, she says their shared passion to serve the community brings them closer together. “When we can help an entrepreneur secure a loan, keep their doors open, or maintain their workforce, it's very rewarding."

Beyond the state's SBDC networks, CSU campuses continue to support small businesses. The Sacramento State College of Business Administration collaborated with the U.S. Small Business Administration this summer on a series of free webinars for companies and nonprofit groups upended by the COVID-19 crisis. The seven-part series offered practical insights from Sacramento State business professors, SBA specialists and others on topics such as data and network security, tax implications of COVID, marketing lessons from the pandemic, and tools for planning for the next crisis.

Learn more about how the CSU is ​​aiding California's economic recovery by preparing the next generation of innovative entrepreneurs, providing students with real-world business experience, while also supporting the community.