By Maura Kelly
Mayor Bloomberg has stated many times that small businesses are the chief engine of growth in New York City. However convincing entrepreneurs that his Department of Small Business Services isn't another "bullying" bureaucracy is still a challenge. A challenge that it's Commissioner, Robert Walsh has tackled for the past nine years. In his role, Walsh visits neighborhoods in the five boroughs, and hears frustrated tales of red tape and delays; and knows that when someone is thinking of opening a small business the last place they think of is the government. As Small Business Services Commissioner, it's his job to show them that this is a major mistake. I met up with Commissioner Walsh recently at an Irish Business Organization (IBO) event when he presented his agency's new initiatives to the group.
"From Sunnyside to Chelsea, Red Hook to the South Bronx --entrepreneurs are an integral part of the city's recovery," said Walsh. "The city's 200,000 small businesses are a fundamental sector of New York's economy and my mission is to help more start-up and grow." Still after years in operation, many aspiring business owners in the room were hearing about his Agency for the first time.
Working with a $128 million budget for 2012 and a staff of 250, Walsh has created business counseling offices in every borough. Called Business Solutions Centers, they are at the forefront of the Agency's effort to provide direct assistance to business owners. According to Walsh, the agency will work with you to if you have a new business idea or if you have been in business for years. They will help you develop a business plan, secure financing, and access City benefits and much more. Overall, they try to cut the red tape for you by being your liaison when you need to resolve issues with other City agencies. Walsh agrees that launching a business in this uncertain economy is not for the faint hearted, and yet many NYC entrepreneurs are taking the plunge.
A key service that was of interest to the Irish group was the array of business courses offered through the FactTrac programs. Because of a partnership with the Kauffman Foundation and SUNY's Levin Institute, over 1,000 aspiring and existing New York entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the hands-on intensive business courses. The courses are taught primarily in English, with some available in Spanish and a few in Mandarin and Russian.
Another new service that surprised many was assistance with attaining loans. Walsh explained the city works with nonprofit entities such as the Kaufman Foundation and for-profit entities such as Citibank, to fund some of its Business Solutions programs. "The problem for many people is access to capital, so Business Solutions has been created as "a proactive, not a reactive program", he said. Walsh said these entities have been helpful steering loan applicants it has turned down to other loan sources that might accommodate them. In addition, he said that 20 law firms have done pro bono work for SBS.
Walsh realizes his agency might have a PR problem but overall, he wants immigrant business owners to succeed and know that city government is there to propel their entrepreneurial ambitions. A number of IBO members have already had success with the SBS Agency and can vouch for the courses. More say the business plan preparation and permit assistance has helped them progress business matters. I recently ran into an Indian colleague who runs a video editing and distribution business at a media luncheon. Mentioning that his business was having a tough time, I started to explain some of the SBS services he could take advantage of. I was nicely surprised when he told me that he's enrolled in the FastTrac program and is now qualified to sell to the city. His small business is adapting to the times and he's seeking out opportunities where ever he can.
Walsh invites the public to review the website nyc.gov/sbs and call his office. Many U.S. cities have similar agencies and services but you really have to seek them out and be proactive.
Robert Walsh is proud of his Irish roots and grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the fifth of seven children. He has a master's in public administration from Fordham University and a track record in business development.
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