What do WalMart, Sears, Nike, Apple, Microsoft, Ford, Dodge and a whole host of other national and international businesses have in common with each other? They all started as small businesses. Their founders or, in some cases, follow-on leaders had a vision and then set about to realize this vision with passionate hard work coupled with, sometimes, a bit of luck and persistence which enabled them to make their vision a reality.
Sometimes scoffed and derided as “mom and pops”, small businesses are the heart of the American economy. They represent 99% of all employers, create six out of ten new jobs and are responsible for employing over 50% of the labor force. But, more important than that, small business owners take the risks (sometimes considerable) necessary for them to provide the goods and services that contribute significantly to the quality of life we enjoy in our communities.
In 1975 discussions were undertaken to determine if there was a way that small business owners could receive training and counseling to help them operate their small businesses. Until this point, knowledge of small business procedures came primarily from the “college of hard knocks”. From these discussions came the establishment of the University Business Development Center (UBDC) concept. This model was started in both Georgia and California and the concept was validated. Over the years other states looked to establish similar programs and, in 1990, Virginia was added to the now national Small Business Development Center Network. Today, the Virginia SBDC Network is managed by George Mason University with 29 SBDC offices throughout the Commonwealth providing counseling, training and other services to small business owners.
The Hampton Roads SBDC is rather unique in several ways. First the Center was first “economic development” organization that served the entire Hampton Roads region and the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In order to do this it relies on a collection of full-time and part-time offices located in Melfa, Williamsburg, Hampton, Norfolk and Suffolk. Additionally, a monthly circuit ride is conducted to Gloucester, Franklin and Smithfield. The Center works with the Launch Pad in Williamsburg, the newly recreated small business incubator as well as the Franklin Business Incubator and HATCH Norfolk. Secondly, the Center is hosted by the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce thus making it one of only three out of 29 offices statewide that are not university or community college based Centers. Finally, out of the myriad of organizations that provide assistance in one form or another to small business owners, the SBDC network is the only organization that undergoes an official accreditation from the Association of Small Business Development Centers every five years.
Funding support for the Center comes from several sources; first the US Small Business Administration provides 50% of the funds to operate the Center while localities, banks, Chambers of Commerce and other entities support the Center with both cash and in-kind contributions which enable the Center to provide the best return on investment.
In addition to routine counseling and training programs, the Hampton Roads SBDC has distinguished itself as a leader in delivering creative and innovative programs to help grow the region’s economy. Included in these are its Daycare and Early Education Providers program which was selected as the most innovative economic development program of 2014 by the International Economic Development Council; the Hampton Roads Retail Academy which focuses on increasing the resiliency of the region’s small retailers to changes in the economic environment brought about by cutbacks in federal spending; the Southeastern Virginia Contracting Institute which provides intensive training and counseling to companies who are looking to conduct business at the local, state and national level and finally the PROPEL Mentor-Protégé Program which pairs small business owners who are looking to grow their business with experienced small business owners who can guide them along their path. The Center also accesses Virginia SBDC Network resources such as the Small Town and Merchant Program (STAMP) for retailers and restaurants, GrowthWheel for growth companies, Interntational Trade Assistance for new exporters, and the Innovative Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP) for inventors and innovators.
“The relationships we have established with and the cooperation we receive from our local economic development departments, Chambers of Commerce, financial institutions and others is the key to our success” states Jim Carroll who has served as the Center‘s Executive Director for the past 18 years. “Each of us recognizes the critical importance of small business to the region’s economy. We cooperate and work well together in order to maximize the return on the investment being made to the SBDC. We are justifiably proud of our accomplishments but, more importantly, are looking to future to develop the tools necessary to keep the region’s small businesses profitable, successful and moving forward in this ever-changing economy,” he added.
Since its inception 25 years ago, the Center has provided assistance to over 11,000 prospective or existing small business owners and helped the create or save over 8,700 jobs and contribute over $383 million in economic impact to the region.