December 14, 2015
Focus: Minority-Owned Businesses

State aims to boost minority-owned businesses

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Kimalee Williams, CEO of East Hartford-based Faith Asset Management LLC, is trying to help more minorities become business owners.

When Kimalee Williams, CEO of East Hartford property management firm Faith Asset Management LLC, founded her business in 2007, she had a five-year business plan to get her enterprise up and growing. By 2013, she was looking to expand, but needed capital. She looked first to commercial lenders, but decided to take a business loan through a program run by the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).

"They not only provided better [loan] terms, but they took the time to understand my business," said Williams, an African-American native of Hartford. Today, Williams has expanded her enterprise to add a construction company — Canterbury Builders LLC — and has grown her employee base from a handful of workers to nearly 30.

With its new Minority Business Initiative — designed to promote resources available to small business owners — the state is hoping more minority entrepreneurs follow Williams' example. The program offers minority business owners access to technical assistance, financing and contracts, along with a team of business leaders from across the state — known as business champions — who can lend their expertise.

"DECD has many programs to support business growth, but participation has been relatively low among women- and minority-owned businesses," said DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith.

With its newest initiative, the state appears to be targeting the right demographics for investment. According to national Bureau of Labor statistics, from 1997 through 2014, women-owned businesses have grown at one-and-half times the national average, and over that same period, the percentage of businesses owned by women of color has grown by more than 215 percent — with their collective revenue up by 193 percent.

For Williams, the state's support is not simply about access to capital — which DECD makes available through both small business loans and grants — but about the technical assistance as well. "The biggest challenge many fledgling businesses have is [the owner] may be good at [his/her] craft, but they don't understand the business side of it," she said. "They don't know how to polish their business plan or expand." And many minority owners, Williams said, aren't even aware of the small-business assistance available through the state.

Smith hopes that a select group of business champions — including Williams — who are part of DECD's initiative will help change that. "The champions will work as local resources for businesses in a particular community," Smith said. "These [champions] have worked with the state in the past and have insights they can share with businesses looking to take advantage of our programs and services."

Those consultants include Maria Lino, founder of The Latino Way, a Hartford-based media company specializing in the Hispanic market. A small business grant from DECD allowed Lino — after founding her business in 2012 — to hire an additional staff member. "Starting a small business, you don't sleep, you worry about payroll," Lino said. "The state [loan] funding was critical; I was able to focus on finding clients and growing my business."

Lino says access to capital is a major challenge for many minority business owners and she thinks many traditional lenders don't fully understand the cultural barriers in working with Latino businesses. "Cultural connections are key," she said. "Lenders need to find the right way to communicate." DECD, she said, does that well. "They worked with me step-by-step not only with funding but to improve my business plan."

And that support has paid off — both for Lino's business and the state. Her company, she says, has grown to serve between 10 to 12 regular clients with 20 to 25 project-based clients. In turn, the state will earn interest on her business loan, which she's starting to pay back.

That return on investment, Smith said, is an important focus for the state. "Our department has a fiduciary responsibility when it comes to investing taxpayer dollars," Smith explained. "Before making any offer of financial assistance, [we] carefully analyze companies and projects as part of [our] due diligence process."

Smith said the new initiative has earned an enthusiastic response from the minority business community. "We've held a kick-off event and 10 workshops to date to educate businesses on the initiative," Smith said. Strategically placed advertisements are also planned as is the continuing work of the business champions.

Williams said she is fully committed to the program and has a number of meetings set up with business owners to help connect them with DECD. She says her motivation is as much personal as it is professional.

"I grew up in Hartford and went to Hartford public schools," she said. "I now own two businesses and I want to inspire others and help them achieve what I have achieved."

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