Op-Ed | Access to resources is a lifeline for small business owners

(From l. to r.) Geri, Danielle & John Sciortino, The Bronx Design Group
Photo courtesy The Bronx Design Group

As a seasoned small business owner with decades of experience in my field, it goes without saying that I’ve seen my fair share of hiccups along the way. Small business owners are used to that happening, but none of us were prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. My company, the Bronx Design Group, is a full-service graphic design and printing company which provides businesses with needed materials for their day-to-day operations, as well as assists them with events. As you can imagine, when events stopped in 2020, so did the need for our services. I made the painful decision to close up shop and let my staff go.

After nearly 30 years of business, I truly thought we were closed for good, but the Bronx Chamber of Commerce changed that for me. Nearly every day, I would receive information about loans and grants and other opportunities for business owners. I was introduced to the Paycheck Protection Program, and was guided through the application process. To my amazement my business was accepted. The loan we received was contingent on hiring back my staff so I did that — the only issue at the time was we still didn’t have work to do. So we pivoted.

I realized that while events were not happening, businesses were slowly beginning to reopen. We took that opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We began printing signs about PPE and social distancing. It got to the point where we needed to buy more equipment and hire even more staff to fulfill all the orders that were coming in.

Reinventing ourselves wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. While many small business owners who closed their doors during the pandemic have taken new paths for themselves, there are just as many returning to the things that make them happy. There are currently a record number of jobs in New York City, and entrepreneurship is vibrant – 1 in 7 businesses were started in the past year, a rate four times higher than the 2019 average.

This progress is due to a few things. New York is home to resilient entrepreneurs, but just as vital is collaboration, and investment in programs that support entrepreneurs and small business owners.

In the fall of 2020, the Bronx Chamber — along with the other four boroughwide chambers of commerce — launched the NYC Small Business Network (SBRN).  It is a comprehensive approach to small business resiliency that offers free, personalized guidance and support to help businesses grow and thrive. To date, the SBRN has reached close to 50,000 businesses across New York City, providing direct support to 13,000, with 2,000 of those in the Bronx alone.

Funding from the City of New York allows SBRN’s team of Business Support Specialists to work one-on-one with small businesses. The specialists help connect business owners like me to a range of programs and services offered by the city, state, and federal government, as well as the private sector. This can  include grants and loans, connections to legal counsel, business coaching, marketing guidance, technology support, and more.

Historically businesses that are not in Business Improvement Districts have struggled to access these services, but the SBRN’s Business Support Specialists are on the ground in neighborhoods across the city, helping fill this gap. This will be crucial if we want to have an equitable economic recovery, with vibrant commercial corridors across the city.

I can say without a doubt that the resources and information I received during that difficult time from the Bronx Chamber and the SBRN were a lifeline and a large part of the reason that my company is thriving today, almost four years after our initial closure. This level of support is not common. There would be days where I would be so upset about my situation that I would call up the Chamber and just cry to whomever answered the phone. They always listened. They understood how hard business owners were working to try to survive and invested their time and resources into us. They also assisted in helping me obtain my MWBE certification, which has helped me gain contracts for jobs that I wouldn’t necessarily be qualified for without it. For that, I will always be grateful.

It goes without saying that small business owners are strong and resilient, and help drive New York City’s economic recovery, but in order to continue our momentum, we need to continue to invest in programs like the SBRN that support small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Geri Sciortino is the founder and president of The Bronx Design Group, located at 2914 Westchester Ave. in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx.