Federal Grant Helps Minority Businesses With Their 1st Steps


Entrepreneurs are almost assured of encountering a hurdle or two before establishing a business. This can be true particularly in the minority business community.

But thanks to a recently awarded federal grant, Ventura County minority business owners can now receive more assistance from local government during the crucial start-up phase.

Ventura County's Human Resources Department recently reopened the Minority Business Development Center to help owners raise capital and procure government contracts, and to provide a variety of management and technical services.

The Minority Business Development Center is funded by a one-year, $188,867 grant from the Minority Business Development Agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The funds are renewable if the program proves successful.

"The focus is to help businesses, that are owned or managed by certain people who need special assistance, get their fair share of the economic pie in this community," said Ron Komers, director of the Human Resources Department.

"It is targeted for socially and economically disadvantaged businesses," he said. "These businesses tend to be smaller and have fewer employees than a majority-owned business and that sometimes prevents them from bidding on contracts or getting insurance and other things that may be important."

The program is run out of the Ventura County Government Center by two staff members hired specifically for the project. A team of advisors from the local minority business community are also lending their expertise. Komers said he anticipates the center will serve about 5,000 businesses throughout the county.

Staff and advisors will assist with market research, marketing plans, accounting systems, financial performance analysis, construction contracting, bid preparation, business plan development, personnel management, recruitment and other areas of business.

Originally formed in the mid-1980s, the Minority Business Development Center has been operated over the years by various organizations. Most recently, from 1994 to 1995, the agency was overseen by Century Freeway-Affirmative Action Committee Inc. of Inglewood.

County government has grabbed the reins, Komers said, as part of a larger effort to improve the general economic climate throughout the county. He said the center will work closely with the county-run entrepreneur academy and with other business development centers in the area.

"We will provide a mixture of very traditional needs of small business that get highlighted in the minority community, such as the areas of marketing and business planning," said Jonathan Barbieri, project manager for the Minority Business Development Center. "Needs are even more highlighted in the Hispanic American community because of more of a contrast in cultures."

Barbieri oversaw the Santa Barbara Minority Business Development Center from 1991 to 1995. He will serve the same role with the Ventura County group.

Day-to-day operations will be handled by Project Director Andrew Escalante.

Barbieri said the Minority Business Development Center will serve as both an educational and networking service, linking business owners with accountants, attorneys and other business professionals who might be of service.

"A lot has to do with giving them the tools, the techniques and the equipment to compete and to give them the familiarity with business principles," he said. "Capital needs are always an issue. In the minority community, accessing capital, and opportunities for capital, are less exaggerated."

Barbieri said it also is a priority to establish a good relationship with local chambers of commerce.

"We are talking with the African American Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce," he said. "But it is very important for us to be out there talking to all of the chambers. It's important to break down the perceptions on all sides. To be an advocate for disadvantaged minority business really helps the entire community, not just one aspect of it. That's ultimately what the program is about."

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