Through the Pandemic, Long Beach’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Grows

March 12, 2021 | By Laura Merryfield

Laura Merryfield HeadshotSeveral years ago, working as a community organizer, I stopped by Gloria’s* home in Central Long Beach for our one-on-one meeting. Gloria was a fierce advocate for her children, and I knew her time stretched between jobs was precious. I walked up to see her sidewalk sale in action - racks of toiletries and household goods on display, with eager neighbors ready to purchase in cash. She explained to me that she carefully cut coupons, went to large stores in wealthier neighborhoods, and brought back the goods to resell at better prices and greater convenience than the limited mini-markets where she lived.

At the time, I was only familiar with couponing in the ways shown in reality TV shows: a white, suburban woman collects endless bottles of shampoo to fill her massive garage. Yet here was an entrepreneurial take on it, an undocumented woman left out of traditional labor markets, filling a market gap and supporting her family. I didn’t have the language to describe this type of entrepreneurship at the time, but once I started looking for it, I found this spirit everywhere.

In my time as Local Director of ESHIP Long Beach, I’ve continued to see innovation and resilience throughout the community - not just in how entrepreneurs have responded to the pandemic, but in the ways those who support entrepreneurs have stepped up. A year after the first COVID-19 stay at home orders, our entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown in remarkable ways, and I believe these pillars of support are key towards creating an equitable recovery.

In early 2020, as ESHIP Long Beach was getting ready to convene a launch council to design our first pilot projects, I worked with Forward Cities staff to survey the resources available in our entrepreneurial ecosystem. These results ultimately informed the Long Beach Small Business Crosswalk, as there was no centralized, neighborhood based directory to identify these resources. I sat in on classes at the Small Business Development Center and learned from SCORE mentors, while listening in to the discussions local Business District leaders were having, and seeing the neighborhood-focused supports of United Cambodian Community’s business navigators in action.

Once Los Angeles County and Long Beach’s initial business shutdowns went into effect, these organizations switched into triage mode, helping business owners understand the new health orders, supporting PPP and EIDL loan applications, and sharing valuable information. Remarkably, during this time, three anchor organizations not operating during our initial survey, launched. The Long Beach Economic Partnership emerged from its planning phase to fund $1,000 small business recovery grants, working with community based organizations to identify businesses in need. The Long Beach Center for Economic Inclusion recognized that getting relief dollars into the community immediately was critical, and supported business navigators to reach out to the most impacted small businesses. Later in the year, the Long Beach Accelerator launched with an all-online first cohort, which allowed startups from Long Beach and outside the city to participate, while making the case for our city as an ideal place to grow one’s business.

Although each of these organizations were planned before the pandemic, their emergence and adaptability in 2020 is no coincidence, as conversations about equitable support for entrepreneurs grow at all levels. The City of Long Beach’s Economic Development Department, our partner in ESHIP Long Beach, recognized that offering small business grants funded through the CARES Act online wasn’t enough to cross the digital divide. Through BizCare, the city hosted pop-up sites with Wi-Fi, computers and printers, and trained staff to guide entrepreneurs through the grant applications and identify additional supports they needed. Organizations like Centro C.H.A. and United Cambodian Community deployed business and community navigators in the field, working with small business owners in Spanish, Khmer, and English to understand a constantly changing environment.

One year into COVID-19’s impacts, many small businesses still in operation have faced an incredibly bumpy road. And yet, our community has shown its commitment to these neighborhood-based businesses- from the corner stores who had toilet paper when no one else did or the restaurants offering creative take-out options. High touch entrepreneur support, like what business navigators offer, is critical for an equitable recovery, and I believe the field is poised to grow. 

To be successful, we must prioritize:

  • Supporting additional culturally competent business navigators in North, West, and Central Long Beach,
  • Working deeply with community organizations with a history in these neighborhoods while making the case for new funding sources and 
  • Leveraging partnerships across the ecosystem. 

A business navigator at Centro C.H.A. can help a Santa Fe Ave. business owner with a grant application, and then refer them to one of the CSULB Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship’s workshops, for instance. Trusted business experts, like the leaders of Fuller Management and avana creative, can fund their services to businesses in lower-income neighborhoods through targeted public grantmaking. These kinds of collaborations are already happening now and there are many opportunities for them to grow into the future.

As ESHIP Long Beach sits at the mid-point of our work, we plan to continue to connect the individuals and organizations supporting entrepreneurs and find new ways to lift up the incredible work of on-the-ground business navigators. As new federal stimulus funds make their way into our community and vaccines offer the chance for businesses to safely re-open, our focus must be on the assets already present in Long Beach - and in communities across the country. Our entrepreneurial ecosystem is growing, and these continued partnerships can address long-standing gaps in neighborhood wealth, giving entrepreneurs the support they need to thrive.

 

* not her real name

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