City of Green Bay, Chamber Adds Diverse Small Business Director

GREEN BAY – Small business owners, say hola, zoo nyob, shekoli, see tahay and hello Maria Padilla. She wants to know how she can help you.

In August, Padilla joined the Greater Green Bay Chamber as Director of Diversified Small Business. The position was created by the chamber and the city of Green Bay as the two organizations sought ways to connect the region’s increasingly diverse population to the resources and support needed to succeed, according to Kelly Armstrong, vice president. economic development of the chamber.

A University of Wisconsin-Green Bay graduate who spent four years in the financial industry, Padilla’s new job will involve forging relationships with minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses in the region, connect them to existing resources and develop support programs to fill the gaps or needs they identify.

It’s a need Padilla witnessed growing up in Appleton, where his family friends didn’t know who to turn to when they needed help with their business.

“I’ve seen the struggle that (business owners) can go through just because they don’t know who to go to for this or that,” Padilla said. “For me, it’s very rewarding to know that I’m going to help not only the Hispanic community, but anyone who might have barriers to resources and programs.”

Armstrong said the partnership is unique in northeast Wisconsin and called it “a collective effort to really help everyone grow.”

“Small businesses are what makes a community. It’s the local restaurant or the only bakery. There’s a big undercurrent of what’s going on in the Greater Green Bay area right now,” Armstrong said.

In recent years, Armstrong said the chamber and the city have both grappled with how best to provide equitable opportunities, support and resources. The two entities saw an opportunity to team up: The city committed American Rescue Plan Act dollars to help match chamber dollars to fund Padilla’s position for three years. Armstrong said the two groups already wanted to make the work permanent.

Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich said Padilla’s support will help entrepreneurs at a key time in their business development.

“It’s a tough business to start a business, especially when you’re talking about women, veterans and minority business owners,” Genrich said, noting that small business owners may not have social networks or access to vital capital for new businesses. “Anything we could do to break down those barriers, we were interested in doing.”

Currently, Padilla is focused on raising awareness that she is here to help and studying recent small business trends. She also wants to be ready to connect business owners with existing help for common things like accounting, licensing, and marketing. And if a program does not exist, respond as needed.

Although Padilla is focused on existing businesses, she said she wouldn’t turn anyone away. Instead, she will seek to direct people to the appropriate community resources, such as the chamber’s Startup Hub or Urban Hub programs.

“Small businesses are a big part of the community. The fact that we offer these programs to support them and ensure they are successful over the long term will be important in the long term for the community as a whole,” Padilla said.

Northeast Wisconsin communities line up aid for various businesses

Padilla’s focus on diverse small business owners is the latest example of local chambers of commerce increasing investment and relationships with small business owners, especially those run by people of color, women and veterans.

Last month, the Fox Cities Chamber began offering free memberships to small businesses with five or fewer full-time employees and nonprofits with 10 or fewer full-time employees and independent restaurants. And on Sept. 1, NEWCAP and On Broadway Inc. received miscellaneous business assistance grants totaling $1.3 million from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to hire staff to proactively engage these business owners, increase access to resources, and help them thrive.

Black, Asian, Hispanic and Native residents now make up about 36% of Green Bay’s population and about 20% statewide, but data from the US Small Business Administration indicates a disproportionate rate of business ownership below 10% statewide.

Of Wisconsin’s 440,000 small businesses:

  • Blacks make up 6.7% of the population but own 3.7% of small businesses in Wisconsin;
  • Hispanics make up 7.1% of the population, but own only 2.6% of small businesses;
  • Asians make up 3% of the population, but own 2.6% of businesses; and
  • Aboriginal people make up 1.2% of the population, but own 0.3% of businesses.

Whites make up about 80% of the population, but own about 90.7% of small businesses.

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People of color, women, and veterans often face barriers to starting a business and may lack access to the capital and resources needed to grow their business. A local example, the Chamber’s $10,000 return to business grants offered amid the spread of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, underscored the need for a diverse small business manager, Armstrong said.

“We didn’t see the number of applications from various small businesses that we wanted to see,” Armstrong said. “We realized we needed to improve communication channels and connections.”

Equally important, Armstrong said the chamber has recognized that it needs to meet entrepreneurs of color where they are, in their businesses, rather than offering support and waiting for people to find it.

“We can go out, have conversations with small business owners, understand their struggles, their needs, and their biggest challenges, and then connect them to resources and identify the gaps that exist,” Armstrong said. “A big part of it is having those connections so people feel comfortable asking for help, raising their hands and saying they need help.”

Genrich said Padilla will contact the city’s economic and community development staff so she knows what help the city can offer. But Genrich also said he hopes the city and chamber will learn from business owners how the community can better support them.

“Hopefully there’s a feedback loop created to identify gaps in services, regulatory burdens that could be smoothed out,” Genrich said. “We hope to learn a lot from Maria and the businesses she serves.”

This opportunity to build these relationships is exactly what drove Padilla away from the financial industry.

“I liked a lot of aspects of this position (financial), a lot of it the relationship building, the ability to provide relational services that will benefit them in any way,” Padilla said. “I like this job because it’s actually very similar: it’s about building relationships and, what I really enjoy, helping people. There are no limits to the how I can help this group of people.”

Padilla can be reached by phone at 920-496-2119 or by email at [email protected]

Contact Jeff Bollier at (920) 431-8387 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @JeffBollier.

Mary H. Martino