By Juliet Fang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY

Administrator Guzman with Gov. Jay Inslee discussing the federal and state efforts to help retail and other hardest hit small businesses like restaurants, such as London Plane in Pioneer Square, where both toured and met with Managing Owner Yasuaki D Saito. (Photo provided by SBA)

Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman, the head of the United States Small Business Administration (SBA), visited Seattle last week to discuss what recent federal infrastructure bills and business relief funding could mean for Seattle’s small business owners.

Guzman’s visit comes at a time when interest rate hikes and high inflation have brought significant challenges for small businesses. Policies to aid small businesses—especially Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) and BIPOC-owned small businesses—have been incredibly crucial to help them stay afloat. Examples of such efforts include the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the “largest federal investment in public transportation in the nation’s history,” according to the Federal Transit Administration.

“Part of dealing with inflationary pressures and the ongoing struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic is revenue growth opportunities that can help small businesses strengthen their balance sheets,” says Guzman.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will allow us to build roads and bridges in Seattle to create more opportunities for workers and businesses while promoting broadband solutions, such as ensuring more small businesses have high speed internet and continue to adopt e-commerce and social media marketing strategies. We want small businesses to get digital ready and grow their platforms.”

Another aspect of Administrator Guzman’s visit is discussing the fifth round of Working Washington grants by the Washington Department of Commerce, which will allocate $70 million to small businesses and organizations affected by the pandemic. Grants like these, along with policy such as the American Rescue Plan, have contributed to economic stabilization and job creation, Guzman points out. Although small businesses have struggled greatly during the pandemic, many individuals have continued to pursue “the American game of business ownership,” even contributing to what Guzman calls a “small business boom.”

“For many of our small businesses, these past years have been a constant game of pivoting and adapting to survive. With our programs, we’re trying to help them have strong balance sheets, vendor relationships, and good workforce strategy to retain and hire employees.”

Administrator Guzman with Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and SBA PNW Regional Administrator Mike Fong at a roundtable discussion at Boon Boona Coffee. Small business owners Rosalinda Mendoza of Mocel Mezcal, Efrem Fesaha (top left) of Boon Boona Coffee and Jaebadiah Gardner (top right) of Gardner Global, Inc. were also present. (Photo provided by SBA)

However, in places like Seattle, where many small businesses are run by AAPI and BIPOC individuals, there are unique cultural challenges in ensuring there is equitable access to such programs. For example, some individuals may not speak or read English, or even know how to apply for federal and state aid. Thus, listening to the specific needs of underserved communities and strategizing on ways to equitably distribute funds remain a top priority for the SBA.

“Different communities face historic barriers and challenges to surviving and growing. That’s why many of our relief grant applications offer, at minimum, 17 core languages and up to 27. We are also focusing on collaborating with local organizations that reach out to underserved populations to ensure they know what programs are available to them.”

One person that is leading engagement efforts to connect Seattle’s AAPI community with the SBA is Regional Administrator Mike Fong. Together with the help of Seattle volunteers, he has been able to dramatically increase the SBA’s reach into the AAPI community through roundtable discussions with small businesses. These smaller groups are more approachable for many of Seattle’s AAPI small business owners, allowing them to feel “safe,” says Ellen Abellera, the president of the Communities of Concern Commission and liaison between the SBA and Seattle’s Filipino community.

“I am so glad that someone like Mike Fong was chosen to help our communities,” Abellera says. “It’s been so hard, and people feel that they can resonate with [Mike] because he personally knows the Asian American community. At our discussions, business owners can effectively communicate their needs and know in their hearts that somebody’s going to help them.”

“Cultural competency is so important in the application process for things like grants or aid. The SBA is helping to make that happen.”

YP Chan, a businessman and liaison between the SBA and Seattle’s Chinese community, has similarly helped bridge the gap between the SBA and small business owners.

“It’s really great for the AAPI community to have [Mike Fong] in the government to help the SBA work with AAPI small business owners. We’ve been able to host roundtables discussing how Chinese people have been impacted by COVID-19 as well as anti-Asian sentiment, and other ones discussing the issue of exporting.”

“People from Washington, D.C. were able to hear our concerns, perspectives, and difficulties exporting outside the United States and what our plans would be if we could export globally,” Chan said. “We had our voices heard.”

Mipo Seto, Seattle chapter president of the Global Federation of Chinese Business Women, agrees with Chan, additionally noting that SBA seminars have helped inform Seattle’s AAPI business owners on where and how to access relief funding to “turn [their] businesses around.”

These valuable face-to-face interactions with underserved communities and current federal efforts to support small businesses contribute to Administrator Guzman’s optimism about the future of America’s small businesses.

“I’m extremely hopeful,” Guzman says. “Small businesses have shown us their incredible grit and determination during this difficult, difficult time. There’s been a heightened interest in local economic development as well as corporate philanthropy to make sure our small businesses can be sustainable, as they create two-thirds of net new jobs.”

“As for consumers, buying local and supporting small, independent businesses is key to ensuring dollars are recirculating to support local jobs and the local economy. We need to keep our small businesses alive. They are the ones who make the products and services we really depend on.”

For more information on the SBA and how small business owners can access federal and state funding, please visit sba.gov. Or, contact SBA Seattle’s main district office at (206) 553-7310.

Juliet can be reached at [email protected]