As we approach our annual Multicultural Business & Career Expo, I had the honor of sitting down with Heather Luzzi, the esteemed Director of the United States Small Business Administration (SBA) Sacramento District Office. Our insightful discussion delved into various aspects of support and guidance extended by the SBA to small businesses


ACCESS TO CAPITAL

– What steps have been taken to improve access to capital for small businesses, particularly those in underserved communities?

First, I will say that it is important to understand, the SBA is not a direct lender to small business; rather, we guaranty loans that lending institutions make. Access to capital is the number 1 request that we receive. Since our founding in 1953, the U.S. Small Business Administrations sole focus is on helping businesses to start grow and expand into new markets.

In 2022 two of three business owners who sought capital were unable to receive what they needed. The pandemic exacerbated this issue.

Underserved borrowers are a priority of the Agency. Rural, minority owned, women owned, and veteran owned small business have been unable to access the monies needed to help start or grow their businesses though SBA products and services, but we still have far to go. Getting lending institutions to utilize the SBA programs to meet the needs of the communities they serve is paramount.

– Can you discuss any initiatives or programs that have been implemented to assist small businesses in accessing capital?

All business need capital: whether it is for inventory, equipment, real estate or working capital need to meet their payroll and accounts payable.

Late last year, the SBA modernized our lending programs. We did this by updating our Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) to allow for lenders to further broaden their credit offerings by utilizing the SBA Loan guaranty.

An example of these modernization or changes would be that we revised our credit criteria to simplify the loan underwriting process for loans of $500,000. Or less, these are now considered “small Loans”.

We no longer mandate the credit criteria for lenders on our small loans ($500,000.00 or less) we are allowing the lenders to use their own credit criteria simplifying the process.

We updated and simplified the process of “credit not available elsewhere” verification to ease the burden on lenders. We enhanced our programs to allow for “partial buyouts” of businesses to make it easier for an employee to purchase the business that they work in.

We have updated our affiliation rules to make the process more efficient for owners with multiple companies. Small Business Administration has improved character determination process to expand access for individuals with criminal histories to participate in SBA capital programs.

In addition to the program updates and product expansion, the agency has reduced the paperwork that is required form the business applicant. We have also streamlined our application process eliminating repetitive forms that had previously been required.

– How has the SBA worked to address the challenges faced by small businesses when it comes to obtaining financing?

Lower down payments (Borrower injections) are available with SBA loan products. This fills the gaps in lending. For example, our 504-loan program requires a 10% down payment on real estate transactions, where a traditional lender may require a 30% down payment. Additionally, the 504 program offers below market rates for a fixed term for the life of the loan. We have enhanced our product offerings making the Community Advantage loan program a permanent program as previously it was a pilot program. This is a program that requires 60% of the lender’s portfolio must be to minority and or rural areas. We believe that businesses build communities, and we are doing everything we can to build communities through the businesses located within them.

CONTRACTING OPPORTUNITY

– What measures have been put in place to promote contracting opportunities for small businesses with government agencies and large corporations?

SBA works with the state of California and the Department of General Services (DGS) to assist firms in gaining access to contracts. My office conducts training and Contracting Officer introductions bi-monthly. This is a great way for firms to create relationships with Federal Contracting Officers to find out what their needs are and to fill those needs.

SBA also offers a Mentor-Protégé’ Program. The MPP program helps eligible small businesses (protégé’s) gain capacity and win government contracts through partnerships with more experienced companies that are willing to fill the mentor role.

– How does the SBA assist small businesses in navigating the procurement process and accessing contracting opportunities?

There are several tools to search for procurement opportunities, the SBA, and the APEX Accelerators (Formerly PTAC or Procurement Technical Assistance Centers) will assist businesses with navigating the contracting landscape. The first step is to identify your NAICS code (industry)and register in SAM.gov . Businesses that are considering contracting with the federal government can visit our website for further guidance and requirements at www.sba.gov

– Can you share any success stories of small businesses that have benefitted from contracting opportunities facilitated by the SBA?

Sure – sharing successes is my favorite part because without SBA support and training, these businesses would not have grown to their fullest capability.

One business that comes to mind is a small electrical company based in Woodland, called Ample Electric, Inc. The owner, a minority, needed assistance in gaining access to contracting opportunities. He joined our 8(a) Business Development Program in 2020 and we all know the challenges all businesses faced during the pandemic. Jose has been able to grow his business, hire more employees and is thriving in the program. In fact, he was named Small Businessperson of the Year at our annual SBA Awards last year.

Jose also graduated an intensive nine-month training program that SBA provided called T.H.R.I.V.E., Emerging Leaders Reimagined, where the information he learned assisted with the growth of his company.

The 8(a) Business development Program is a nine-year program created to assist firms owned or controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The purpose of the 8(a) program is to help eligible small, disadvantaged businesses compete in the American economy through business development. Once Certified, business that participate receive training and technical assistance designed to strengthen their ability to compete effectively.

The Federal Government is the largest procurer of goods and services in the world, exceeding 650 Billion per year. The Biden-Harris Administration have announced reforms to increase Equity and level the playing field for Underserved Small Business Owners. These changes allow for more participation of small businesses to be winning federal contracts.

GRANTS

– What types of grants does the SBA offer to small businesses, and how do they benefit aspiring entrepreneurs?

The SBA does not typically offer Grants to small business. Grants that are offered, are to States by way of our State Trade Expansion Program or (STEP) program – and California has participated in this program for several years. The state of California’s STEP Grant program provides for 186 Billion Annually in exports. The grants provided by the state STEP Program help small businesses to begin exporting or grow their existing export sales by providing reimbursable Export Vouchers and implementing STEP Events, which includes organizing state pavilions at international trade shows and trade missions.

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are highly competitive programs that encourage domestic small businesses to engage in Federal Research/Research and Development (R/R&D) with the potential for commercialization. Through a competitive awards-based program, SBIR and STTR enable small businesses to explore their technological potential and provide the incentive to profit from its commercialization. By including qualified small businesses in the nation’s R&D arena, high-tech innovation is stimulated, and the United States gains entrepreneurial spirit as it meets its specific research and development needs.

– How does the SBA determine eligibility for grant funding, and what criteria are considered during the selection process?

SBIR and STTR are highly competitive. The US Small Business Administration serves as the coordinating agency for the SBIR program. It directs the agencies’ implementation of SBIR, reviews their progress, and reports annually to Congress on its operation. SBA is also the information link to SBIR program. The SBIR Program is structured in three phases:

Phase I. The objective of Phase I is to establish the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of the proposed R/R&D efforts and to determine the quality of performance of the small business awardee organization prior to providing further Federal support in Phase II. SBIR/STTR Phase I awards are generally $50,000 – $250,000 for 6 months (SBIR) or 1 year (STTR).

Phase II. The objective of Phase II is to continue the R/R&D efforts initiated in Phase I. Funding is based on the results achieved in Phase I and the scientific and technical merit and commercial potential of the project proposed in Phase II. Typically, only Phase I awardees are eligible for a Phase II award. SBIR/STTR Phase II awards are generally $750,000 for 2 years.

Phase III. The objective of Phase III, where appropriate, is for the small business to pursue commercialization objectives resulting from the Phase I/II R/R&D activities. The SBIR/STTR programs do not fund Phase III. At some Federal agencies, Phase III may involve follow-on non-SBIR/STTR funded R&D or production contracts for products, processes or services intended for use by the U.S. Government.

STTR enable small businesses to explore their technological potential and provide the incentive to profit from its commercialization. By including qualified small businesses in the nation’s R&D arena, high-tech innovation is stimulated, and the United States gains entrepreneurial spirit as it meets its specific research and development needs.

Central to the STTR program is the partnership between small businesses and nonprofit research institutions. The STTR program requires the small business to formally collaborate with a research institution in Phase I and Phase II. STTR’s most important role is to bridge the gap between performance of basic science and commercialization of resulting innovations.

– Can you provide examples of how grants provided by the SBA have had a positive impact on small businesses?

As stated above, the state of California has participated in the STEP program for years and they have assisted many businesses compete internationally. Additional information may be found at export.business.ca.gov

One of our Technical Assistance Providers, Tech Futures Group, a part of the SBDC network have experts on hand to assist with navigating these programs. SBIR and STTR are America’s seed fund, powered by the SBA. Additional information can be found at www.sbir.gov or on the SBA.gov website.

TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE

– How does the SBA provide technical assistance to small businesses, and what specific areas does this assistance cover?

SBA provides funding to our Resource Partner Network. The Women’s Business Centers, the Small Business Development Centers, the SCORE Mentors and The Veteran’s Business Outreach Centers. The services provided by our Resource Partner Network are typically provided at no cost. These are your tax dollars at use and businesses should take advantage of these benefits.

– What resources are available to entrepreneurs who require guidance or support in areas such as business planning, marketing, and financial management?

The funded partners provide valuable information on creating business plans, market research, financial projections and much, much more.

– Can you share any success stories of small businesses that have utilized SBA’s technical assistance programs to overcome challenges and achieve growth?

Absolutely – as an example, our Small Business Development Center (SBDC)network here in Northern California just published its 2023 impact report. The SBDC network assisted in over 600 new business starts, created over 3200 jobs, had capital investments of 411 million and trained over 14,775 entrepreneurs.

ECO SYSTEM

– Could you explain how the SBA supports the entrepreneurial ecosystem and fosters collaboration between various stakeholders?

The ecosystem in Northern California is expansive. Technical Assistance or TA is provided by many entities. In addition to the Resource Partner network that SBA funds, there are TA providers through not-for-profit businesses and the collegiate system. For example, Sacramento State has The Carlson Center of Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Start-up Sac is a public benefit corporation that provides in-person and virtual events and workshops to connect, inform and educate entrepreneurs and innovators. There are several incubators and co-working spaces in the area that also assist entrepreneurs on their journey and many of these events can be found on our website. Additionally, another resource is The Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) through the Department of Commerce, is also a great resource that offers assistance with access to new and global markets, business matchmaking and educational training and workshops.

– What partnerships or collaborations have been established to strengthen the business environment for small businesses?

Many – The National Federation for Independent Businesses (NFIB), the Small Business Majority, The USDA and SBA have an MOU to assist small businesses in their entrepreneur journey, the Greater Sacramento Entrepreneur Council (GSEC) all of the Resource Partners and ecosystem that I just spoke about as well as local Chambers of Commerce’s as well as city and county assistance.

– How does the SBA encourage innovation and entrepreneurship within the small business community?

A great question Sergey. SBIR and STTR grant opportunities. With all of the resource that I have mentioned, the framework is there. There is a great support system out there for businesses and entrepreneurs, they just have to look or reach out to us for the connections.

WOMAN-OWNED SMALL BUSINESSES

– Can you discuss the SBA’s efforts to support and empower women entrepreneurs, particularly those who own small businesses?

The Women Owned small Business (WOSB) Contracting program recently went though improvement to the certification process in an effort to streamline the timeframes. Federal Agencies can offer set-aside or sole source awards to WOSB’s. There is also the Economically Disadvantages Women Owned Small Business Certification that requires all of the WOSB criteria be met in addition to net worth and gross income requirements.

There are no specific loan programs for women owned small businesses, but I would point to the Community Advantage program for capital needs.

– What resources and programs are available specifically for women-owned small businesses?

The Women’s Business Centers (WBC’s)are a great resource for women, although they serve anyone. The [provide programs and products to assist in the entrepreneurial journey. In fact, our Sacramento WBC has created a Childcare Program that has been highlighted across the Nation as a game-changer for the childcare field.

– Are there any success stories you can share that highlight the impact of the SBA’s support for women-owned businesses?

SBA backed loans, technical assistance and contracting programs have assist many women entrepreneurs. The Contracting programs provided by the Agency have seen huge success in women competing for contracting dollars. The work done though the WBC’s cannot be underscored, they provide a great space to collaborate and share ideas and create new innovative programs for women entrepreneurs. We have much more work to do in this area. I will say that we have had many women owned business receive awards through the SBA on the local, state, and national level and that is encouraging.

Sergey Ivannikov
Producer of Multicultural Business & Career Expo
www.Expo@c4cca.org

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