An intellectual properties workshop at StartSmall Think Big.

Non-profit helps small business boom

The number of small businesses in the Bronx is soaring, with about 5000 new firms incorporating in the borough each year. By that measure, the Bronx is the most entrepreneurial borough in the city.

An intellectual properties workshop at StartSmall Think Big.
An intellectual properties workshop at Start Small Think Big.

For Geneva Wilson, realizing her dream of teaching healthy eating to local school children should have been a snap.

Wilson was an experienced chef and an expert in nutrition. But she didn’t know how to register her East Tremont organization, Isis Community Circle, as a nonprofit. Nor was she prepared for the dense web of regulations determining who gets to work with public schools.

Things got much easier after Wilson discovered Start Small Think Big, a Mott Haven-based nonprofit devoted to helping small businesses in the Bronx. Start Small’s network of lawyers ushered Wilson through the nonprofit registration process with ease.

Before long, Wilson was helping students at a Bathgate middle school eat healthier, and hosting workshops on behalf of Cornell University and St. Barnabas Hospital. Now, Start Small is helping her start a café and caterer called Ms. Geneva’s.

“I’m just floored by how much success we have had,” Wilson said.

The nonprofit assisted 889 entrepreneurs in 2013, providing $1.9 million in pro-bono legal services, helping launch 18 new businesses and creating 27 new jobs. Start Small mainly focuses on connecting aspiring entrepreneurs to legal and financial advice, but is increasingly offering general business consulting as well, said Jennifer DaSilva, founder and director of the nonprofit.

The number of small businesses in the Bronx is soaring, with about 5000 new firms incorporating in the borough each year. In the past two decades, new businesses have increased by more than 300 percent, according to a 2013 report by Center for an Urban Future, a policy think tank. By that measure, the Bronx is the most entrepreneurial borough in the city.

Despite the best efforts of business owners, however, many of these firms are unable to generate jobs or expand. The majority of Bronx entrepreneurs are immigrants, and many struggle to navigate the complex regulatory system of their adopted country. Many others are low income or have poor credit, both major hindrances to accessing capital, DaSilva said.

DaSilva founded Start Small in 2009. Drawing on her previous experience as a lawyer, she was able connect with more than 15 of the city’s largest law firms to provide a steady stream of pro-bono legal council to small businesses. Since then, Start Small has helped entrepreneurs with legal basics like incorporation, as well as more complex challenges.

Tiffany Diaz was one of its beneficiaries. She had struggled for three years to go it alone as the owner of First Steps Family Daycare in Morrisania, which serves low-income children. She worried that, as the owner of a business, she could be leaving her personal finances vulnerable to lawsuits.

Start Small’s lawyers helped her turn First Steps into a Limited Liability Corporation. When a lawsuit eventually did come – a common occurrence in the daycare industry – she had access to lawyers from major law firms who counseled her on her defense. The charges were eventually dropped.

“Start Small helped me find council on all of these hugely important details that would have otherwise cost me an immense amount of money,” Diaz said.

The nonprofit also helps business owners with finances. Professional financial counselors help entrepreneurs with issues like repairing credit, developing cash flow plans, managing taxes, and providing access to a network of micro lenders.

The organization’s next move will be to focus on business consulting, DaSilva said. The nonprofit is increasingly attracting larger clients, and many of the firms that it helped launch in the past are expanding. These businesses will need help with issues like marketing, accounting and strategy.

Start Small’s eventual goal is to develop a network of business experts that rivals its array of volunteer legal professionals.

“Our goal is to be able to direct people who reach out to us to any services they need,” DaSilva said.