Organizations that help small businesses start, survive, and thrive in Solano, Napa, and Sonoma counties have recently reorganized their responsibilities and resources. And this comes as they are seeing a notable surge in inquiries from aspiring entrepreneurs during the pandemic.
Earlier this year, Napa County was added to the Solano Small Business Development Center and the Sonoma County Center was placed under the wing of a new host organization.
Established in 1976, SBDCs are part of a nationwide program designed to connect entrepreneurs, free of charge, with consultants who can help them set up business systems, identify problems, and seek financial assistance. The centers are funded in part by the US Small Business Administration and in part by state agencies, which in California are the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, also known as GO-Biz.
The former Napa-Sonoma SBDC has been hosted by Napa Valley College since 2011, led by Mary Cervantes, who recently retired. The Northern California SBDC network, which manages hosting contracts for the region’s more than a dozen centers, last year sought host proposals for Solano, Napa and Solano counties. The Solano County Workforce Development Board expanded its contract to include Napa County, and the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce won the Sonoma County host contract.
“We are very pleased with the growth we’ve had in Solano over the past several years, and (NorCal SBDC) has asked us to make Napa County our responsibility,” said Tim Murrill, director of the newly formed Solano-Napa SBDC and leader of the Solano center for three years. “There is a lot of continuity between the two counties. Many people in Solano live and work in Napa, County, and vice versa.”
In 2018, the Solano SBDC worked with 190 active client companies, but that number grew to 1,350 last year and now with Napa County to about 1,700, Murrill said. In the past two years, the Solano Center has helped clients hire 475 employees, start 78 companies, raise $63 million in new capital and grow revenue by $17 million.
Louise Dawson has been hired to lead the new Sonoma SBDC. A year before the pandemic, she had started a restaurant training program for the NorCal SBDC network, drawing on her experience as the owner of two restaurants and a large catering company. She had also been operations director for Receivership Specialists, who would run companies placed under court control.
And it’s been a busy few months at work, Dawson said. The center currently receives 20 to 25 calls per day. It has 10 management consultants, including four who speak Spanish, including Dawson.
“I don’t know how Mary (Cervantes) did that when she ran Napa and Sonoma,” Dawson said. “Sonoma needs its own center because it has a very robust program.”
Looking across Sonoma County, the center said it helped over 1,128 clients, which created 359 new jobs and secured $32 million in capital.
Call volume was also up for the Solano-Napa SBDC this year, Murrill said. Last year there were only about three new clients per week for the Solano center and this year so far it has averaged 10.
“In the last six months, and especially since the beginning of this year, a lot of people are now looking to start a business,” Murrill said. “Many are trying to find out if they want to go back to work. A lot of companies are telling them to go back to the office.”
That’s one of the reasons the addition of Napa County is attractive, he said. In addition, seven management consultants were contracted, including two Spanish-speaking ones. Previously, the Solano Center had only one Spanish-speaking man among its nearly two dozen advisors.
This is critical because the Solano-Napa SBDC has now received a mandate from the State Office of the Small Business Advocate to offer $2,500 in micro-grants in both Napa County and Solano. To reach the districts’ Hispanic population quarter, the center has signed micro-grant marketing agreements with the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce for Solano and Napa counties.
To qualify for these grants, companies must have five or fewer employees and less than $50,000 in annual revenue. The money is intended to help employers missed out by previous rounds of federal and state pandemic assistance, such as:
With the $500,000 made available for Solano micro-grants, the goal is to help up to 180 local businesses, Murrill said. The $175,000 for Napa will help 56 companies.
Sonoma SBDC is working on its own grant program through the NorCal SBDC Network’s Dream Fund (norcalsbdc.org/dream). Proposed grants of $5,000 and $10,000 are for startups that have been excluded from pandemic relief programs because they did not have a full year of operation as of 2019. But before they can apply through Lendistry, candidates must complete 11 hours of training over five weeks and then one-on-one work with a consultant. The first round of classes begins on June 7th.
NorCal SBDC plans to fund 1,000 grants across the region.
“But there is an exception for underserved areas,” Dawson said.
Sonoma County would qualify because of its large population of farm workers, Hispanics and other people of color, she said.
Solano-Napa SBDC is also bringing back Napa Valley College’s youth entrepreneurship business plan competition, which ran for over a decade before its two-year pandemic hiatus. Travis Credit Union provides prize money for the best business plans submitted by local high school and community college students. Local businessmen will help evaluate the plans.
“We help empower the next generation of entrepreneurs,” said Murrill.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before Business Journal, he wrote for the Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He graduated from Walla Walla University. You can reach him at email@example.com or 707-521-4256.