Op-ed by Regional Administrator Mike Fong: Prioritize small-business racial and gender equity as part of economic recovery

Originally published by The Seattle Times on March 3, 2022

Since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has worked to save the nation’s small businesses. In Washington state alone, the agency provided more than $11 billion worth of economic aid, and 178,000 loans and grants were awarded to businesses. This presents enormous opportunity for our agency to build on these new relationships with business owners and identify other programs and tools that will help them grow, thrive and become more resilient.

My father owned a Chinese restaurant in Post Falls, Idaho, in the late 1980s. For a few years, business was booming until a road construction project outside his front door not only uprooted the street but his restaurant along with it. The road closure led to a dramatic decline in customers and ultimately, he had to close. Unforeseen circumstances are a fact of life for small business owners and entrepreneurs, but nobody anticipated the worldwide upheaval we have experienced since the first confirmed COVID-19 case in our country was diagnosed right here in 2020. 

This has been a challenge of a lifetime for our small businesses and their employees. We have seen some of our favorite stores, restaurants, and arts and entertainment venues close while others are still reeling. Recently, a new report found that during the pandemic, historically underrepresented communities were disproportionately likely to experience closure, revenue decline, or a reduction in customers than other businesses. Undoubtedly, these findings are tied to pre-pandemic realities faced by Black, Latino and women-owned businesses that were magnified during the public health crisis.

The Biden-Harris administration and SBA Administrator Isabel Guzman have a clear vision: Center equity as part of recovery and ensure that entrepreneurs from all communities get equal access to the agency’s many financial, business training and contracting programs.

There are three priority areas where we can make progress by working with partner organizations inside and outside of government. The first is access to capital. We know this is critical to all businesses, especially those owned by women, communities of color and veterans. SBA has several very effective finance programs that help small firms fund working capital, building acquisition and exporting. The agency’s lending programs help borrowers that may not have the credit score or collateral necessary to secure a traditional loan from a commercial lender. SBA’s finance programs are critically important to empowering underserved communities across the state.

The second priority is to reduce barriers to our programs by re-establishing and creating new relationships with local community partners. During the pandemic, we worked with numerous resource partners and other organizations to provide technical assistance and access to COVID-19 relief programs. SBA’s new Community Navigators Pilot funds organizations across the country — trusted advocates — to reduce barriers within underserved communities to access SBA funding and federally backed programs. In our region, we will have multiple pilot efforts where this model is deployed.

The third area is to prepare our local small businesses to access, compete and secure new revenue opportunities from government contracting. In 2021, the federal government purchased more than $25 billion in goods and services from companies based in the Pacific Northwest, with $8.5 billion of that going to our small businesses. With the bipartisan infrastructure law now in place, even more dollars will soon be available. The share of federal procurement spending going to Black, Hispanic, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, as well as women and rural-owned businesses, is substantially underrepresented relative to the total number of U.S. businesses owned. We must help them gain equitable access to these contracts and become certified and eligible for these dollars. 

We have demonstrated that under extraordinary circumstances, we can knit together an incredible safety net for our community during the COVID-19 crisis. I know we can do the same with intentionality in advancing equity as we build back better.

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