Aren't All Small Businesses Social Enterprises?

Last night, we hosted a great panel discussion on the importance of small businesses in our communities. We were lucky enough to have three amazing panelists: Brian Goebel of Start:ME, Megan Johnson of Sparkmarket, and Lonnie Saboor of Invest Atlanta.

Cities across America are beginning to realize the impact small businesses can have. Albuquerque is encouraging small ventures through accelerators and partnering with local universities. Last year, Dallas partnered with Goldman Sachs to spend $20 million to promote small business growth. And here in Atlanta, local communities are turning to innovative strategies to support small businesses, including cash mobs in several Southwest Atlanta neighborhoods.

But there is still a ways to go for Atlanta to fully support small businesses. With that goal in mind, our panelists came to CCI to share what they were doing to encourage small businesses in communities around Atlanta.

To kick off the discussion, Melonie asked each panelist to introduce themselves and their organization:

Brian Goebel is the program manager of Start:ME, which is a 14-week accelerator program run through Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Start:ME works to provide small businesses in high-poverty neighborhoods with “the business tools, network access and early-stage financing needed to develop sustainable businesses that not only support entrepreneurs and their families, but also build neighborhood vitality.”

According to Goebel, small businesses can be “a tremendous driver of positive change.” He said that one issue, however, is the so-called “microbusiness gap”: high-poverty areas have much fewer small businesses than affluent areas. That’s not to say that there aren’t any micro-entrepreneurs in low-income communities. They just need resources and support. “They have the skills, the capabilities, it’s just the ecosystem isn’t there,” Goebel said.

Start:ME provides micro-entrepreneurs skills workshops, access to business experts, mentoring by business leaders, peer support from other entrepreneurs, and access to a $30,000 pool of low-cost loans.  Over time, Goebel hopes to increase that pool to $500,000-$1 million, with a goal of serving more entrepreneurs.

Megan Johnson is the co-founder of SparkMarket, which is a community finance company. In a previous professional  life, Megan worked for a large bank that foreclosed on a lot of small businesses. “Part of my work now is to repair my karma, because it was awful, just having to foreclose on personal assets of folks who ran great coffee shops in their communities,” she said.

Megan and a few partners decided to address the need that she saw among small business owners for raising capital.  “A lot of people underestimate the impact of small businesses,” Johnson said. “Small businesses in the social enterprise discussion often don’t get the credit they should because they’re impacting folks in isolated places.”

In 2011, Georgia became the second state in the country to establish an intrastate crowdfunding exemption—the Invest Georgia Exemption—which allows small businesses to raise up to $1 million through sales of stock to non-accredited investors.

Businesses have raised $1.5 million (mostly in real estate) with the help of SparkMarket, which facilitates this type of investment. Johnson used the example of Bohemian Guitars, a small company that makes guitars out of oil cans. The company was the first to take advantage of equity crowdfunding, raising $131,400 from 29 people and putting them in a position to secure business from Urban Outfitters.

Lonnie Saboor is the senior manager of small business finance at Invest Atlanta, which is the economic development authority for the City of Atlanta. Invest Atlanta aims to foster public-private partnerships, neighborhood revitalization, and innovation in the public and private sectors. Saboor said that Invest Atlanta, which was established in 1976, used to be one of the only resources small businesses had in Atlanta. He cited the example of Little Five Points, which Invest Atlanta targeted for revitalization and small business development, and now boasts a flourishing microenterprise scene.

Lonnie emphasized that Atlanta’s small business climate is rapidly improving. “2015 is the best year to start a business, because there’s so much out there,” Saboor said.

There is still progress to be made, however. Atlanta is still “fractured,” according to Johnson. “We have a million counties and a million different municipalities in what we call Atlanta,” Johnson said. This is why cooperation and communication among different communities is key.

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