In Her Own Words: Nita Shah, Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon
Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon started in 2005 as a project funded by the City of Portland. The former Bureau of Housing and Community Development was looking for ways to alleviate poverty in Portland, and identified microenterprises as one solution to poverty. MESO a program of the Black United Fund of Oregon, at the time, received the BHCD grant, and MESO began its work.
We received the grant in June, and started the program in July. Our office was small: we had one table, and no computers, people immediately started coming in for help. Our biggest challenge was defining the screening criteria for our clients. In a way, it was hectic, but on the other hand, it was good that we didn’t have a solid program set up. That allowed us to really listen to what people are saying they need from a support program for a new business. We started forming the program around the needs of the people coming to us for help.
Our focus is to provide assistance to low-income business owners. Businesses we serve must be established, and at a critical point where they’re either going to take off, or shut down. MESO works really well in these situations, because we give one-on-one support to the client. We take only 12 to 15 clients a year that then become part of our program for three years.
When a client first comes in, we support them in areas where they need us. When they become more established, then we guide them through setting up the foundation for future business success: from writing a business plan to financial record-keeping and marketing.
About 58 percent of our clients are women-owned businesses, and 78% are minority-owned. We have everything from hair salons to wholesale bakeries, from graphic and web designers to carpet cleaners. All are “Mom-and-Pop” shops, and some have progressed and ready to become corporations. Some have started out making $25,000 a year, and now have sales of $500,000.
Since we started, we have helped about 88 businesses. The clients we help have a success rate of 98%. The success rate is demonstrated by increasing revenues, and more importantly, that small businesses stay in business within a year or two of their launch. This is really important, because the average success rate for microenterprises is 44%, according to the Small Business Administration. We take great pride that our businesses are still open and thriving, even in this struggling economy.
The way we help our clients is by really understanding their needs. We don’t force a single “formula” for success. Some of our clients have needed support with simply learning English, or help with filling out forms. How can you fill out large packets of paperwork when your English is not that good?
We help them with finding vendors – where they can go to save money, buying wholesale. Many of our clients are used to buying supplies daily, which is often not cost-effective.
A lot of the work we do is really a step-by-step process. Sometimes it takes three months, and other times, it takes three years. But we’re always there with them.
Thriving in a Challenging Economy
As you can imagine, the economic downturn has affected our local small business community. Over the last three years, we’ve really seen much greater need for our services. We now have a waiting list, because so many people are coming through the door. We’re seeing more people who recently became unemployed looking at what they can do on their own. We have a lot more educated folks with professional backgrounds looking at becoming entrepreneurs.
We also have more people asking about loans, because the credit market is so tight. Most of our clients are not bankable: they’ve either had foreclosures or bankruptcies, which makes them credit-challenged.
Our clients have to work harder on marketing their businesses and pursue what they want assertively. Many are exploring web-based marketing, which can be difficult for some clients with little technical know-how.
The great thing is that businesses are all surviving. Job-hunting is not an option right now, so they’re staying put. They’re doing things like talking to landlords and reducing their rents. They’re looking at what they can cut down on their expenses.
Background in Serial Entrepreneurship
I fell into doing a lot of businesses when I first came to this country. Like many immigrants, I had a hard time with speech. Back in India, I had a background in child care, but didn’t feel very efficient in the job market here. I decided to open my own business – a child care center.
I loved every moment of it. We had about 85 children in the program, which was structured around the needs of the children. If the children didn’t need naps, they weren’t forced to sleep. It was a fun business, which I operated for six years. I had my own children in the program. As my children grew up, I decided to expand and go into other things.
My husband and I bought a sign business: so we did graphics for banners and signs. It was fun, but very labor-intensive. It was hard on our children. One of the things I learned about entrepreneurship is that it’s great fun, but one has to come to a point of knowing you cannot do everything.
Up until that point, I was doing everything: I did marketing, worked the books, the master janitor … everything. It’s really easy to burn out. I learned that there are some functions that I can have someone else do, so I can focus on the things I do best. That made it easier to move forward with other businesses.
I sold the sign business, and started running a restaurant. After I got the restaurant to a profitable place, someone offered to buy it. I did a few restaurants that way: I’d buy it, get it running, and then sell it. That worked out really well.
My background in starting and running businesses really helps me help my clients. Also I feel like every business that we get into MESO is my own, so when I work with a client, I really help her build it for success. I enjoy the work immensely.
One of the things that also help me connect with our clients is my background in poverty. Having been a newcomer once, I know the challenges of being new to this country, and figuring out a way to make a living. I understand what it’s like not to have the right education, the funds, or the knowledge of how to do everything perfectly. Being a woman of color, I identify a lot with our women clients. Their goals are so much like mine, when I was first starting out. Our women clients are goal-oriented, resilient, and eager to learn.
It’s helpful to have an understanding of the tools used in third-world countries to help small businesses grow, and alleviate poverty. It’s amazing to see the successful results of using the same tools here in America: a country with such wide resources.
Colors of Influence :: Sumer 2010