Minority business owners across the state no longer need to leave New Jersey to find help growing their businesses.

The Enterprise Center recently expanded its services to New Jersey, opening the state’s first branch of the federal Minority Business Development Agency in Camden.

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit helps minority-owned businesses grow and increase capacity.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce, The Enterprise Center of New Jersey will provide development services and opportunities to minority-owned businesses in the Garden State. The 330 Market Street facility houses both the New Jersey Minority Business Development Agency and Camden Cares business centers.

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“It is too often we have people going to Pennsylvania or New York to get these kinds of services,” said Sen. Cory Booker during the center’s opening ceremony. “I’m grateful that no longer will New Jersey have that indignity where our small businesses have to go out of state to access federal resources available through the MBDA.” 

“Oftentimes in urban, low-wealth communities, people come in and water the leaves but they never water roots,” said Della Clark, chief executive officer of The Enterprise Center, during the ceremony. “So today, we’re going to water the roots here in Camden so that we can grow more (entrepreneurs) here in New Jersey.” 

The center commits to doing $100 million per year in business, she said. 

The Enterprise Center “run the whole gamut, so you don’t have to go 12 different places,” said Alletta Harris-Olday, a Philadelphia-area small business certification specialist for the MBDA who used to live in Camden. 

“You don’t have to go to the city and then try to find the state and then try to find the city councilperson,” she said. “If you want to be in business, they will tell you everything you need to do and if you need capital for your business, you can come here, they’ll tell you exactly what to do.” 

The city provided the center with a list of small businesses and its team has called and knocked on doors to learn what issues owners are facing, according to Victoria Hosendorf, executive vice president of The Enterprise Center of New Jersey. 

What keeps small business owners up at night, she said, are challenges like payroll, taxes, accounting, credit scores and applying for grants but not knowing how to do so. 

Small businesses have been the backbone of Camden throughout the years, said Councilwoman Sheila Davis. 

“Now that we’re at an A-minus bond, it’s only right to start pouring into our small businesses,” she said. “We all know that sometimes paperwork can be overwhelming, so to have this center here will help (small businesses) navigate through the process.”

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AJ Riggs, owner of a custom apparel business called The Camden Store, previously worked with The Enterprise Center’s Philadelphia office through their Buy Black grant program and praised their services. 

“As a small business, there’s so many pieces that we have to figure out for ourselves: some things that we’re good at and some things that we’re not,” said Riggs, who also sits on the board of the Haddon Avenue Business Association. 

“So, it was encouraging that something that benefited us was also not made overly complicated to receive or apply for,” she said. 

Riggs said small business programs were “all over the place” in New York City, where she’s from, and that it’s “refreshing” to see similar ones starting in Camden. 

“When I first moved to Camden in 2014, I was still corresponding with some programs in New York that I was familiar with, just because I didn’t know the layout exactly here,” she said. 

Rashaan Hornsby, owner of Royal Paper Company in Camden and president of the Haddon Avenue Business Association, said it is great to have another resource in the city to help businesses scale up, to create more economic infrastructure and to bring more business to the area. 

“I’m always for things to help small business, me being a small business owner myself,” he said. “Me being a Camden City resident, being a parent here, anything that actually helps grow the city in a positive way and especially has a focus specifically on economics, I think is a positive thing for the city of Camden.”

The Enterprise Center joins already established local small and minority-owned business groups in Camden — including the Latin American Economic Development Association, Parkside Business and Community in Partnership, the Haddon Avenue Business Association and the NJ Small Business Development Center at Rutgers-Camden — at a time when minority- and women-owned businesses are facing disproportionate struggles due to the pandemic. 

In the Philadelphia metropolitan area, small businesses owned by people of color and by women (89% and 91%, respectively) were more likely than white- and men-owned firms (82% each) to report a decrease in revenue during the pandemic, according to a report published earlier this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. 

The report also found that firms owned by people of color and by women were more likely to report employment decreases (54% and 63%, respectively), relative to white- and men-owned firms (49% and 48%, respectively).

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Riggs said that organizations already in Camden have “great” services, but that they don’t have the capacity to serve all of the different small businesses in the city. 

“There are so many businesses and so many of us in different spaces,” she said. “You have the up-and-coming person who hasn’t quite opened a store yet but they’re in the beginning stages, and then you have those like myself. I’m constantly looking to learn more. I’m constantly looking to find ways to improve my business, constantly learning different ways to become more successful with my business.” 

One service that the center offers is small and minority-owned certification, which can open the door to many opportunities, according to Harris-Olday. 

If they’re certified as a small, minority-, disabled- and/or woman-owned business, they can bid for set-asides, said Hornsby. Set-asides are federal, state and municipal government contracts for which only small and/or minority-owned businesses can bid. 

With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last month, there are even more contracts available to certified businesses, said Harris-Olday. The bipartisan infrastructure bill also established the MBDA — which was created by President Richard Nixon via an executive order in 1969 — as a permanent agency, according to Miguel Estién, the Acting National Director for the MBDA. 

While there are local small and minority-owned business organizations, “there’s never been really any small business grants and loans,” said Hornsby. There was once a program to help businesses update and maintain their façades, but that was shut down, he said.

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“I think we have a long way to go, but I think the conversations are being had and, with our new mayor having a business background, Mr. Carstarphen, I think we’re in for a bright future,” he said of Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen. “A lot of city council members — Shaneka Boucher, Felisha Reyes-Morton and Sheila Davis — they’re all forward thinking people, small business-minded people. This coming year, we should have some things start to take off. I’m hopeful for that.” 

Hornsby is optimistic that investment in small businesses will help the city rebound. 

“I just really feel that with the right leadership, this city can really do a huge turnaround,” he said. “We have huge corporations here that are building and it’s really helping revitalize certain parts of the city, but I feel like that core, that grassroots of the city, the heartbeat of the city is small business and local community members. To empower that group of individuals, I think the city would really transform.” 

Aedy Miller covers education and the economy for the Burlington County Times, Courier-Post, and The Daily Journal. They are a multimedia journalist from Central Jersey and a recent graduate of the George Washington University.

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