ICA is excited to announce our new partnership with The Greenlining Institute and their bold, community-focused initiative, the People of Color Small Business Network.
The Greenlining Institute works towards a future where communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change. The People of Color Small Business Network has been organizing business owners in East Oakland and Deep East Oakland to help them access business services and recover from COVID-19 impacts. ICA is entering this partnership to add to the continuum of services for these businesses through our seed-stage accelerator, The Lab at ICA, and help them access seed capital through the ICA Growth Fund. This partnership is a perfect mission-fit for our work to provide coaching, connections, and capital to grow Bay Area businesses and close the gender and racial wealth gap.
Mercedes Gibson, the Senior Program Manager for Economic Equity at the Greenlining Institute is at the helm of the People of Color Small Business Network pilot. Small businesses are a crucial part of the social fabric in communities. In historically redlined communities—and in light of COVID-19 impacts they face—it's more important than ever to support these small businesses. In this interview Mercedes shares about the community-rooted, place-based approach she uses to bring business together and connect them to resources for support.
What brings you to this work with The Greenlining Institute and why is the People of Color Small Business Network so important in East Oakland right now?
I’m an East Oakland native and today I live around the corner from where I grew up. I’ve been organizing for 20+ years. I bring a lot of love for small business, Black folks and East Oakland to this work. It was through my work in small business and workforce development with the City of Oakland that I first connected to the Greenlining Institute. Greenlining is a really unique organization—we’re mostly a staff of color working in the policy arena, and we’re also doing on the ground work in community.
There are so many resources for small businesses in our city and I want to leverage the resources that already exist and make sure that they’re getting out to everybody. The People of Color Small Business Network brings this work on the ground to people who live in what I call the hood, or the low income areas in East Oakland and Deep East Oakland. It’s great that all these resources for small businesses exist but we have to make sure we’re reaching out to people of color, non-English speakers, and other folks who are too often left out.
What is something in your work that you struggle with and what is something that gives you hope?
We launched the People of Color Small Business Network last year, with the Alliance for Community Development and the City of Oakland–it was a lift! One of the things we really struggle with is knowing who is accessing these resources. Without better data, it's hard to know how to serve folks. For a number of reasons, folks of color and non-English speakers are not accurately counted. We need community based organizations to be in touch with folks. We know there are a lot of gaps in East Oakland as far as who is able to access business resources, and that’s what we’re trying to change. We want to help these small businesses get into programs, access capital, get help with bookkeeping and marketing. All of these are really important for COVID-19 recovery.
What brings me hope is how successful this pilot has been. We’ve been working with these businesses for 6-12 months. We have 100% participation. They trust us, they’re signing up for navigation sessions, and so far we’ve been able to give out $62k in grants. The fact that it happened and it’s working gives me a lot of hope.
This project is a pulling together of the different work I’ve done, from my time with The City of Oakland to my work with Hack the Hood. Doing this hyperlocal, place-based work, is all about helping people where you can—it’s the small victories that count.
How will ICA connect to this work?
ICA is the next step for businesses we’ve connected with through the People of Color Small Business Network. We’re so excited to have this next phase for these businesses to get more support, coaching, advising, and eventually seed capital. Small businesses hold these communities together, and we have to make sure they’re getting all the resources that are available.
What do you wish more people knew about small businesses of color in East Oakland?
To really reach folks in East Oakland and Deep East Oakland, you have to do your research, get into community centers and libraries. You have to literally go door-to-door and find the home business, the solo consultants, not just folks with brick-and-mortar businesses. The number of African American woman home entrepreneurs is a really fast growing group and we want to reach them. If you’re not getting creative about where you’re finding these small business owners you won’t reach them.
And these small businesses and business owners matter, They’re a pillar in the community. Growing up here in East Oakland, I think about a woman I knew as the Icee lady, a Black woman, sort of grandmotherly to me then, but probably not much older then I am now. For a quarter you could get frozen Kool-Aid in a styrofoam cup. It sounds simple, but it was glorious on summer days, and at any time, really. She was an important part of the fabric of our community. And in neighborhoods like ours, who have been redlined, and historically divested from, we need to strengthen and protect that social fabric.
What can the City of Oakland, economic development organizations, and nonprofits do to better serve East Oakland?
One of the most important things is for all of these organizations to work together. We need to come together and find ways for our services to connect and grow all of our capacities through working together. It’s our responsibility to coordinate with each other to make sure that no one is being left out. It's trendy to focus on POC businesses right now, and we need to build strategies to make sure this is not just a trend. Finally, we need to bridge the “experts” with people with real on the ground knowledge and experience with community work. To reach small businesses in East Oakland takes getting out there and connecting with people, and that needs to be de-siloed from the people proposing the solutions.
The Lab at ICA is designed for early-stage businesses generating revenue and looking to develop a plan to strategically grow—applications are open through May 20. Appy now.