Fresno’s “hard to reach” business owners will soon have direct access to streamlined — and language-appropriate — online business support from the city of Fresno. (Bee file photo) Credit: JOHN WALKER / Fresno Bee

What's at stake?

City leaders say this project could help diversify the local economy, building a stronger tax base, and deepen the bonds of trust between the city of Fresno and its small business community.

Fresno’s “hard to reach” business owners will soon have direct access to streamlined — and language-appropriate — online business support from the city of Fresno.

The new resources are thanks to a partnership between the city of Fresno and Bitwise Industries and a $70,000 grant from the Equitable Economic Mobility Initiative, a project sponsored by the National League of Cities with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Working together, the city and Bitwise Industries, a Fresno-based technology firm, will develop a digital business hub, a “one-stop shop” with information on how to start and operate businesses, such as business licenses and related permits; grants; funding opportunities; business creation programs and assistance.

The resources will be available in Spanish, Punjabi, Hmong, and English and will also be ADA-compliant.

Fresno has been identified as having the country’s fifth-highest percentage of minority-owned startups among midsize metropolitan cities, as well as being recognized as a top 10 city for entrepreneurs of color, according to Deputy Mayor Matthew Grundy.

“However, there is a perpetual struggle to reach those minority business owners and provide them access to much-needed business resources and tools,” he said.

The goal is to improve access to business information for the city’s hard-to-reach small business owners, such as minority-owned businesses, entrepreneurs from underserved neighborhoods, those operating in Opportunity Zones or Community Development Block Grant project areas, and more.

Minority-owned businesses were the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Grundy also said.

“Because of this, Mayor (Jerry) Dyer decided to put inclusion at the forefront of the City’s Economic Development efforts and sought ways to identify and reduce barriers,” he said.

Prior to the $70,000 grant, the National League of Cities had also invested $25,000 into the project for small business outreach work.​

Building trust with non-English speaking business owners

The idea to build a one-stop shop was developed after the city and Bitwise held focus groups with about 30-40 underrepresented business owners, including Hmong, Spanish, and Punjabi speakers.

“We learned that many of our minority businesses face challenges, including a lack of government trust, communication, and language barriers,” Grundy said.

He also said focus groups found that small business owners face literacy issues, a lack of technical support, and a general lack of knowledge of the requirements to start and operate a business.

Often, these small business owners turn to their peer and family networks, such as aunts and uncles, for business guidance rather than more official sources, said Zayn King-Dollie, an account manager with Bitwise Industries, during a Sept. 7 interview with The Bee.

“A huge thing that we noticed with the non-English speaking business owners (is that) they just didn’t know the city, and so there was no real formal or informal relationship there,” he said.

According to a service agreement between the city of Fresno and Bitwise Industries, the primary objectives of the initiative “are to address economic mobility and racial equity.”

But beyond that, King-Dollie said some “tangible” goals of the project include diversifying the local economy and building a stronger tax base, with the hope that the project will deepen the bonds of trust and engagement between the city of Fresno and its small business community.

“Once businesses feel supported and have the resources they need,” he said, “they can come out of the shadows and operate more formally.”

Bitwise estimates a prototype of the digital business hub will be ready to test with current business owners by the end of the year. A fully operational business hub is expected to go live in the first half of 2023.

Fresno immigrant business owners often feel ‘intimidated’

Clarissa Vivian Petrucci, special projects coordinator with the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, or CVIIC, works with Spanish-speaking immigrant entrepreneurs throughout the Central Valley.

Through her work, Petrucci helps train immigrants on how to start and grow their small businesses, providing support on everything from creating a business plan to marketing to seed funding.

In an interview with The Bee on Tuesday, Petrucci said the new digital hub would help CVIIC connect more immigrant-run businesses – from food trucks to in-home child care services to E-commerce – to the city of Fresno.

“Oftentimes, immigrants feel intimidated to go to government offices and encounter people that don’t speak Spanish,” she said in Spanish.

Groups like CVIIC help close the gap and answer questions on the process of starting a business and often find creative ways to present information in an accessible format, such as on Facebook Live.

“If everything is in one place, for us as an organization, it’s much easier to promote” the city’s new proposed resource, she said. Plus, Petrucci said, having all the information online in one place will help those who have limited digital proficiency.

“The Hispanic population that I work with, oftentimes, is not very familiar with technology or how to do an online search, or even move from one website to another,” she said, “so I think this will help the process.”

Petrucci credits the Spanish-speaking staff in the city’s economic development department as well as the office of community affairs in the city of Fresno effort to reach Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs.

In her experience working with immigrant entrepreneurs, Petrucci said Fresno is one of the only Central Valley cities between Kern County and San Joaquin County that has business resources available in Spanish and online.

“The challenges we see in other counties,” she said, “are much bigger.”

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.