At 22, Sara Helmy founded her company, Tribu, a small design and advertising agency that would help others reach customers and grow their own businesses. Six years later, Tribu has doubled in size and boasts annual revenues of $1 million – a milestone Helmy reached since participating in the Business Opportunity Academy (BOA), hosted by LiftFund, in 2014.
“It was a very meaningful experience to me and my company,” Helmy said. “BOA helped us make sense of the RFP process. But it’s also a place where we were able to form many meaningful connections with people in the city who are truly wonderful at supporting small and minority business owners.”
The LiftFund Business Opportunity Academy, now in its fourth year, is a month-long accelerator program for small business owners in San Antonio. The 2017 program is about to kick off with applications due Jan. 20.
LiftFund Women’s Business Center Director Margot Slosson, a Trinity University graduate with an MBA from St. Mary’s University, recently answered questions about the upcoming program.
Rivard Report: What is LiftFund?
Margot Slosson: LiftFund is a nonprofit, small business lender that provides access to capital for entrepreneurs who can’t obtain funding through traditional financial institutions. The Women’s Business Center is a program of LiftFund.
The work we do in providing technical assistance is mutually beneficial – to entrepreneurs because it helps them learn and make improvements to their business, and to LiftFund by reducing the risk of borrowers defaulting on their loans because they have support and a network of people to guide them.
RR: What is the Business Opportunity Academy?
MS: BOA was started in 2013 by Tomas Larralde, formerly with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) and now chief of staff for State Sen. José Menéndez (D-126). He brought together a group of agencies with purchasing departments that do business with other small businesses because he recognized the need for micro-entrepreneurs from underserved populations to learn about the opportunity to grow a business through contracting and how to do it successfully.
The program has continued through the years and LiftFund took over managing the program with the same partner agencies. They all help by supporting the cost of the program and delivering presentations so that small business owners can hear directly from purchasing officers and coordinators.
RR: Who should attend BOA?
MS: Two groups: First are the people who have already gotten their feet wet in the world of contracting but aren’t fully aware of all the opportunities and how to go about doing it. Typically, these are businesses from service industries such as construction, marketing, and PR or janitorial services. We encourage them to look at some of the agencies’ vendor lists to get an idea of what kind of jobs and contracts they have put out in the past.
The second group who could benefit is businesses that are already doing business-to-business work, but haven’t considered the possibility of the government or another public entity as a potential customer segment. This walks them through the process of how to break into that customer segment because contracting is a different world in terms of how they look at that customer group.
RR: How do I know if I’m eligible?
MS: A selection committee reviews all applications. The key criterion is that the applicant is already in business. This program isn’t geared for people looking to get started. It’s for people who are already in business and already selling.
We also want to see that they have a product or service that is appealing to business-to-business and business-to-government, not a consumer product. Another criterion is that the applicant can be categorized in one of the certifications such as small, women or minority-owned, disabled or veteran-owned (businesses).
RR: What is included in the fee?
MS: The program offers 16 hours of workshops and networking functions, which are the biggest takeaways, plus electronic copies of all the presentations as well as resources and supporting documents that help with things like putting together responses to requests for quotation (RFQs) or requests for proposals (RFPs).
They also receive a professional portrait for use in marketing materials and a plaque. Oh, and we serve snacks.
RR: If I’m not selected, then what?
MS: When we do not select an applicant, we refund the application fee and then offer our other services such as the one-on-one counseling and workshops that are available to the public.
In the past, the only reason an applicant could not be accepted was because he or she was not yet operating a business. So our consultation services really help them become better positioned for the next program.
This year’s BOA will be offered Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 4-6 p.m., starting in February, at LaunchSA (formerly Café Commerce) at the Central Library, 600 Soledad St.
A free information session will be offered Jan. 5, noon to 1 p.m., at the same location.
Apply online for the Business Opportunity Academy no later than Jan. 20, 2017.