Lillian Stevenson-Freeman of Da Cozy Spot restaurant poses for a photo on the eve of the district 2 election.
Lillian Stevenson-Freeman of Da Cozy Spot restaurant poses for a photo in 2014. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While most people understand why strengthening the economy is so important to the vibrancy of our community, most don’t realize that small business is the lifeblood of the economy by making up more than 97% of San Antonio employers.

Small business is actually big business.

On a larger scale, more than half of the United States population either works for or owns a small business. National Small Business Week, which runs through Saturday, May 6, recognizes small business owners and entrepreneurs’ vital contributions to the overall well-being of the economy and the country. You can support small business, which creates about every two out of three new jobs in the U.S., by enlisting the services of and purchasing the products made by local and regional businesses.

Working in economic development and now as an entrepreneur, I’ve been able to see the challenges facing small business from both sides. As a member of several diversity teams, I was often tasked with the creation and implementation of policies based on disparity studies in order to be inclusive of small, minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses. Each undertaking took immense effort and one to two years to complete. What we found in each individual process was a consistent pattern of the same challenges for small business including access to capital, lack of tailored resources, and capacity-building. 

The City of San Antonio is among the top leaders in supplier diversity. In fiscal year 2016, the Small Business Economic Development Advocacy (SBEDA) program impacted nearly 500 local small, minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses that were able to participate on City contracts at both the prime contractor and subcontractor level. In order to forge connections between small business owners and opportunities in the local market, the City’s Small Business Office regularly hosts orientation and vendor events.

The Small Business Office recently released the SBEDA Program Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2016, which shows that 45% – or $208 million – of City contract dollars were paid to small, minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses. The 45% utilization rate represents the largest spend the City has conducted with small, minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses since the establishment of the SBEDA program in 1992. While these numbers are impressive, there remains much to improve upon.

Last month, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the Fair Contracting Coalition and other organizations to release a scorecard grading the performance of several local public agencies based on their procurement with small, minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses. What the scorecard showed was the continued struggle to promote and provide opportunities for small business at the local level. Advocates called for a collaborative approach with agencies, continued education on bidding, and transparency in contracting.

Small business vendors and suppliers gather at a City orientation. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The City of San Antonio should take this as an opportunity to address disparities, engage the entrepreneurial community, join forces with other incubators/accelerators, and develop best practices among several local agencies including SAWS and VIA who have robust diversity programs. Seizing these opportunities and leading by example is the leadership we need now.

My hope is that when people think about where they should start their business, San Antonio is at the top of their list. We are already ranked as a “Top Recession-Proof City” by Forbes, and last year we were recognized as one of the best places for female entrepreneurs to start a business by WalletHUB.

We must keep that momentum going. Providing small business resources to build capacity and nurture growth is essential to strengthening our local economy. Identifying and incentivizing emerging, forward-looking industries such as technology, cybersecurity, and bioscience to invest in our city also is essential to growth.

Our next mayor should be more engaged with the entrepreneurial community and invested in strengthening and increasing their capacity. The city of San Antonio can then become the city we all deserve.

Irene Chavez

Irene Chavez is a longtime, award-winning small business advocate who spent more than 12 years working in supplier diversity and economic development for UTSA, University Health System, and the City of...