Small Business Majority Blog

Small Business Matters

There are many complex policy issues that have a major impact on the small business community. Each week, we’re going to help break one of those issues down so small business owners can stay in the know and remain aware of their stake in these national issues. This week’s Issue Q&A is on the United States Export-Import Bank.

Q: What is the Ex-Im Bank?

A: The U.S. Export-Import Bank is an independent, self-sustaining agency that has been financing the export of American goods and services for more than 80 years.

Q: Why does the Ex-Im Bank matter to small businesses?

A: The Ex-Im Bank finances a large amount of exports from small businesses, helping them turn international opportunities into real sales. The bank gives small businesses in the United States an edge and helps level the playing field by filling in the gaps offered by traditional financing, and by partnering with private sector lenders to provide direct loans, guarantees and credit insurance to aid foreign purchasers in buying American-made goods.

Q: How much of the Ex-Im Bank’s business is small business oriented?

A: In 2013, 89% of the bank’s transactions were for small businesses, and over the past five years it has supported 1.2 million American jobs and generated $2 billion for U.S. taxpayers without costing them a dime.

Q: Why do I need to know about the Ex-Im Bank now?

A: There’s a push in Congress to defund the Ex-Im Bank, which could have far reaching negative effects on the small business sector. The reauthorization of the bank is crucial to small businesses that deal with exporting goods and services, and lawmakers need to know why the bank is important to small business success.

Q: Where can I learn more about reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank?

A: Small Business Majority recently launched a new website asking small business owners to share their experience with the Ex-Im Bank so we can send real small business testimonials to lawmakers in Congress in efforts to help get the bank reauthorized. To learn more about the Ex-Im Bank and to share your experiences, visit our Ex-Im Thought Bank website here.

Lorenzo Harris, CEO of Janico Building Services

Lorenzo Harris makes a living sweeping away the dirt. But he certainly is not swept away by the state of our nation’s current immigration system.

As the CEO and principal of Janico Building Services, a full-service building maintenance and cleaning contractor with 40 employees in Sacramento, Harris understands first-hand how undocumented immigrants affect the cleaning industry, particularly when it comes to the hiring process.

“The hiring of undocumented workers has become widespread in our industry,” he said, noting that many are often paid “under the table” and less than minimum wage in order for the company “to gain an unfair competitive advantage.”

Witnessing the mistreatment of many immigrant workers in his line of business has inspired Harris to rectify these misdeeds at his own company. Janico Building Services employs workers who are immigrants from all over the world, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Russia and Asia, and pays all of its workers fair wages.

“[They] are often the hardest working and most loyal employees, many with family members who can’t get decent jobs,” he said. “College admission becomes problematic too because of their immigration status.”

Harris notes that American born citizens are much less likely to pursue employment in cleaning industry jobs, which enables many cleaning service companies to target undocumented workers for employment they desperately look for, and pay them meager wages.  This creates an unfair playing field that hurts other small employers like Harris who play by the rules and pay their workers fairly.

Because his industry attracts many undocumented workers, Harris understands from a small business perspective the need for immigration reform that allows these workers better access to jobs and a path toward citizenship.

In fact, Harris is not alone in these sentiments. A scientific opinion poll conducted by Small Business Majority found that a vast three-quarters of small business owners believe creating a path toward legal citizenship for undocumented workers should be part of our country’s immigration reform. The poll also found that 64% of small business owners think it’s important to allow more low skilled foreign workers, who might work in industries like cleaning services, into this country legally.

“Hopefully, immigration reform will address many of these issues,” Harris said, echoing the beliefs of 90% of business owners who agree that our current system is broken.

Sarah Best, founder of Conjured Cardea

If you want to learn how some people do the voodoo they do so well, just visit Conjured Cardea, a full-service online voodoo and hoodoo supply shop.

Sarah Best, founder of Conjured Cardea in Kalamazoo, MI, was raised around folk magic in Appalachia and is an expert on many hoodoo practices. She studied religion in college and gravitated to African diaspora belief systems—related religions that developed among enslaved Africans in America, derived from traditional African religions, such as Vodou, commonly referred to as voodoo. Best identifies as a hoodoo, a practitioner of a form of folk magic originating in West Africa (not to be confused with voodoo, which is a religion) and a spiritualist.

“I always enjoyed creating spiritual items and wares,” Best said. “I create hand-made, natural items that can be used to create a physical routine, a daily ritual or to reinforce a goal you want to obtain.”

With a vested interest in these spiritual paths, Best began a business in her home, selling these products to friends. When demand began to grow, she added some of her products to Etsy, and five years later became the top-seller in her category with over 30,000 items sold.

“I had no clue that this venture would prove successful in any way,” she said. “I simply dove in and started swimming. I left Etsy to branch out on my own and just opened four new sites, three of which are online retail shops, and purchased my own domain name.”

Best named her business Conjured Cardea after the ancient Roman goddess of hinges, doorways and thresholds. “I want my business to be a gateway for those looking to find themselves, their spirituality and their goals.”

Best has certainly put a spell on many customers looking to tap into their spiritual side. Her spiritual services and tarot readings bring people in droves, while products like Queen Bitch oil, Lucky Blue Hoodoo Housewash and items of Marie Laveau, the famous Creole voodoo practitioner, are popular sellers.

One of Best's most popular services is her Tarot card readings.

“My products give you something physical to practice with to bring your mind back to your focus, back to your goal, to help you achieve it. It’s guided meditation. You focus on an object or candle to hone your thoughts. My items are simply tools to aid the mind.”

Best prides herself in using natural ingredients such as herbs and pure essential oils that honor the original formulas of many of the items she sells as a way of honoring the culture and history behind them.

That culture and history, however, is still misperceived by many, something that Best to this day contends with. Recently, Best was terminated from a credit card processing company due to her site being affiliated with Vodou. This discriminatory act was publicized in a local Fox News piece, and Best hopes this will make the company change their policy so no one is denied services for their beliefs.

“I’d love for people to realize that we are just like they are,” Best added, working to dispel the negative notions behind hoodoo. With her bewitching site and historical knowledge of these practices, Best has positioned Conjured Cardea as a place where people can both learn and conjure their own beliefs.

Anita Brightman was always a creative at heart. But it wasn’t until her very own light bulb moment working as a government public affairs contractor that A. Bright Idea was born.

A. Bright Idea, a full-service creative advertising and public relations agency with locations in Bel Air, MD and Sonoma, CA was exactly that – Brightman’s epiphany.

“I always enjoyed public relations, telling the story of the underdog and pleading my case,” Brightman said. When she began to feel “lost in a large corporation with its own language of acronyms,” Brightman quit her job without a real plan in place and started a small business doing something she knew she loved.

“I managed progress slowly and grew A. Bright Idea from a home-based business that used freelance support to a full-service agency with 32 employees and two locations,” she said.

A. Bright Idea offers clients a wide array of services, including advertising, marketing, public relations, graphic design and interactive services including website design and social media support.

The firm’s status as a small business affords it a unique opportunity to serve businesses both large and small.

“As a small business, we understand the struggles of our fellow small business clients, while also possessing the capacity to support large organizations and government entities,” she said. “We see balancing our varying client base as a unique opportunity.”

Unlike other agencies that specialize in one specific discipline, A. Bright Idea’s multitude of services and skill sets offers a multidimensional approach to their clients’ communication problems.

“We believe that any communication tool, whether a corporate identity or a multi-tiered advertising campaign, should tie directly to an overall strategic business and communication plan.”

Brightman felt that sort of model was lacking in the market, noting she witnessed a great need for creative services when A. Bright Idea was in its nascent, home office stage.

“I found myself with a niche in small market areas that consisted of small to medium sized businesses that had no opportunity for creative services. I saw the need for [these services] and I seized it.”

Starting a company that provides creative services allowed Brightman to tap into her own creative impulses and create an environment based on thinking outside of the box and one that prides itself on innovative ideas.

“It’s amazing to see all of the pieces come together,” she said, commenting on the collaborative nature and welcome exchange of ideas her business is founded upon.

“Everyone’s business, whether big or small, needs a creative spark and we make that possible.” And with that said, Brightman sets out to bring a bright idea to all of her clients.

Carrie Ferrence and Jacqueline Gjurgevich, founders of Stockbox Neighborhood Grocery

What began as a grad school assignment has blossomed into a successful small business that Seattleites are eating up… literally.

Stockbox Neighborhood Grocery went from an idea to a thriving small business thanks to Carrie Ferrence. As part of one of her classes at Bainbridge Graduate Institute, Ferrence was tasked with designing a business that responded to a social need, and focused on developing a retail response to urban food access.

“We believed that investing in small business development could respond to the need for good food inside of urban communities, while providing much-needed economic and employment support,” she said.

Taking her concept out to the community and getting their feedback on what they liked and what could be improved helped rally the support from the city of Seattle, and inspired Ferrence and her team to bring their project to fruition.

“Stockbox is the new neighborhood grocery,” she said. “We place small grocery stores in urban areas to offer a local resource for fresh foods, meals and grocery staples in communities that don’t have access to good food.”

Stockbox is dedicated to offering affordable and accessible options for fresh food inside local communities from local produce suppliers and farms. Their fair pricing keeps them competitive with larger chains, while low operating costs and higher margin products help them offer fresh food at relatively affordable prices.

Interior of Stockbox's First Hill store location

What truly makes Stockbox a standout grocer has been the rapid disappearance of corner stores in many communities, resulting in a unique opportunity that Ferrence is positioning her business to help solve.

“23 million people in the U.S. now live in a food desert, which means they don’t have access to a grocery store or fresh food where they live. This grocery gap is actually growing and demonstrates both a large market opportunity and pressing social need.”

The commitment to community that drives Stockbox as a small business can also pose problems of its own.

“We are challenged by finding locations that are a good fit for us and the community. And because we’re committed to hiring from the community, it can be challenging to build a staff that represents the community.”

Nevertheless, Ferrence basks in the rewards and customer support that Stockbox’s community-conscious business model brings in.

“I love to hear customers’ reactions when they visit our store for the first time. They come in for the food but end up excited by how fresh and fun it feels inside the store. We’re not another app or technology (company)– we offer a sense of space and connection for our customers to reconnect to food.”

With two stores currently open, Stockbox is working to continue expanding its network and reach in the Seattle area and beyond, with requests to open locations across the country.

By merging the quality and selection of large chain grocers with the ambiance and civic mindedness of a local mom-and-pop shop, Stockbox Neighborhood Grocery is a small business that could become a big, national player in the urban grocery market in the years to come.