VT PoC: State’s BIPOC small business owners face range of hurdles

Networking events for BIPOC small business owners like this one, organized by VT PoC, routinely drew large crowds of 80 to 100. Community events like these could help address the challenges BIPOC businesses face in Vermont, identified in new focus group research.

New Research from VT Professionals of Color Network, Fast-Growing Network Could Help Address Challenges

Vermont Business Magazine Vermont’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) small business owners face a range of challenging barriers to growth, according to the just released results of extensive focus group research conducted by the Vermont Professionals of Color Network (VT PoC).

The focus groups were part of a larger project coordinated by the Vermont Small Business Development Center, as the hub of a Community Navigator Pilot Program grant, funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, examining the challenges facing underrepresented small business owners in the state.    

While the hurdles are real for Vermont’s BIPOC’s businesses, VT PoC’s co-executive directors, Weiwei Wang and Tino Rutanhira, say the rapid growth of their organization shows that Vermont’s population of BIPOC businesses is robust. 

Their attraction to the Vermont lifestyle, a theme that emerged in the focus groups, and growing sense of community, spurred in part by VT PoC, are strong positives that could help businesses overcome their challenges, they said.

The 90-minute focus group sessions were held with 87 BIPOC small business owners between April and October 2022.

Six overarching challenges emerged in the sessions.

  • Access to Capital

BIPOC business owners said they lacked clear, accessible avenues for grants, loans, and other forms of funding that would help their enterprises stay afloat and grow. In some cases, lack of generational wealth contributed to the problem, not only in launching a business but in enabling business owners to contribute their share of matching grants, the most common form of grant in the state.

  • Business Basics

Introductory skills training, technical assistance and certification programs are lacking in the state, participants said, and are holding their businesses back. Several, including members of the state’s refugee community, called for the creation of a step-by-step business basics guide. 

  • Economic Development Resources

Participants said many of the state’s economic development programs were not a good fit for their small businesses, which hadn’t been in existence long enough or had insufficient annual revenues to qualify for programs. Others cited too little information on state websites and confusing lists of acronyms as barriers. 

  • Infrastructure

Participants cited both lack of internet access and antiquated and inefficient paper-driven systems that need to be automated as challenges that kept them from moving forward more easily.

  • Systemic Inequities

Inequities in policies and procedures combined with attitudes and biases negatively impact BIPOC small business, participants said. They cited microaggressions in the workplace, the need to work harder to access resources than white counterparts, and the small network of other BIPOC professionals as being drivers of inequity in the state.

In addition to laying out the challenges, the report also offers recommendations in each category. They range from advising financial institutions to steer away from one-size-fits-all lending approaches; to developing an online workshop for navigating the Vermont business environment; to urging white-led organizations to implement long-term, ongoing bias training as a core part of their organizational framework.

Fast growth, greater visibility

The key role VT PoC played in the focus group research is just one example of the group’s increasing visibility, driven by its fast growth.

In May, the organization won a competitive bid from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to manage a program offering technical assistance and development services to BIPOC businesses and professionals in the state, in part because of the large network it has built.

Since its founding in 2019, VT PoC has attracted over 2,000 members, despite a prolonged programming slowdown during the pandemic. The organization has held in-person and virtual events, some of which have drawn over 100 BIPOC individuals. It also has a robust social media presence, with 2,376 followers on Instagram.

The growth of VT PoC in part reflects the increase in Vermont’s BIPOC population as a whole. While the state’s population grew by just 7.4% between 2010 and 2020, Vermont’s Black population grew by just under 44%, the seventh largest percentage change in the country, and its Hispanic population rose by 68.4%, the third largest percentage increase in the country.

VT PoC’s growth trajectory and the increasingly important role the network is playing in the state led Rutanhira, who co-founded the group with Wang, to leave a well-paying management job and promising career track at Cox Automotive, formerly Dealer.com, to join VT PoC full time beginning October 1.

Rutanhira believes the group’s growth to date is just the beginning.

With the new capability his full-time commitment will bring, alongside Wang’s contributions, “I think we can get to 15,000 members and then some,” he said.

“A great place for people of color to be a business owner … ”

The attractiveness of the state of Vermont to BIPOC professionals, a theme that emerged in the report, is one reason Rutanhira and Wang are optimistic about the group’s future.  They are in the process of developing a plan to recruit more BIPOC professionals to the state.

According to one focus group participant, Vermont “is a great place for people of color to be a business owner. We should not be forced into urban areas, we are entitled to live here and work here.”

“I get to go to these big cities for work and come back and trail run on weekends and that balance for me is really important,” said another. 

But there is more work to be done, participants made clear.

“…there are a lot of suspicions between immigrants, being BIPOC, and a lack of sense of belonging and the lack of relationship building,” said one.

Addressing those concerns is work VT PoC is perfectly positioned to do, said Wang    

“So many people have come to us in the past three years and said VT PoC has given them the sense of community that really didn’t exist in Vermont before, a place to problem-solve and just enjoy each other’s company. We’re pleased to be able to play that role going forward and to be a catalyst for addressing the issues raised in the report.”

VT PoC partnered with the Vermont Small Business Development Center and eight other business development organizations across Vermont to bid for the U.S .Small Business Administration’s Community Navigator Pilot Program. As the hub organization, VtSBDC was one of 51Community Navigator Pilot Program awardees and provided the opportunity for VT PoC to conduct surveys and listening sessions with Vermont-based BIPOC small business owners. VT PoC worked jointly with Main Street Alliance (MSA) on implementing the surveys and listening sessions between May and October 2022. While VT PoC focused on BIPOC small business owners, MSA focused largely on women-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses and small businesses.

Source: 10.16.2023. Vermont Professionals of Color Network (VT PoC)