End Of Obama Era Brings Reflection From Minority Business Owners

By Paul Schott Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The SBA's Connecticut office supported loans worth about $284 million in the 2016 fiscal year, with marked growth in lending to minority-owned business contributing to that total. One female entrepreneur reflects on President Obama's influence over the years.

STAMFORD

When President Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, Maclyne Josselin was a college senior worried about landing her first job. As he prepares to leave office next week, Josselin is a businesswoman thinking about the growth of her personal finance startup.

The election of the nation's first African-American president galvanized many black entrepreneurs like Josselin and other minority business owners. For Josselin, his leadership revealed new possibilities for their own career. Others saw their prospects improve with policy changes enacted under his administration.

And the past eight years also brought a protracted economic recovery -- one keenly felt by minority-owned businesses. Now they face a period clouded by uncertainty about a new president, even as much of the work to support their businesses' growth will continue on a local level.

"I think what his presidency did for me personally was it inspired me to be in new places," Josselin said in an interview last week. "It inspired me to go to places and seek out situations where I don't usually see people who look like me or where people like me have never been."

A new era Obama did not arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with a record of business experience. He started as a community organizer in Chicago and would go on to teach at the University of Chicago's law school before entering politics.

His aspirational rhetoric and personal history instilled confidence in many that he could manage the world's largest economy.

"It gave me a sense of comfort, like his words were hugging me," Josselin said in an interview for an article that ran in the November 2008 issue of Ebony magazine. "It's different getting advice from someone from the outside, but with Barack, he's been there, he can relate."

The excitement extended to other minority business groups.

"Hispanic entrepreneurs were optimistic and determined, believing in the American Dream," said David Yika, a vice president in the Greater Stamford Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and owner of the K-9 Coiffures pet grooming business on Hope Street. "Having a president who comes from a minority background motivated us to have hope, but understanding that it will be a long and difficult ride."

Coming back from recession In the wake of the past recession, small-business lending significantly declined. Nationwide, lending institutions' loans outstanding to small businesses totaled about $712 billion in 2008, according to Small Business Administration data. That total dropped to $585 billion in 2013.

Minority-owned small businesses faced the same concerns as other independent firms, said First County Bank Assistant Vice President Steven Ferguson, who is African-American and a former small-business owner.

"Economically, we all saw the hardships that came after 2007," Ferguson said. "Everyone looked for some kind of relief or sense of direction where the government was going."

During the Obama years, the SBA has launched and expanded programs aimed at increasing the extent and speed of financing.

Those moves have included waiving SBA guaranty fees on loans up to $150,000 and automatically guaranteeing 50 percent of certain loans that are half-guaranteed by banks.

Local minority business owners cited other changes made during Obama's tenure.

"We contributed less to the federal taxes for our returns, our monthly 941s," said Scout Adventure clothing and footwear store owner Chuck Yun, who is Asian-American. "I think that's one of his ways of helping small businesses."

The SBA's Connecticut office supported loans worth about $284 million in the 2016 fiscal year, with marked growth in lending to minority-owned business contributed to that total.

Between 2012 and 2016, the number of loans to Hispanic businesses in Connecticut that were guaranteed by the SBA increased about 84 percent. During the same periods, the number of SBA-backed loans for African-American small businesses jumped by 54 percent and increased by 13 percent for Asian-American small businesses.

"What we tried to do was move the needle," said Anne Hunt, the SBA's Connecticut district director. "I think those incentives helped us to increase the lending to all of these groups."

Prospects under new president Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump will enter the White House with a long business record. But his penchant for shifting policy positions has provoked a range of reactions among minority business owners.

"I think Donald Trump is a businessman," Josselin said. "Someone with his background and expertise in business will have a lot to offer when it comes to the growth of businesses."

Yika was more circumspect. "This uncertainty makes it difficult to plan for the future," Yika said. "But we Latino business owners, parents and individuals need to reinforce one idea: United we accomplish, united we protect and educate our community and families in order to reshape our future."

While watching the moves of the incoming president, minority business owners also highlight the importance of local initiatives. Some want to raise public awareness of programs that support minorities, women and low-income community members.

"In Stamford, there is a huge opportunity for the leaders to place more attention on the underserved communities by learning of the federal programs which will assist them to empower themselves to higher income levels and improved living standards," said Jere Eaton, owner of the Stamford-based PrintabiliTees and a former Stamford NAACP president. "This can be started by simply inviting the (state) Department of Administration and the SBA to Stamford."

First County Bank's Ferguson said that he is focused on helping clients connect with private and public agencies that can complement First County's support.

"It's all about education," Ferguson said. "From eight years ago until today, I became more educated and more seasoned about economic turns and cycles. When I speak to African-American clients, veteran clients and other minority clients, I'm trying to give them as many resources and tools as possible. I want to ensure that they can make a well-informed decision."

Josselin's studies in personal finance -- and the influence of President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama -- motivated her to launch a business, Project 13:7, that focuses on increasing customer knowledge in that area.

But her own education continues. She takes advice from business leaders of various races. She has found a mentor in Bank of New York Mellon Community Reinvestment Officer Kerri Holloway, who is African-American.

"There are some places where Kerri can identify where I'm at," Josselin said. "My business isn't about my color; it's about my service. But she does understand the challenges differently than someone who doesn't have to go through that."

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