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May 8, 2023 ON THE RECORD | Q&A

Hand Up: With $7.2M in funding, Williams aims to build ‘equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem’ in New Haven

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Joseph W. Williams Jr. is director of operations of the New Haven Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.

After a career in business development and venture capital, Joseph W. Williams Jr. took the post of director of operations of the New Haven Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem (NHE3) last year with a mandate to bring much-needed resources to startups and struggling enterprises.

Williams is spearheading an effort with the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to award $7.2 million in grants over the next five years to help minority businesses — specifically companies run by Black people, Hispanics, women and immigrants — survive and thrive.

Williams has been giving presentations and doing community outreach to spread the word about the grant program, funded by the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).

His personal goal is to facilitate the awarding of 175 grants a year.

The grants are part of a larger effort bringing together the Community Foundation, support groups and small-business owners to build an “Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem,” a networked collection of resources and programs that can help build generational wealth in minority communities.

The Community Foundation put together the NHE3 plan after doing an in-depth study of what local entrepreneurs need to grow.

Williams sat down with New Haven Biz to discuss the NHE3 plan and his vision for more equitable and productive small-business development in and around New Haven.

Tell me a little bit about this new grant program and what kinds of businesses you’re looking to help.

The Community Foundation received last fall $7.2 million, part of the $46.6 million in the state’s new small-business grant program funded by DECD. It’s a five-year program where the foundation will give out approximately 175 grants each year.

The total will, within the entire network, be a little bit different because we have a network of entrepreneurial-support organizations, about 20 of them, that help work and provide technical assistance for our small businesses here in New Haven County.

What we’ve all committed to was to serve 3,000 small businesses over five years. Of that 3,000, 1,500 will see some type of technical assistance, and of that 1,500, 750 will receive some type of grant assistance. So that’s really kind of a quick overview of our program.

What exactly is an Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem and how did it come to New Haven?

The Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem concept has been around for the last 10 or 15 years — the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the federal government are the front-runners to this.

About two and a half years ago, the Community Foundation commissioned a landscape analysis of the small business community and the needs of the community here in New Haven County.

They took the best practices of what the Kauffman Foundation and others have been doing in some of the largest cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, L.A., Dallas and other places, setting up entrepreneurial ecosystems as a way of supporting entrepreneurs in a given area.

And so the foundation, through its effort of doing this landscape analysis and looking at the best practices through a scorecard, said: ‘Hey, this is something that we would love to bring to Connecticut.’

So NHE3 is the first iteration here in Connecticut of providing an Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. Before, it had been more siloed, with nonprofits and state agencies providing different services, but no one really talked to each other.

As of today, we’ve already given out 51 grants this year of over $300,000 in total, and we have tons in the pipeline. So, I will hit my number of 175 grants by Sept. 1, and we’ll start the process again for a new fiscal year.

The city of New Haven has contributed $1.5 million to help support this effort, as well as the network of entrepreneurial support organizations.

What are the specific needs of New Haven businesses that came out of your research?

Throughout the country, it’s been the same thing across the board, especially in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community: Taxation, the lack of access to capital and the lack of understanding of financial projections or financial modeling.

That’s the biggest problem with a lot of minority businesses during the pandemic — their back office. Either they weren’t able to do financial projections, or they didn’t know how to do it. We’re doing a special course four times a year to teach financial projections.

Especially in certain communities, they really need more of the technical assistance and guidance that goes along with the grantmaking opportunity.

Yale has many entrepreneurial support programs in New Haven, including its new Inclusive Growth Center. Will that center be involved?

The Inclusive Growth Center is going to be across the street from the Community Foundation (on Audubon) — we’re closely involved and have given money to that effort because we believe in that effort.

I see a very synergistic nature to what Yale, the city of New Haven and the Foundation wants to do as it relates to small-business innovation and growth and inclusivity within New Haven County.

I think that’s what’s really significant — that you have three large entities within the area coming together to say, ‘What does inclusive growth really look like for the people it serves?’ How do you now translate your vision and mission to really help empower the citizenry in a given region, or a given area? Yale’s Inclusive Growth Center is helping to do exactly that.

Can you give me an example of a typical NHE3 grant?

I’ve funded anything from a spa up in the Westville section of the city to child-care providers, because the need for child care is pressing. I’m looking at hearing the needs of the community.

As you know, 40% of all minority businesses that started since the pandemic are no longer in business. Looking at keeping them afloat is a high priority for me, and then how to grow them long term and build wealth for those communities.

That’s really what the aim is, and the purpose of what we’re doing.

The underserved, the inner city, the BIPOC community — because of what’s happened to them over many years and the COVID pandemic that we’re still coming out of — they really need the help.

We’re going to put money on the table and address the needs that they actually have as small business people to help them be successful. That’s the program.

Is there a particular sector that you’d like to see applying for grants?

I would love to see more in the construction trades. I would love to see more in the field of manufacturing or innovation. I would really like to see those businesses that can provide jobs in our community.

We talk about STEM and bioscience — our state is putting millions of dollars to support that, but now I really want to encourage the BIPOC community to participate in that as well.

Access to capital is one key barrier for a lot of small businesses. A lot of businesses in the BIPOC community don’t have the friends and family that can give them the extra cash. This is where the Community Foundation comes in.

How did your own background in entrepreneurship lead to your current role?

For nine years I was a business advisor at the Connecticut Small Business Development Center, serving entrepreneurs, and prior to that I worked in venture capital, so I know the area very well.

It’s a natural fit because I understand the landscape, and understand the needs of the customer whom we’re trying to serve internally as well as externally.

When I wake up in the morning, the check does not motivate me, it’s the fact that I’m helping others realize their dreams. That’s really important to me, and that’s what I like to do — that’s why I do what I do.

And so that’s my motivation, when I can say, ‘Hey, did I make a change in someone’s life today?’ Did I help realize someone’s dream or vision today? Then I know my life was not in vain. If I can just help one person a day, I’m doing my job.

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