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January 17, 2022

New advanced manufacturing center hopes to aid minority-owned businesses

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Victor DaCruz is the owner and president of DaCruz Manufacturing in Bristol.

With the number of minority-owned manufacturers in Connecticut dwarfing that of white-owned companies, the state has partnered with UConn and other stakeholders to launch an advanced manufacturing center that aims to help diversify the industry.

The state has been awarded a five-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency to establish an advanced manufacturing center in Hartford. It is being operated by the Connecticut Small Business Development Center, UConn School of Business and CONNSTEP, a consulting firm affiliated with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

The new center will be operated virtually — there isn’t a particular office location in Hartford — and will connect minority-owned manufacturers with professionals who can help with business strategy and operations, financial analysis, and other needs.

“We’re trying to help them through the ecosystem,” said CONNSTEP President and CEO Beatriz Gutierrez, who added access to capital and industry experts are some of the main concerns for growing minority-owned manufacturers in Connecticut.

According to data from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST-MEP) — a public-private program that assists small and medium-sized companies across the country, including with accessing federal funding — there are only 308 minority-owned manufacturers in Connecticut. The information is self-reported and could include companies owned by women, veterans and other minority groups, not necessarily based on race or ethnicity.

With more than 3,000 manufacturers in Connecticut overall, industry experts want to boost the number of minority-owned firms while offering added support to existing companies hoping to grow.

“It’s a very small number,” Gutierrez said, referring to minority-owned manufacturers in the state. “Part of what we want to do with this grant is get a better understanding of the ecosystem.”

How the center works

Connecticut Small Business Development Center Director Joe Ercolano said the advanced manufacturing center is still in the organizational ramp-up period, with a website expected to be launched soon.

Through various partners — including the UConn School of Business, which will be the initiative’s main networking arm — the center will provide technical tools and support systems to businesses and connect them with resources they need.

Ercolano said the center could offer a range of expertise on topics that include lean manufacturing, cybersecurity, financing, supply chain issues, or whatever other operational questions companies may have, like how to build a prototype or find a new location to expand.

“Particularly for younger, smaller and minority-owned firms those are critical questions and types of assistance,” Ercolano said.

More established companies might want help on how to “fine tune” their operations. Ercolano said advisors can work with manufacturers to discuss ways to build capacity and take on more contracts, too.

The $2 million grant over five years amounts to $400,000 for the center annually. Ercolano said money will go toward recruitment and outreach efforts as well as advising. Business consultation can sometimes run companies tens of thousands of dollars, Ercolano said, so the center aims to help manufacturers with some of that initial work.

What assistance is needed?

Victor DaCruz, owner and president of DaCruz Manufacturing in Bristol, said the new center is a good idea, and will be helpful for businesses like his.

“Any effort to bring together small businesses and our colleges is a good thing,” DaCruz said. “That would be a great asset to have for myself and other small businesses.”

DaCruz’s shop, with about 45 employees, has been in business for 40 years. It specializes in precision medal turning component parts for a variety of industries like aerospace, medical, automotive and firearms.

He said his business is almost back to pre-COVID production, but there are still challenges he’s faced in recovery. Like other manufacturers, supply chain delays and a lack of skilled workers remain key issues. Navigating a workforce that is not fully vaccinated offers another set of hurdles.

“Managing through COVID-19, especially right now, is becoming a main challenge again,” DaCruz said. “If we don’t have people, we can’t run our machines, obviously.”

DaCruz said an advanced manufacturing center could have also helped him when he started out as a young entrepreneur. He said his company has moved on from many ideas over the years that couldn’t be pursued at the time.

“Anybody who has a machine shop out there from time to time runs across ideas and possibilities for a product, but we don’t really have the resources to follow up on it,” DaCruz said. “What always held me back was not having engineering assistance and not having the resources and capital to invest in something.”

Diversity brings new thinking

CONNSTEP’s Gutierrez said manufacturing is a pathway to growth not only for the state but also underrepresented communities like women and individuals living in cities.

“Manufacturing builds very good jobs,” she said. “It creates a strong path to the middle class because the jobs are well-paid, technically-challenging and they’re quite broad.”

She said immigrants often come to the U.S. with experience and expertise about their line of work, but sometimes lack the resources to start businesses. As a manufacturer originally from Columbia, she can relate.

“I am hopeful that through this work we will also be able to identify some entrepreneurs who may have the capabilities but have not entered into manufacturing because they lack resources or access to resources,” Gutierrez said. “Diversity brings new thinking and it brings new opportunities to reach other markets.”

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