By AEO Staff 

Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy, but the challenges they face can vary significantly from state to state. This reality was underscored in a recent panel discussion at AEO Summit on Regionalism where experts shared insights into the diverse obstacles and opportunities for small businesses across different states. The discussion highlighted the importance of regionalism and the need for tailored approaches to support small businesses effectively. 

Regional Diversity and DEI Initiatives 

One of the central themes of the panel was the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. The panelists discussed how DEI efforts manifest differently across states, reflecting the unique demographics and political climates of each region. In California, where 46% of businesses are owned by people of color, DEI is a crucial component of the state’s economic strategy. However, systemic barriers continue to hinder minority-owned businesses, necessitating ongoing support and innovation. 

In contrast, states like Florida face significant challenges due to state-level bans on DEI initiatives. This has pushed private sector partnerships to the forefront, ensuring that DEI efforts continue despite political opposition. Wisconsin’s approach, as discussed by a panelist from the Midwest, involves a longstanding commitment to addressing inequities without necessarily framing them in terms of specific minority groups. This pragmatic approach has allowed for substantial state support, including a $50 million commitment to community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and minority chambers. 

Access to Capital and Innovative Funding Strategies 

Access to capital remains a critical issue for small businesses, with regional differences playing a significant role. In Florida, for example, the political climate has driven organizations to seek capital from sources outside the state. Local governments and private investors often step in to fill the gap, highlighting the importance of local-level support and partnerships. The success of these efforts is evident in initiatives like the $7 million legacy fund for home renovations and the development of affordable housing in Miami. 

California’s supportive government environment provides a different set of advantages. The state’s investment in small businesses, such as the $4 billion CA Relief Grant during the pandemic, underscores the importance of a robust support system. However, the challenge remains in effectively reaching minority-owned and immigrant-owned businesses. Programs like the State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) loan guarantee, managed by organizations like California Association for Micro Enterprise Opportunity (CAMEO), aim to bridge this gap by helping small businesses become capital-ready. 

 Collaboration and Capacity Building 

Collaboration between mission lenders, CDFIs, and other stakeholders is essential for building the capacity of small businesses. This collaborative approach includes cost-sharing on loans, giving referrals, and leveraging innovative funding mechanisms like crowdfunding. The COVID pandemic has also highlighted the critical role of grants in sustaining small businesses, changing perspectives on mixing grants with business funding. 

Workforce development is another area where regional differences are evident. In high-cost states, businesses struggle to provide livable wages due to the high cost of living and extensive human resources regulations. Business Service Organizations (BSOs) play a crucial role in helping business owners navigate these challenges, from understanding hiring processes to providing technical assistance. In other states, efforts are focused on raising funds to increase wages and deploy interns to minority contractors, helping build capacity and secure additional capital. 

 Environmental and Future-Focused Initiatives 

As small businesses look to the future, environmental sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives are becoming increasingly important. While some organizations are still in the exploratory phase of engaging with funds like the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, others are actively surveying client needs to align with future funding opportunities. Professional development for CDFI staff is also crucial to understanding and accessing these funds effectively. 

The Way Forward: Listening, Innovating, and Piloting 

In closing, the panelists emphasized the importance of listening to communities, understanding customer needs, and being innovative in program development. Sharing best practices and piloting new initiatives are key strategies for overcoming challenges and seizing opportunities. As we look ahead, the AEO Regional Council meetings in the fall will provide a vital platform for continuing these important conversations and fostering collaboration across regions. 

Solutions are as Varied and Tailored as the Challenges  

The challenges facing small businesses at the state level are as diverse as the states themselves. From navigating DEI initiatives and accessing capital to building capacity and addressing workforce development, the solutions must be as varied and tailored as the challenges. Regionalism is crucial, recognizing that one-size-fits-all approaches are ineffective. By focusing on local needs, leveraging partnerships, and embracing innovation, we can create a more supportive environment for small businesses across the nation. The upcoming AEO Regional Council meetings will be an invaluable opportunity to advance these efforts and drive meaningful change for small businesses everywhere.