SMEs CAN LEARN A THING OR TWO FROM THE SBDC!

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - MAKING MOVES - BY KAYRA WIL­LIAMS, STAR BUSI­NESS­WEEK COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Cur­rently in the midst of a very ac­tive Busi­ness Month, ob­served an­nu­ally in Novem­ber, Bar­bara In­no­cent Charles is a woman on a mis­sion. This week the Direc­tor of the Small Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre (SBDC) shared with us her 19-year jour­ney within the Min­istry of Com­merce, serv­ing as the head of the agency that not only pro­vides as­sis­tance to mi­cro and small businesses on-is­land but also helps turn the ideas of as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs into fully func­tion­ing businesses.

WHAT IS THE SMALL BUSI­NESS DE­VEL­OP­MENT CEN­TRE?

BAR­BARA: The Small Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre is more widely known as the Small En­ter­prise De­vel­op­ment Unit (SEDU). We have been a part of the Depart­ment of Com­merce from in­cep­tion, in 1996. Our focus has been to de­velop the en­tre­pre­neur­ial cul­ture in Saint Lu­cia. Our doors are open to all per­sons: ev­ery­one who wishes to set up a small busi­ness or al­ready has a small busi­ness and wants to im­prove and grow. We’re here for those peo­ple who’ve come to some stum­bling block and need to find a so­lu­tion. We are here to help businesses get started, and help those who have al­ready started to flour­ish. Our tar­get groups are school leavers, women, un­em­ployed per­sons and any­one who has a busi­ness idea or a busi­ness in ex­is­tence.

WHAT IS YOUR PRO­FES­SIONAL BACK­GROUND? HOW DID YOU BE­COME A KEY MEM­BER OF SBDC?

BAR­BARA: I started with the SBDC at one of the low­est lev­els: Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Of­fi­cer 1. That was al­most 19 years ago, when I re­turned from com­plet­ing my Bach­e­lor’s De­gree in Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Mar­ket­ing. Prior to that I’d worked with the tax depart­ment, and I have ex­pe­ri­ence as an au­di­tor. I also ob­tained an As­so­ciate De­gree – it’s a dou­ble ma­jor, in Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Food Pro­duc­tion and Pro­cess­ing - and an MSc in De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies.

I came into this very fresh, very green, but very ea­ger to learn. I learned a lot along the way. I learnt on my own, through re­search and other ac­tiv­i­ties, through more ex­pe­ri­enced col­leagues, and at­tend­ing train­ing. The field of small busi­ness is so dy­namic. Even though there may be two businesses who are do­ing the same thing, in the sense of of­fer­ing the same ser­vice, the busi­ness model is al­ways dif­fer­ent. Some of the chal­lenges may be the same, but again, other chal­lenges are dif­fer­ent. There is al­ways some­thing new to learn, ei­ther from the busi­ness, the busi­ness per­son them­selves or the fact that as poli­cies change on the global scope, you al­ways have to look to see what’s next; what can we do to pre­pare the sec­tor for what is com­ing? There’s never a dull mo­ment! You al­ways have to be think­ing of new projects, new ac­tiv­i­ties or other ar­eas of knowl­edge that may need to be tapped into.

PLEASE CLAR­IFY THE FUNC­TION OF SBDC VER­SUS SEDU.

BAR­BARA: To set the record straight, we have not done away with the name SEDU. The SBDC, it’s re­ally a model where we work closely with the pri­vate sec­tor and academia to bring ser­vices to the busi­ness sec­tor – to take them from idea to mar­ket. Many times agen­cies tend to go at it alone but we wanted to ap­proach things in a more or­gan­ised way. SEDU is the hub, and we have 13 part­ners on board. These in­clude academia: the Sir Arthur Lewis Com­mu­nity Col­lege, The Uni­ver­sity of the West Indies, Mon­roe Col­lege; spe­cialty agen­cies like the Bureau of Stan­dards, the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Health, the Trade Ex­port Pro­mo­tion Agency (TEPA), Na­tional Com­pet­i­tive­ness and Pro­duc­tiv­ity Coun­sel (NCPC), as well as fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions such as the James Bel­grave Mi­cro En­ter­prise De­vel­op­ment Fund (Bel­fund) and the Saint Lu­cia De­vel­op­ment Bank. We make a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to bring our re­sources to­gether, to col­lab­o­rate, as this is, af­ter all, a na­tion with very lim­ited re­sources.

AC­CESS TO FI­NANCE IS OF­TEN CITED AS THE MAIN CON­TRIB­U­TOR TO THE PRI­VATE SEC­TOR’S UN­DER­PER­FOR­MANCE. HOW CAN THE SBDC AS­SIST?

BAR­BARA: When peo­ple call, their first ques­tion is usu­ally, “How do I get fi­nance?” Within our unit, our man­date is not to pro­vide fi­nance but to de­velop and build that in­di­vid­ual so they be­come more at­trac­tive to the fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions; they un­der­stand how to man­age their fi­nances; they’re more dis­ci­plined. So, at the end of the day, you get peo­ple who are not just re­ly­ing on gov­ern­ment to do things for them but they un­der­stand other cre­ative ways of solv­ing their prob­lems. Banks want the best for their clients but, at the same time, the client has to prove not just that the idea is vi­able but that they have ca­pac­ity to im­ple­ment the busi­ness idea. Banks are also man­ag­ing other peo­ple’s money so they need to use it wisely. That’s where the value of SBDC comes in.

HOW MUCH IS THE PUB­LIC TAK­ING AD­VAN­TAGE OF THE RE­SOURCES AND SER­VICES THAT YOU PRO­VIDE?

BAR­BARA: On a daily ba­sis we have peo­ple com­ing in: per­sons who were re­ferred to us, per­sons com­ing in for the first time. We do out­reach in var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties; we go to schools and so on. If you’re talk­ing about small busi­ness, there’s al­ways some­one who’s go­ing to be do­ing it for the first time. We have found that no mat­ter how much we pro­mote our work, some­times peo­ple don’t ap­proach us un­til they get into a cri­sis. Maybe when some­one falls into un­em­ploy­ment, that would be the time when they’re think­ing about busi­ness. At the time when they were gain­fully em­ployed, they didn’t think about start­ing a busi­ness. Now, when we go to the schools, we push en­trepreneur­ship as a ca­reer op­tion. There are just not enough jobs avail­able to give ev­ery­one so they have to think about self-em­ploy­ment, and think about it very early, be­cause then they can start pre­par­ing and saving to­wards it.

WHAT KEY PER­FOR­MANCE IN­DI­CA­TORS DOES THE SBDC USE?

BAR­BARA: An im­por­tant met­ric re­lates to the for­mal­i­sa­tion of businesses. We mon­i­tor how many clients we have helped reg­is­ter their busi­ness name or in­cor­po­rate their busi­ness. With a reg­is­tered busi­ness the client can open a bank ac­count in the busi­ness’s name, among other things. Ap­prox­i­mately 75% of our clients op­er­ate sole pro­pri­etor­ships. We also look at growth in our clients. I can proudly say that for the last three years, ev­ery year we’ve had an in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple com­ing for as­sis­tance, and that is due to the out­reach, our part­ners, ded­i­cated staff and the good qual­ity work that we do.

TELL US ABOUT RE­CENT SUC­CESSES OF THE SBDC.

BAR­BARA: For the last three years or so, our clients have been able to cap­ture the Young En­tre­pre­neur of the Year award through the Saint Lu­cia Busi­ness Awards, or­gan­ised by the Cham­ber of Com­merce. This year we col­lab­o­rated with the Toast­mas­ters to help a client im­prove his sales pitch in prepa­ra­tion for an in­no­va­tion com­pe­ti­tion in Mex­ico. SEDU/ SBDC also part­nered with the Saint Lu­cia Ho­tel and Tourism As­so­ci­a­tion (SLHTA) in 2016 to open its mem­ber­ship to SBDC clients at a con­ces­sion­ary rate. We were also in­stru­men­tal in pre­par­ing the MSE sec­tor for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of VAT through the ‘VAT Pre­pared­ness Train­ing Pro­gramme’ in 2012. We have played a role in the de­vel­op­ment of var­i­ous sec­tors, in­clud­ing the Con­struc­tion, Early Child­hood Care and Ed­u­ca­tion (ECCE) sec­tor, Beauty and Well­ness, Tex­tile, Agro pro­cess­ing, etc.

WHERE DO YOU SEE ECO­NOMIC OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES IN SAINT LU­CIA IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS?

BAR­BARA: It’s all e-busi­ness. A lot of businesses now have to have an on­line pres­ence. Re­gard­less of what you’re do­ing, be­ing able to fa­cil­i­tate e-pay­ments and so on, we rec­og­nize that, and one of the things the gov­ern­ment has been do­ing is the Busi­ness Month, which we started in 2015. The var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties are meant to help the gen­eral pub­lic un­der­stand, and to pre­pare for the years ahead. One such ac­tiv­ity is the Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing Sym­po­sium, done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with TEPA. It’s all meant to help small busi­ness de­vel­op­ers pre­pare and look beyond what they’re do­ing to­day.

HOW WOULD YOU DE­SCRIBE ‘DO­ING BUSI­NESS IN SAINT LU­CIA’?

BAR­BARA: I’ve seen us make a lot of strides, and a lot of progress in tak­ing cer­tain pro­cesses: some­thing that would nor­mally take ten days, it’s now down to five days, or maybe two. This is some­thing we con­tinue to work on in the process of im­prov­ing the ease of do­ing busi­ness in Saint Lu­cia.

Direc­tor of the Small Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre, Bar­bara In­no­cent Charles.

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