By Sasha Jones – Reporter, New York Business Journal
Economic development is created through much intersectionality, with public and private organizations
partnering to support businesses.
The Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp. (WHEDco) in New York City is one such organization, working in collaboration with others to assist small businesses in the South Bronx, with a large focus on women and people of color.
WHEDco’s work includes owning three affordable housing developments, marketing and providing
resources to businesses, connecting businesses with grants, running job training and incubators, and
creating a home-based childcare program. In 2022, the organization also became part of a coalition that
launched a mobile banking branch to bring financial services to residents and some small business owners in under-banked neighborhoods.
The community organization was founded in 1992 by Nancy Biberman, who helped WHEDco acquire
Morrisania Hospital — which had served as an anchor for economic activity in the community before
being abandoned for 20 years — and transformed it to 132 units of affordable housing. The group then
created a dual-language public school in the neighborhood, eventually expanding to create more housing, in addition to offering workforce training and job opportunities to local residents.
WHEDco’s Vice President of Community Development Kerry McLean spoke with the New York Business Journal about the organization’s work with small businesses in the South Bronx.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Not everyone has business skills. How does WHEDco think about helping people leverage everyday skills, such as childcare and cooking, into established businesses?
It’s really fascinating to [balance] that line as an organization between both doing what’s good for the community as well as helping people to generate economic opportunity, [to] generate new jobs for others as well as stabilize their families and their community economically. It’s really gratifying to be able to do both. You can have businesses that are good for the community, that are wealth-stabilizing, if not wealthbuilding, and that serve to support families for generations — both the families that are served, in the case of the childcare provider work that we do, as well as the families who are providing that service.[In] the food sector, we started as a workforce program. We were training women and men to have the
food-handling skills that they needed to be able to work in the food industry. We transitioned from doing training to helping individuals to start their businesses and to run their businesses from a licensed commercial kitchen incubator in a 4,000-square-foot space. It can really cost a lot on the front end to invest in creating a business.
We’re offsetting those costs, especially in a community that has the history of disinvestment, that has the history of access to capital being limited for small businesses, not to mention for entrepreneurs who are Black or brown. We provide opportunities to have a commercial kitchen incubator for businesses to not have to worry about as many of those startup costs.
How does WHEDco pinpoint, especially now, small businesses in need? How do you help them with funding and resources?
We have existing relationships with business owners from having done this work. Our ethos as an
organization, how we started, is about listening to people. Similarly, we do that with small businesses in our neighborhood to get an understanding of what generally community needs are, but also what small
businesses’ needs are. That work of building those relationships, building that trust, is really instrumental for business owners to share candidly. We’ve been able to get insight into what the needs
are, and thus be able to determine how to respond to those needs.
Across all of our neighborhoods, we serve between 600 and 700 businesses. That number sounds really
large, because it is really large. Of course, we’re not serving all of them at the same depth at the same time. We have conducted surveys of small businesses, so assessing businesses’ needs. We’ve been able to respond to connect them to access to capital, to opportunities for loans. Before loans, it was
opportunities for grants. Actually, it was PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] first, and then grants and
then more loans, just because of all of the costs that they have been shouldering due to the shutdown
of their businesses [during the pandemic].
It’s a cycle of listening, really listening to our community, to talking, to assessing what their needs are, then responding with the types of structures that they need. If we can’t respond because of either our capacity or expertise, we have partnerships and that we’ve built over the decades of our work with
other business providers that are experts in particular areas.
Let’s touch on the Southern Boulevard Merchants Association, which WHEDco helped launch but is not a Business Improvement District (BID). Why is it important to have community organizations that either differ from the work of BIDs or work in addition to BIDs?
BIDs are one part. BIDs do not work for every neighborhood. They’re not the right fit for every
neighborhood. It’s really important for small business owners, for property owners, and of course, for
organizations that are doing work like us in essentially neighborhood development, to really look at the
options that are available and to meet the community where business owners are.
In this case, Southern Boulevard Merchant Association, which was co-founded by WHEDco and Southern Boulevard, really came about because we’re hearing the same thing from small businesses. I and other team members at the time were going into stores, talking to merchants, and each of them was telling us the same thing, but they weren’t all talking to each other. Maybe a couple of them were talking to each other, but they weren’t all talking to each other.
They were feeling really isolated in their sense of what they needed, as well as what our potential response could be. Their energies weren’t being leveraged as a collective to be able to respond to safety issues that they were concerned about, being able to attract customers, respond to the transportation challenges, pedestrian safety or parking — people always complain about parking. That’s really what it’s about: organizing merchants so that they have more strength and more clout together.