After I left my corporate job to start my own company, I took an intensive, month-long free course offered by the City. They taught us how to put a business plan together, covered basic marketing strategy and accounting, and coached us on our pitch deck presentations.
In class, we cheered the guy who wanted to start an organic hot dog stand, the young sports fashion designer starting his own line, the lady who wanted to open a UK-themed boutique, the aspiring chocolatier, the ethnic organic hair product maker, and even the engineer who wanted to sell his patented drone technology to help farmers monitor their crops.
It was the absolute best of New York -- the kind of cross-section of people you'd see on the subway -- and then discovered that each of them had vision, talent and passion for participating in a local, sustainable economy (our instructor told me that he'd been hearing the emphasis on "organic" and "sustainable" from all demographics and income levels recently).
By the end of the boot camp, the entrepreneurs had smooth, confident pitches and comprehensive business plans. All they needed was seed funding to get off the ground. The City's recommendation? Ask your friends and family.
The hot dog entrepreneur from Queens doesn't have a network of friends and family who have even $5000 to invest in his truck. The lady who is working all day and all night on her organic bath soaps from her 1 bedroom apartment doesn't have an uncle who can cover the cost of hiring an additional soap-maker so she can focus on the marketing and sales.
So this is what I think we should do: Stop giving tax breaks to nonresident billionaires stashing their wealth in empty apartments, or to the developers who claim they are the engine of New York's economy -- and use that $665 million per year to seed our small business entrepreneurs instead.
We could insist that they take the free course that already exists, and at the end of the month, a panel of experts could choose to invest in the savviest entrepreneurs with the most viable plans. We could assign a mentor to each entrepreneur and help them navigate retail rents and landlords. (There's even been some talk about setting aside a percentage of new development for affordable local retail, just as the City now sets aside 20 percent of their residential units for affordable housing).
It would be like a City-sponsored Shark Tank, but the winners would be people who contribute to the real economy -- dry cleaners, restaurants, clothing-makers, toiletries, things we all need and use -- things that are being taken over by giant corporations.
Instead of Starbucks coming in to a neighborhood to "gentrify" it, imagine a young lady -- born and raised in that same neighborhood -- who has walked past the boarded-up liquor store on the corner for the past five years -- and envisions her coffee shop there instead. What if we invested in her?