After Viral Patel moved to Staten Island from his native India 16 years ago, he opened the Castleton Smoke and Trading shop with dreams–admittedly faint–of getting rich. But over the years, his aspirations began to fade as he came to understand how hard it was to stay in business–much less expand.
A few years ago, an organization called the Business Outreach Center Network opened across the street, and suddenly he found he had a neighbor who knew exactly how to help him get the loans he needed to add a food market to his shop. The center's staff guided him through the basic steps he needed to grow–starting with simple but crucial things like helping to keep graffiti off his storefront and protect the store from crime at night.
Once he overcame those smaller hurdles, they helped him outline a plan that made sense.
Certainly he's not rich–nowhere near it. But at least he's met his goal of making his business grow. “That's what I wanted,” Patel says. “I needed help to make the shop expand.”
The Business Outreach Center Network–known as BOC–has helped start more than a thousand businesses in New York since 1990 through a strategy so basic that economic development academics call it “hand-holding.” With centers located in several ethnically diverse and economically troubled communities in New York City, the network is one of the few development organizations that works exclusively on nurturing new entrepreneurs and very small businesses. And in doing so BOC has become an integral part of the job creation and business development infrastructure in New York neighborhoods as varied as Harlem and Brooklyn's Borough Park.
“BOC works on a very basic level with the risky start-ups, and it works with the ethnic groups that are ignored,” says David Sweeny, executive director of the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center in Brooklyn and a
member of BOC's board. “It's all very time consuming, and most other local development groups deal with more stable business prospects.”
BOC understands instability all to well. Its own track record is nearly impeccable–but the network's troubled roots are causing its leaders grief as they work to maintain what they've created and build for the future.
The network has grown from the ruins left behind by one of the ugliest nonprofit corruption scandals of the decade: the hard fall of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Borough Park (COJO).
The leaders of COJO–a multimilliondollar social service organization that had close ties to top conservative state politicians–were indicted last year along with state Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn for misusing federal grant money. Prosecutors said the group spent more than $40,000 in charitable funds on Hikind's personal expenses, including a trip to Israel and day camp tuition for his children. And two top COJO employees were charged with stealing hundreds ~f thousands of dollars from the organization.
Yet COJO's former executive director, Rabbi Morris Schmidman, is responsible for creating the first BOC, serving Borough Park's Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants–a community that had little access to business assistance programs.
Over the years, BOC has expanded into other neighborhoods, creating new economic development programs and working with 1,000 new clients each year. With some luck and a great deal of foresight, the BOC network spun off independently of COJO two years ago–before the scandal erupted–and is now thriving. Its founding organization, however; has since evaporated.
“COJO is defunct and does not exist anymore,” says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a respected Manhattan-based organization that is trying to pick up some of COJO's work in Borough Park. But, he adds, “BOC is successful–the kind of program that the city needs now more than ever. And the people running it have no taint whatsoever, they have a totally independent board with no holdovers. They carry no connection to the old COJO.”
Still, COJO's demise left some members of the economic development community–and people who had a hand in funding BOC–worried that the old relationship might hurt. “We're all trying to be supportive,” Rapfogel says. “The past year or so has been very difficult for them.”
Nancy Carin, BOC's citywide executive director, is looking to push the controversy into the past. “We hope by now everyone knows we're completely, completely separate,” she stresses.
From the single center in Borough Park, BOC has grown to a network of offices in Chinatown, Harlem, Hunts Point, Jackson Heights, Far Rockaway and Staten Island. Each office is based in a local community organization–including the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz mosque in Harlem–and a computerized database links the individual centers into a citywide network. This link is important because each center has its own industry specialty. For example, the focus of the Chinatown BOC is importing and exporting, and the focus of the Hunts Point BOC is manufacturing and the food industry. The citywide database allows the manufacturing experts in Hunts Point to help a client living in Far Rockaway with an idea for a manufacturing business.
BOC's emphasis on networking extends beyond its own centers. The board of advisors includes leaders of other community economic development groups, bankers and corporate executives, who often help the network find assistance for BOC clients. The structure also helps build alliances between community groups, by and large avoiding the duplication of services that some other community organizations feared would occur as new BOC offices opened up around the city.
“They have an incredible ability to pull what [their clientsl need from banks, community colleges, all kinds of organizations,” says Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network.
Perhaps more significantly, each BOC is staffed with counselors who speak the same languages as local clients–and they understand the neighborhood's distinct cultural foibles.
“I find that many immigrants don't trust the government. They feel mote comfortable coming to us,” says Carol Cheng, a program manager and counselor at the Chinatown BOC. “In Chinatown, a lot of people don't trust non-Chinese banks. They get frustrated sharing their ideas with people who don't speak their language. We act as the go-between, we connect them to different corporate partners that can help them. There's definitely a lot of hand-holding.”
Jacy Chen heard about the Chinatown BOC through an ad in a Chinese-language newspaper. “I had ideas for a business, but I didn't know how to start it,” she says. “Seeing an ad in my own language, I felt I could find the basics.” She attended classes for budding entrepreneurs and started a graphic design business–Sixty Six Communications, Inc. She has since begun making CD-RUMs for teaching Chinese, called “Learning Chinese is Fun.”
BOC's business counselors walk their clients through meetings with loan officers and accountants and sit with them to develop business plans and balance sheets. The counselors also continue visiting clients' businesses after they get off the ground. Carin points out that many banks have loan programs dedicated to immigrant entrepreneurs, but they don't often have the access to potential clients that the outreach centers can provide.
“I think BOC is one of the best models for delivering economic services, and other groups are trying to mirror this,” Friedman says. “They make the diversity of New York and the New York marketplace work for each company.”
Yet despite their current strength, the BOC network remains on the list of New York's endangered community organizations.
“It's a difficult situation,” Carin explains. Most of the centers have budgets of between $150,000 and $200,000 and a staff of about four; but no government program specifically funds BOC services directly. Instead, grants from the city's Department of Business Services and the state's Entrepreneurial Assistance Program are made to the community groups that house each center, who in turn work with the BOC Network.
“It's a great challenge to maintain stable operations with this type of funding,” Carin says. And she admits the future is not entirely clear.
“We're in a time when government is flush with money. Today, it's a good moment,” says William Rapfogel. “But if there's any downturn in the economy, the BOCs could be the first casualty, which would be a shame. We need economic development in these communities. We need jobs.”
Holly Rosenkrantz is a business writer based in Manhattan.