Getting entrenched in the business game

We are often taught that, years ago, people fought tirelessly to extend unalienable rights—the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—to all people of color and women. But rarely are we taught that the fight to preserve and expand those rights is perpetually taking place in today’s world. Here in New York City, city government is taking major steps that I think are key to fortifying those rights: the fight to expand economic opportunity and financial empowerment to all New Yorkers, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. And what better time to discuss these efforts than during Small Business Week.

A few months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio, alongside the Rev. Jesse Jackson, announced that Amalgamated Bank, Bank of America and TD Bank together invested $40 million into two city-funded programs that give minority and women-owned business enterprises and small businesses access to affordable loans.

These two programs, the Contract Financing Loan Fund and the Emerging Developer Loan Fund, now have a total of $60 million in revolving funds when adding the $40 million investment to the city’s initial $20 million investment. That’s $60 million for minorities and women who have for decades faced blocks on the pathway toward financial empowerment.

As an African-American entrepreneur in the restaurant business, I cannot stress enough how these loans can make all the difference in the life of an entrepreneur who is trying to meet the bottom line. I remember the struggles of starting a business when most financial institutions turned their backs on me or offered me loans with astronomical interest rates. Combined with life’s surprising twists and turns, those early days were indeed turbulent and discouraging.

When I did establish my first business, my parents became ill. I had to give up my business to fully devote my time to them as they were nearing the end of their lives. Afterward, I found myself homeless with a desire to rebuild the life I once had as a business owner as well as offer opportunities to others who might have experienced similar challenges in life. I was much further behind from when I first started my business. Nonetheless, I had an indefatigable drive to become an entrepreneur again. I started by accessing the city’s technical assistance programs and loans, and by striking business partnerships and relying on friends and family for support. I eventually established my current business, E.A.T. w/ Culinary Professionals, Inc., and certified as an M/WBE with the City of New York.

Not only did I begin to excel in the private sector, but also I found a new multibillion-dollar marketplace where I could leverage city contracts to cater agency events, lead turkey drives for the less fortunate during the holidays and provide nutritional workshops for a variety of city programs. Getting certified by the city as an M/WBE made me visible to city agencies and private contractors. The NYC Department Small Business Services even provided me with help and support in identifying and responding successfully to opportunities. I was aware that I had reached a new level of economic empowerment when I tackled a $1.162 million city contract—something I would have never imagined accomplishing. On some of these projects, I was even able to leverage the city’s loan program to hire additional staff, buy more equipment and expand my business.

Things have certainly changed since the early days of my life. However, I often look back and think of how different my story would be had these city resources not been available. They are undoubtedly helping to chip away at barriers that have too often kept people of color and women from exercising their unalienable rights.

With that in mind, we should continue to approach the future with the hope that we will see more private institutions partnering with government to develop and deliver transformative services that financially empower and inspire people of color and women across our state. It’s the only way we can create an economy that truly works for all.

James Peterson has more than 30 years of culinary experience and is the CEO and executive chef at E.A.T. w/ Culinary Professionals, Inc. and the founder chef of J&P Caterers. For more information on city certification and the city’s loan programs, visit nyc.gov/mwbe.