By Josh Carpenter and Tene Dolphin
For the Birmingham Times
This week, May 5–11, is National Small Business Week. All across the country, cities are celebrating the small businesses that provide the backbone of their economies and instill pride in their neighborhoods. According to the Small Business Association, small businesses account for almost half of all jobs in the United States. Birmingham is no different. But in order for small businesses to truly flourish in the Magic City, we have to do more than salute them. We must invest in them.
Small businesses are Birmingham’s lifeblood. We are home to many legacy businesses, including those in the Historic Fourth Avenue Business District, which produced A.G. Gaston. There, Gaston became one of America’s first black millionaires, and fortune empowered him to help fuel the Civil Rights Movement. Today, just a few blocks away, is the Innovation District, where up-and-coming businesspeople can draw inspiration from that entrepreneurial heritage, spurring a new generation of Birmingham startups and small businesses.
Running a small business is challenging. The hours are often grueling, and the work requires grit, ingenuity, and resilience—precisely the qualities that have long characterized the Birmingham worker. Yet, whether it is navigating complex federal guidelines on health insurance or watching how new developments on the street alter foot-traffic patterns, small-business owners must remain adaptable and innovative. They make personal sacrifices, often taking on great risk to pursue their passions, execute an idea, or solve a pressing and persistent problem.
As a city government, our vision is to make Birmingham the destination to launch or sustain these businesses, especially for women and minorities, because in Birmingham, inclusion and innovation are two sides of the same coin. Our efforts are working—and companies like Mixtroz are the proof.
Despite some early successes, we must continue to lay groundwork for Birmingham to become the destination to launch businesses. Mayor Randall Woodfin’s administration hired a deputy director for business diversity and opportunity, as well as a neighborhood development specialist, to direct the city’s focus to small-business growth, elevating it as one of Mayor Woodfin’s top priorities. This year, we will renew our disparity study; assess purchasing and procurement processes at City Hall; and develop a scorecard to advance women, minority, and disadvantaged business enterprises.
But as a city government, we cannot do it alone. We knew we needed to give small businesses a seat at the table for economic development, so we recently launched the inaugural Small Business Council, inviting 22 leaders to help us guide policy, produce programs, and implement changes that invest in our small-business ecosystem.
We also implemented a new grant program called Building Opportunities for Lasting Development (BOLD) to support innovative and transformative work already being done by our local organizations. Through BOLD, we funded small businesses through organizations like Urban Impact and Create Birmingham. Urban Impact is offering tailored technical assistance and access to capital for minority- and women-owned enterprises in Birmingham neighborhoods, assessing the needs of small businesses and creating a digital database of minority businesses. Create Birmingham is expanding CO.STARTERS, an evidence-based accelerator program that helps residents, existing small-business owners, and aspiring entrepreneurs across the city.
Many of our 26 commercial revitalization districts are in Opportunity Zones, and we hope to direct investment into developing those neighborhood corridors. We launched the Birmingham Inclusive Growth (BIG) Partnership with leaders in the private and civic sectors to market our city to investors. In partnership with Opportunity Alabama, we are developing a curriculum to educate 500 residents on the fundamentals of Opportunity Zones, so our community can shape projects and drive inclusive growth.
Birmingham’s small businesses have elevated our quality of life, driven our economy, and shaped our history. As we celebrate them and their contributions to our collective life during National Small Business Week, we ask you to recommit in supporting small businesses. Shop locally when you can. If your business is looking for a technological solution, try a Birmingham business first by signing the Keep It Local pledge. Finally, when you eat or drink at one of your favorite places this week, join us in celebrating them by posting photos to social media with the #BHMSmallBiz hashtag.
Josh Carpenter is the director of innovation and economic opportunity for the city of Birmingham. Tene Dolphin is the city’s deputy director for business diversity and opportunity.