Community Colleges Boost Arizona’s Small Business Recovery

Mar, 9 2022

Shop owner holding up sign that reads, "We're back!"

The Maricopa Community Colleges are advancing Arizona’s small business growth by connecting college classrooms to local business communities. In collaboration with Wells Fargo Bank, entrepreneurial students are emerging as a force multiplier, increasing small business stability and capacity for growth that contributes to Arizona’s economic recovery from a devastating global pandemic.

Throughout the last 22 months, small business owners across the country have endured financial catastrophe while waiting for public restrictions to be lifted and consumer confidence to return. Since March 2020, nearly 1 out of every 6 small businesses in Arizona permanently closed their doors. Yet, for the businesses that survived, customer demand has been overwhelming.

“Small business owners typically have to wear all the hats,” explains Amber Medrano-Villa, Executive Special Assistant to the State Director of the Arizona Small Business Development Center (AZSBDC) Program. “Meaning, they typically have to function as CEO as well as front-line customer support. Many times, the operational challenges increase beyond their capacity to provide customer service, and run the business, and recruit new employees. As a way to give them more ‘hands,’ we’ve been able to develop a program to launch college entrepreneur students ready for these opportunities as independent service providers. The program, and the help, are free to the small business owner as an SBDC client, and the entrepreneur students are compensated through a stipend fund set up with our Maricopa Foundation - a non-profit entity that manages student scholarships and fundraising development.”

Through a generous $1 million grant from Wells Fargo, the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation has formalized a pipeline connection from entrepreneurial college programs to the robust resources established for small businesses via the statewide AZSBDC Network. Among the ten Small Business Development Center (SBDC) locations throughout Arizona, the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) proudly hosts the Maricopa SBDC at their GateWay Community College campus. A

federally funded program, the AZSBDC provides free assistance, counseling, and training to small business clients at all stages of business development.

“Students in entrepreneurial and business programs have up-to-date skills and frequently have knowledge of new tools and resources that can greatly benefit existing business owners,” shares AZSBDC State Director Danny Ayala. “This program matches students directly with small businesses who are in need of services,” says Ayala, who is the former Program Manager for the Arizona Procurement Technical Assistance Center. In the last ten years, the AZSBDC has provided support to business owners to launch almost 3,000 new businesses, created almost 10,000 new jobs, and acquired over $700 million in capital.

Judy Sanchez, Chief Development Officer at the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation, elaborated on the synergy of the collaboration with Wells Fargo, AZSBDC, and the ten Maricopa Community Colleges, saying “In alignment with the AZSBDC mission, the Wells Fargo ‘Advancing Entrepreneurship’ grant serves economically disadvantaged and diverse-owned small businesses by providing access to capital and matchmaking services to help student entrepreneurs build successful client portfolios and improve their own operational capacity.”

“On the flip side, the grant also supports student entrepreneurs of color who are more likely to be low-income and/or first-generation with significantly lower college enrollment. Particularly adverse financial conditions can negatively impact these students’ academic persistence and degree program completion rates. Frequently, we find it is a real struggle for students in these situations to graduate because of financial barriers and overall accessibility issues. Yet, the funding from the Wells Fargo grant is providing direct assistance through scholarships in addition to funding instructional improvements for all small business studies programs at the colleges. This funding infusion has elevated the entrepreneur academic pathway by leaps and bounds at our institution. It’s neat to see the programs and the students grow.”

Community Colleges have quickly become regional workforce and small business incubators, helping to retrain, and put the unemployed back to work across industries. These incubators are often set up through investments and partnerships with the private sector. Maricopa’s premier incubator program, The Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation (CEI), is co-located with the Maricopa SBDC at GateWay Community College and provides incubation space for bioscience entrepreneurs in Phoenix. Since 2013, the CEI incubator has supported over 80 startups who have created 765 jobs, secured $117.5 million in capital, and generated more than $160 million in total gross revenue. CEI is led by Executive Director, Tom Schumann, a staunch supporter of small business, who advocates passionately for entrepreneurs working to deliver life-changing products to market.

“Maricopa Community Colleges are one of the biggest resources that entrepreneurs have to develop and grow. Every year, we take the best of the best product and business launch ideas and turn it into a competitive pitch contest for real money, real investments, and good opportunities,” said Schumann. “This year, thanks to the Wells Fargo grant, we are able to increase the prize money for the Big Pitch competition among all ten college programs as well as award more students with great viable business ideas. The program funding could not have come at a better time.”

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