Daniel Bonilla, 35, was born in Costa Rica. He earned an MBA in human resources and industrial relations at the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota and is now senior project coordinator, business development, for the city of Minneapolis’ Department of Community Planning and Economic Development. He manages the city’s Business Technical Assistance Program (B-TAP), which provides consulting support to small and medium-sized businesses in Minneapolis, with an emphasis on minority- and woman-owned companies.
How does B-TAP work?
We have contracts with 16 service providers to help people start and grow businesses in the city. We intentionally hire a mix of providers to gain expertise to overcome cultural and language barriers, [expertise in] specific geographical areas (like Lake Street, north Minneapolis, Riverside) or business stages (new or expansion). The city hired those service providers so they can help low-income people, who often cannot afford these type of services; without the city subsidizing the business consulting services, they wouldn’t be able to start and operate a successful business. For example, let’s say you are a young entrepreneur who wants to start a software development firm. You may have technical expertise in programming, but that doesn’t mean you have expertise in cash flow, marketing, negotiating a lease agreement or simply writing a business plan. You need guidance, but you may not have resources to pay for a consultant. The city pays for those services and that makes it accessible for entrepreneurs. These needs are higher in certain ethnic groups.
How do you find these companies?
We help around 400 businesses per year. We get a lot of calls, but most of the outreach is through the service providers that we hire. Eighty-four percent of the recipients are minorities, but the services are available for anyone in Minneapolis; if someone has a business need, then we want to help with that. We have an even mix between new and existing businesses.
What changes have you seen during the 2½ years you have worked on the program?
I have seen a change in the types of businesses that we serve. We used to see many businesses in the food and construction industry, but recently we have seen a shift toward more professional services, especially marketing, IT and legal. In fact we recently hosted an opportunities fair to link vendors with buyers in the city, and most of the 330 people who registered were in the services industry, particularly IT.
How and why has that change happened?
I think there are two reasons: On the one hand our generation is more conscious about the value of free time and the sense of purpose. Many creative/entrepreneurial professionals feel limited in a corporate or a government setting, so they decide to start their own business to gain freedom. It is hard for large institutions to retain that talent. I’ve seen a lot of those professionals starting a business. Second, after the economic crisis, there was a high unemployment rate, companies were not hiring, corporations were shrinking, so the only way to make a living was to start your own business and become a consultant. The large benefit — from the city point of view — is that now you have a pool of consultants that help us expand our capacity and who bring their talent, culture, network and technical expertise. For example, for the opportunities fair, we hired an event planning firm that not only already knew how to do the market segmentation to reach different minority firms, but also came with existing connections in the community that allow us to quickly test some of our innovative ideas.
How do corporations benefit from B-TAP?
Part of the objective of the program is to create more opportunities between corporations and small businesses. We are constantly investing in creating capacity in smaller businesses. We keep an eye on what’s going on in the market and adapt our programs to prepare Minneapolis businesses for success. We would like to work closer with corporations to understand how to prepare our businesses to become their suppliers. Also we can have conversations about how corporations can approach these new companies and the impact that [doing that] will make in our community. The benefit can be huge, from a cost management perspective to a way to bring creativity and diversity in their workplace. Distribution is a really good economic development tool that we can actually use and maximize upon. One thing CEOs can do is to engage in conversations with the city; we have a pool of businesses that are available but also our community partners and B-TAP service providers have a broad set of businesses that we can put them in touch with.
Why should corporations make more effort to be diverse?
From a consumer perspective, there’s a tendency to group minorities as one group, but you cannot expect a Somali to behave in the same way that a Latino behaves, or even a Latino from Mexico [to behave like] one from South America. Market segmentation can get complicated and expensive, and a good way to manage those costs is to hire firms that already have the cultural knowledge and connections. By engaging these groups, you might be able to understand better the differences and engage a pool of customers which, by the way, is growing and in a few years will be the majority in this country. These groups are growing [and so is] their purchasing power. If companies don’t take that as a factor and try to really understand what those communities look like, they’re going to be at a disadvantage.
What can companies do to engage different communities and make their workforce more diverse?
I often hear about how difficult it is to retain diverse and creative talent or about how some employees get absorbed by the corporate culture and lose their identity and creativity. Managing diversity and corporate standards can be difficult, and I think that it requires three different strategies: one is the workforce — how to recruit and retain talent from different backgrounds in a way that “diversity” is valued; second is by hiring consulting firms to work in specific projects. A third strategy is a combination of both, where you design spaces to promote interactions that will lead to a more diverse culture, by combining current employees who may not have a high cultural IQ with diverse consultants. Smaller companies will benefit from the exposure to a corporate setting and its standards. Employees will benefit from the interactions with a different culture, their out-of-the-box thinking and by interacting in a space that is safe to think differently. I believe that you can learn from every interaction, and those opportunities are created by design.
For more information on B-TAP, visit ci.minneapolis.mn.us/business/B-TAP, e-mail email@example.com, or call 612-673-5095.
Interview by Paul Duncan.