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Published in Small Business

Q&A: 3-year grant to help Northern Initiatives improve small business job quality

BY Friday, October 14, 2022 03:06pm

Small business lender Northern Initiatives will receive $100,000 from major foundations annually over the next three years to help grow small businesses across Michigan. The Marquette-based community development financial financial institute (CDFI) received the funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Partnership in Shared Success. As a CDFI, Northern Initiatives provides microlending and business support and coaching to small businesses across Michigan, particularly in underserved communities. Chief Strategy Officer Amanda Blondeau talked with MiBiz about the grant-funded initiative to advance job quality, equity and small business prosperity.

                                                                                                                                               

Amanda Blondeau, chief strategy officer at Northern Initiatives. COURTESY PHOTO

What will this grant funding allow Northern Initiatives to do?

It’s going to deepen the work that we’re already doing with small businesses in Michigan where we’re providing money and know-how so that they can build sustainable businesses, but our focus with job quality is that a lot of small business owners create the business to create jobs for themselves and they want to create jobs for others in their community. They care about their community, and so what we’re able to do with this is to be able to provide resources for coaching, as well as some financial support, to help entrepreneurs down that path. For somebody who’s starting a business today, what they can do is different from somebody who might be in business for 10 years and has grown to 20 employees. We’re not trying to say it’s a good or bad job, but create awareness around what this actually means and support them along the way.

How does this fit with and further your mission at Northern Initiatives?

Our mission is to support small businesses that create jobs and enable their communities to thrive, and we believe that that’s one of the key components, if we can have quality in a community. Good jobs are essential to a healthy economy, to successful businesses, strong communities and thriving families.

After three years, what do you hope to have accomplished?

I’m hoping that after three years we’ve moved the needle. With this work, we’re going to want to create additional jobs, and we have goals around that, and we’re wanting to support over 200 businesses throughout this process. I think we can do even more, and create an average of 10 jobs, and not only have components of those jobs improved, but also the sustainability of those businesses, because we believe good jobs are also good business.

Does that focus continue beyond the three years of grant funding?

It really will set us up for the best path moving forward and how we continue to do this in Michigan. This isn’t just a three-year thing for us. It allows us to learn in three years, but then afterwards we believe we’re going to have a model that we can continue to work and support Michigan businesses.

What we’re thinking about at Northern Initiatives is: How do we continue to go deeper? So, it’s thinking about providing more access to capital and supporting wealth-building through entrepreneurship, and especially in underserved and low-income communities, and supporting women-owned businesses (and) BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) businesses.

How will you determine whether you’ve been successful after three years?

What’s great about this demonstration is that evaluation is a key component. There is a statement of good jobs that Aspen recently released that looks at the three key areas that work and employers think about when they’re thinking about good jobs. It’s around economic stability, economic mobility, equity, respect and voice. Those are the areas where we’re going to be grounding a lot of research and analysis in. It’s going to be an in-depth process to see what actually moved the needle on those areas.

How much of this is about getting the individual small business owner to expand their thinking that the business can go far beyond supporting themselves and creating something much broader?

Sometimes when you hear ‘job quality’ or ‘good jobs,’ people think, ‘Wait, I offer good jobs.’ We never want to put anybody in a ‘good job/bad job’ (situation). It’s more about how you make this a good place for you and for your employees where they feel respected, where they feel secure, and they have opportunities to advance in whatever that looks like.

At a time when pretty much every sector across the economy is feeling the labor shortage, does this initiative to create better jobs help a small business become an employer of choice that’s better able to attract and retain talent?

A small business is always thinking about their competitive advantage for customers, but it’s also that competitive advantage for workers. People are choosing where they want to work and they are deciding, ‘It’s not good management, I’m going to change.’ A lot of job changes happen, especially in an hourly wage, within the first 120 days. This can be a big strategic advantage for a small business because most small businesses we talk to, we hear the challenges of hiring and retaining good employees.

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