Collaboration and community: Recent highlights from the Office of Economic Development

With the first half of 2018 in the rear-view mirror, we’d like to look back at some highlights of the last few months as we look forward to supporting you in your business and in your career.

Our teams have been hard at work for you in the community; we are pleased to report that as of mid-June, the combined efforts of our Small Business and Key Sector teams have directly provided services to 503 businesses. Our “Only in Seattle” team, through community partners, served an additional 374 businesses. In addition to individual contacts, read on for just a few examples of community convenings in which our office is engaged.

Africatown Innovation District Lunch and Learn:  In June, we were delighted to host Africatown in the Bertha Knight Landes Room of City Hall, where over 30 community and corporate leaders met to explore available resources and programs in support of a robust innovation district in the Central District. With a shared goal of preparing underrepresented youth for meaningful careers in IT and the creative economy, participants mapped current efforts, reflected on what is and isn’t working, and articulated their commitment to a more equitable tech economy. We thank GeekWire, Microsoft, HTC, HEREseattle, Seattle Colleges, Vulcan, Social Venture Partners and our City colleagues in Arts, IT, and Planning and Development for their time and energy. We look forward to next steps!

 

Peer Networking Event on Commercial Affordability: In our work with the Mayor’s Small Business Advisory Council, market and systemic pressures continue to make commercial affordability a significant challenge facing small businesses. In May, we convened about 15 business district managers from across Seattle at a local startup firm – Blokable – to discuss commercial affordability. The Office of Economic Development’s (OED) Only in Seattle, Small Business Development and Key Sectors teams, in partnership with the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDPDA) and Onpoint Real Estate Services, organized this peer networking event to share a model for commercial lease education workshops in Chinatown ID and Little Saigon, vet innovative solutions for affordable commercial space, and make connections between business districts.

 

Summer Youth Employment Experiences: As a part of our office’s efforts to provide a continuum of career-connected learning and work experiences for Seattle’s youth, every summer, employers across the public, private and non-profit sectors in Seattle open their doors to thousands of youth interns. We thank the private sector donors who have together contributed over $150,000 to support youth employment this year, and in particular, our valued partner JPMorgan Chase, who through five years of cumulative support, surpassed the $1 million mark in 2018!

Given our focus on equitable access and prioritization of under-served communities, including young women and people of color, we are thrilled to spotlight Zilllow Group’s “Shadow an Intern” event at their downtown headquarters. To better enable high school students to envision their careers and set themselves up for success, youth from TAF AcademyYWCA, and the Seattle Housing Authority enjoyed personalized tours of the Zillow office, and a panel focused on career development tips.

Until the fall, stay tuned to the Bottom Line Blog for updates, but in the meantime, please feel free to contact me if our office may better support you in your business and career!

Small Business of the Month: Sphere Solar Energy

Sphere Solar Energy owner Edwin Ngugi Wanji stands in front of the solar panel system his company installed for Hellbent Brewing Company.

Growing up in Kenya, Edwin Ngugi Wanji says he was the kind of kid who was always “trying to figure out how stuff works.” “A solar panel on my mom’s little calculator was always very fascinating to me, and I pulled a lot of those out as a kid,” he remembers. Edwin is now the owner and founder of Sphere Solar Energy, a small business that installs solar energy systems for clients across the region, and for communities around the world.

After a childhood spent dissecting calculators, cameras and radios, Edwin arrived in the United States and got a job working on a construction site, where he began working his way up in the field and picking up expertise along the way. He started working in solar energy about eight years ago, and left his job to start his own company three years ago. “The fact that we can fully solar power homes in Seattle, 100 percent, in the cloudy weather, was just a big, ‘Whoa! We can do this anywhere,’” Edwin says of his decision to go into the industry.

He took the leap into entrepreneurship out of a desire to do things his own way, and to pursue his philanthropic vision: “My goal was, you know, just a global goal, making solar energy more accessible to communities that typically would consider solar energy very expensive, and maybe are the ones who actually have trouble with those recurring costs, those energy bills.”

Sphere Solar Energy buys most of its solar panels directly from Pacific Northwest manufacturers and provides its customers both a 10-year warranty and yearly maintenance and service

Edwin shows OED staff the meter that monitors Hellbent Brewing’s solar energy system. On sunny summer days, the system generates excess power which gets fed into the surrounding power grid (and earns extra money for the business).

inspections for the systems it installs. The warranty is rarely needed, however, Edwin says: “Solar is very reliable and very low maintenance. It doesn’t go down.”

Edwin has big plans for his business: he hopes to work with more commercial-scale clients, such as the project Sphere Solar Energy recently completed at Hellbent Brewing Company in Lake City. With 72 solar panels on its roof, Hellbent is now home to the largest solar system on a brewery in Washington State and generates 30 percent of its energy. Edwin is particularly interested in working on projects with local schools so that he can involve the students in the projects—having early experience with solar energy means the kids will be more likely to apply the technology in their future.

Edwin didn’t make a profit on Sphere Solar Energy’s early projects, at first just trying to get his name out there and prove the quality of his work to attract more customers. As one of very few immigrant-owned, black-owned solar energy companies (“I think I’m the only one!”), Edwin built his business within a society that isn’t set up for his success. “Some people will see your name and go, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to work with you.’ That’s life, you know. Same way as if I went to apply for a job somewhere. They might see my name and automatically, I’m out.”

People of color who start their own businesses often face barriers in accessing loans as well, as Edwin has experienced: “For instance, if I need to buy tools or anything, I need to pay cash. I put money away and go buy it.”

At the same time, Edwin appreciates that he is in a unique position to help others pursue a similar path. While working on the Hellbent Brewery system, Edwin and Hellbent owner Jack Guinn invited low-income teens from the Lake City neighborhood to job shadow for a day. Edwin hopes that by seeing someone they can relate to—someone who arrived in the U.S. with $40 in his wallet—being successful in the field, kids will be able to see themselves working in the industry someday too.

Edwin’s humanitarian efforts go far beyond just his own neighborhood. He is passionate about growing his company’s philanthropic efforts, since even small systems can make a huge difference to communities around the world that don’t have existing infrastructure. “A system that I can put on a house here [in Seattle], over there, three or four hundred kids would benefit from it,” he explains, describing a planned project for a school in Haiti.

His team has already completed a project in Kenya and has a project in the works in Haiti. Edwin says the impact of the new systems is clear and immediate. “I built a system in Kenya that’s pretty much running irrigation. So, a journey that took people a few hours just to pull water from point A to B, now is seven gallons a minute.”

Whether it’s in Kenya or in Seattle, Sphere Solar Energy’s mission is to make energy affordable and accessible to the people who need it the most. “I know the struggle to pay my power bills when I was broke. I can imagine the mother with families, assisted living, you know, barely making ends meet,” Edwin says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, this $200 a month can go towards other things.”

You can learn more about Sphere Solar Energy—and how you may be able to put your monthly energy bill towards other things—on their website, or by connecting with them on Facebook.

Startup Seattle Stories: Bellom

Bellom CEO Jyde Ojo and COO Karina Krivenko.

If there is a “usual way” people meet their future business partners—maybe in business school, or at a networking event—then Jyde Ojo and Karina Krivenko did not meet that way. They met at a salsa dancing class three years ago. The pair now runs Bellom, an app that allows users to coordinate cleaning, pet care, meal prep and more.

The Bellom CEO and COO don’t appear to have a lot in common at first glance, besides that they are both immigrants to the United States. Jyde’s background is in tech; he moved to Washington for a job with Microsoft, where he worked for years before leaving to start his own social media platform aimed at the Christian community in 2004 (pre-dating Facebook, as he notes). Karina moved here from Russia six years ago and has a more varied professional history, having worked in every industry from beauty to heavy machinery, typically in “a support role, operations role, making sure everything runs smoothly and easily.”

Spend some time talking with the two and you’ll notice that beyond their immigrant backgrounds, they also share a common energy and curiosity, both always focused on moving Bellom forward. Throughout our conversation, the two trade off finishing each other’s sentences and asking me about my opinions on Bellom’s services.

Karina says that the idea for Bellom originated with Jyde trying to find a way to simplify his own busy life. “About a year ago Jyde shared his challenges in just a simple task, you would think: scheduling housecleaning. And it was such a, just a mess, trying to coordinate your schedule, and get a quote, and it’s so inconvenient, and they cancel on you, and you’re overpaying…” she explains. “He was describing all that, and he came up with an idea of creating something simple, a solution that will let you basically do all your chores seamlessly, in a few clicks. And so he started building the app that we’re using now.”

Bellom users can schedule and coordinate pet care, laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and even ordering fresh flowers through the app. Customers aren’t obligated to sign up for a monthly subscription, and the app advertises simple pricing without surprise service fees.

Jyde explains that Bellom’s services are useful for over-worked techies, a demographic he can relate to: “When you work for companies like Microsoft, Amazon, you are working a lot…you code all night long. And as a result, you don’t have time for anything.” The goal of Bellom is to provide a “new approach to living for busy people, for busy professionals,” so that workers have leisure time to enjoy the money they’re earning. Jyde and Karina also see the service being useful for people who are less able to perform household tasks on their own, such as seniors and people with disabilities.

Karina and Jyde both have years of business acumen that have served them well in starting Bellom, and they also point to working with the Office of Economic Devlopment’s Startup Advocate, David Harris, as critical to their success. “One of the greatest things that OED has been helpful for us, is [making] connections,” says Jyde.

“David connected us with the Women’s Fund in Portland, and he’s been advising Jyde on other sources as well,” continues Karina. “We never would have met [our mentor], ever, otherwise, without a soft introduction from David.” Their business mentor is a Seattle angel investor, who now is serving on Bellom’s advisory board. Through working with David, Jyde and Karina met investors and entrepreneurs throughout Seattle and California, and built a network of people to call on for help and advice. “That support system, it’s priceless,” says Jyde.

“OED has been very very instrumental in our core survival and for us to be where we are,” Jyde says of working with David. Karina continues, “I come from a country where if you are a small business, you are in constant survival mode. It’s not because it’s hard and there’s competition, it’s because the government is trying to shut you down. Not helping you, just the opposite. So to me, [OED’s support] is a blessing.”

Karina describes Seattle’s startup scene as “hard, but exciting.” “There is a lot of help, definitely, that’s created by the City for example. But there’s also just huge competition, because just like Silicon Valley, this place is filled with smart people. And they’re all trying to start something new.”

Even in the face of all that competition, Jyde and Karina advise aspiring startup owners to dive in. “Do it now, don’t wait for the stars to align, because they won’t, ever,” Karina says. “Something will always come up, and something won’t be right, but just, give it some more, strategize, get feedback. Talk to people, get opinions, refine your strategy and go get it.

She continues, “You will always fail. As long as you learn from it and do something better next time, they’re learning opportunities.” Jyde responds, “If you’re coming back up, they’re not failures.”

Learn more about OED’s resources on our Startup Seattle page, and contact Startup Advocate David Harris at david.harris@seattle.gov.

Small Business of the Month: Flowers Just 4 U

When I was working, younger, I kept a pad by my nightstand.” Flowers Just 4 U owner Mary Wesley pauses to adjust a newspaper on her shop counter, miming writing in a notebook. “What would I like to do after retirement? And so I’d write down, ‘I want to have a boutique shop.’ I thought for a time I wanted to be a photographer, I wrote that down…I had a whole list of things that I thought I wanted to do. And way down the list, it said ‘flowers.’”

She continues, “I wanted to know, ‘Why would I really want to sell flowers?’ Well, number one, I love it, I’m creative. And the main thing is because the community needs a black florist. There is none! I go, ‘Hey, I’m going to be that flower shop.’ And so I did.”

“And so I did” is a refrain of Mary’s as she discusses her 37 years of running Flowers Just 4 U in the Central District. She worked as a manager at Boeing in the early 80’s and at the same time wanted to go to school to learn new skills, like photography, so she did. She decided she wanted to open her own flower shop, so she went back to school again. “I took small business, flower design. Because I’ve always been creative, but I wanted to be a professional at it. I wanted to prepare myself, to be good at it. So I did. So here I am,” she gestures from behind her shop counter.

While some things have changed at Flowers Just 4 U over its nearly four decades in business—the location, for one thing, as the shop recently moved to a new home at 701 23rd Avenue—the business still feels refreshingly old school in the middle of a rapidly-growing Seattle. Mary can name customers that have been buying flowers from her for over 20 years, including the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, Seattle Unity Church and a customer Mary identifies as “Mrs. Flowers” who has been visiting the shop since it opened.

Flowers Just 4 U had to move from its previous location on 23rd and Jackson when the land was bought by a neighboring non-profit. While moving was difficult, Mary is a fan of the new location. “It’s a very good corner. It’s a very alive corner, there’s a lot of traffic…[and] foot traffic is good. They come in, buy their little bouquets of flowers, and the kids come and get their little single flowers for mom, or what have you.”

The business has just three employees in addition to Mary, plus two delivery drivers. While they’re a small operation, they provide flowers for big events like graduation ceremonies and same-day delivery services. Mary says a good portion of her business comes from the three wire services she belongs to.

Mary started her business because she “saw there was a need in the community,” and she attributes her long-term success to the support she’s gotten from that community. “I have weekly people, that want flowers for their homes for the weekend, when company’s coming, or a birthday, or they just want some beautiful flowers for their homes.” Mary smiles as she talks about her regulars. “I like those kind. They gotta educate the other ones that just come once a month.”

Asked for advice for aspiring small business owners, Mary says to have patience and to prepare yourself for the challenge: “You have to have the knowledge of how to run a business.” If you’re wondering where to get that knowledge of how to run a business: the Office of Economic Development can help connect entrepreneurs with business education, free consulting and more.

“My dad always said don’t set little goals, they too easy to reach. Set high ones and work toward it,” Mary says. “I did that. So here I am, 30 years later running my own flower shop.”

Become one of Flowers Just 4 U’s new regulars by visiting their website, or give them a call at (206) 324-1440. You can get connected with OED’s services for small businesses by emailing us at oed@seattle.gov.

Small Business of the Month: SugarPill

Walking into SugarPill apothecary feels a little like you’re walking out of Seattle’s Capitol Hill and into a shop in Diagon Alley. Most days you’ll find SugarPill owner and founder Karyn Schwartz behind the counter, who opened the shop in 2011.

Schwartz is a homeopath and herbalist with a background in everything from social work to kitchen work; she’s had “a circuitous route towards being a business owner,” as she puts it. “What all of my experience added up to was not a lot of job opportunities aside from private practice, but a deep desire to remain in the public sphere where I could teach people what I know—so eventually I had to create a job for myself,” she explains. “SugarPill is my way of taking all the things I have learned and that I am interested in, and offering them in my own way, in my own aesthetic, in a place where you can find me in person.”

SugarPill sells a unique assortment of natural remedies as well as teas, chocolates, bitters and more—not that the food items aren’t remedies too. Schwartz’s favorite product in the store right now are chocolate-covered sesame toffee squares, “because they are also medicinal.”

Customers can expect to get detailed, personalized advice about the products they buy when they come to SugarPill: “My primary focus is on whoever is in here, in person, talking to me, and trying to understand what they need and what I can safely help them with,” Schwartz says. “We do very intimate consultations here, even while tending to all the basic chores of retail, such as ordering, stocking, cleaning, paying bills, answering the phones and responding to mountains of messages.”

Schwartz has staff to run the store a couple days a week, so that she’s able to have days off, but most of the time she’s a one-woman operation. Everything with a SugarPill label on it is made by Schwartz, and every product she carries from other vendors has won her personal approval.

As a queer business owner operating in Capitol Hill, Schwartz has watched the changes in her neighborhood closely over her seven years in business. “It’s hard to predict, or even plan, what will happen in a city that is changing so rapidly, and forcing so many communities out of their own neighborhoods,” she says. “That really takes a toll on brick and mortar businesses, as we rely on our communities to support us—and exist to support our communities—so I am hoping that the city will refocus on what—and who—is already here, and do more to preserve the fabric of community which cannot be replaced by shiny new everything.”

SugarPill has a long-standing relationship with the Office of Economic Development, which strives to act as an advocate for businesses as they navigate both neighborhood growing pains and the bureaucratic web of local government. “It’s so important to have people to talk to who understand the challenges of being a very small business owner, and who also understand the importance of very small business at a time when very large ones have so much influence over our lives,” she says of her relationship with OED staff.

Being a small business owner in a rapidly-changing Seattle is challenging, but Schwartz hopes to keep SugarPill going for years to come and is planning a “little re-launch” of the store later this year. Schwartz says SugarPill celebrates Pride month “by letting people know how proud we are to be a queer-owned business.”

“I love being involved in art projects, such as the “Still Here, Still Queer” projection piece that I spearheaded a few years ago. I always try to have some kind of installation in our windows, and, of course, we are here all weekend with the door wide open, happy to welcome people to the gayborhood.”

If you’re thinking about starting a small business, Schwartz has a few pieces of advice: “Love what you do. Take good care of yourself, and don’t be too proud to ask for help. Do something that matters to the world that you live in. Remember who you are, how you got here, and always give back to those who helped you along the way.” (Speaking of asking for help—you can always reach out to the Office of Economic Development for free consulting and support.)

You can experience SugarPill at 900 E Pine Street, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.