Pregnant with her second child and stuck in her Astoria home in the spring of 2009, a third-generation entrepreneur, Leni Calas, 32, started a blog that posted resources for parents in Queens. The project that began as “a creative endeavor,” she said, has now grown into a profitable business. She never imagined that a post on “childcare in the big city” would spawn a business that could become a model for jumpstarting the ailing economy.
Astoria is laden with small-businesses which have been disproportionately affected by the financial crisis and housing slump. As many small businesses are bankrolled by second and third mortgages,the damaged housing market has severely hurt businesses in the area, according to a report from the Furman Institute at New York University, a public policy research center focused on land use and development in New York City. While many economists hoped these small enterprises would spring back up, take shape, and hire the now unemployed, their recovery has been slow.
“Many small business owners are struggling to get the finances to get their businesses going,” said Rosa Figueroa, 56, director of LaGuardia Community College’s Small Business Development Center, in Long Island City. “Even though the federal government has made it possible for lending, there is still a question given their inability to get loans.”
In strained economic times, banks are looking to reduce risk. Given the reliance of small business on capital from mortgages, they remain vulnerable to fluctuations in the housing market. In Queens, which recorded the highest foreclosure rate in the city in 2010, investing in small business start-ups can be risk-intense. As a result, banks have placed stricter conditions on loans, forcing the small business owner to demonstrate their business’s maturity and sustainability, said Rosa. Entrepreneurs like Leni Calas needed help.
In 2010, when Calas’ blog, Queens Mamas, became popular, it caught the attention of the director of Queens Economic Development Corporation’s StartUP! program. An annual competition, which is now accepting applications for the sixth year, StartUP! motivated Calas to work through seven grueling months of free lectures, one-on-one consultations and proposal presentations. The resulting business plan was judged best of the year and StartUP! awarded Queen Mamas $12,000 in seed money.
The StartUP! Program, free to participants, seeks to “create and retain jobs in Queens,” said Franklin Mora, 26, business director for the Queens Economic Development Corporation, the non-profit corporation that runs the competition, will provide three awards, valued at $10,000 each, to this year’s winning businesses and entrepreneurs. StartUp!’s funds are donated by Citi Foundation, an arm of Citigroup Inc. which operates the international retail banking chain, Citibank. In tough economic times, programs like this can open up new opportunities.
“You want to have as many options as possible,” said Mora. “People see StartUP! as an alternative to going back to work after they’ve lost their jobs.”
StartUP!’s training and grant helped Calas turn Queens Mamasfrom a blog into a profitable Web site that now covers two different regions – Brooklyn and Long Island. She even employs four full-time stay-at-home moms as editors and contracts 10 freelance writers, covering stories ranging from favorite birthday venues for kids to visitors guides for the local YMCAs. However, the events page generates the greatest number of hits, according to Calas.
These hits are critical to the site’s financial sustainability as Queen Mamas sells tiered advertising packages almost exclusively to local businesses. These companies can buy ad space on the site, purchase a listing on Queen Mamas’ directory, or arrange a sponsored email sent by Calas’ and her team to the Queens Mama newsletter subscribers.
Building a small business that draws attention to other local businesses in Queens can increase revenue for owners, and create jobs for the unemployed in the borough. This is why small businesses can positively impact the local economy, said Figueroa.
“Small businesses are the ones that are hiring,” she added. “They might not be hiring for high level positions, but they are the ones putting bread on people’s table.”
Originally published @ The Columbia Journalist