In the nearly three years since the initial pandemic lockdown, businesses of all sizes have faced immense challenges. Shops were boarded up. Some never returned. Despite this, in Philadelphia, one can travel from Germantown to Frankford Avenues, from Baltimore Avenue to South Street and witness the immense swell of activity.
The community of small businesses around Philadelphia has shown themselves to be adaptable, resourceful and full of heart. In 2020, the Pew Charitable Trust published research comparing business activities in major U.S. cities. It found that Philadelphia’s small businesses were “more likely than their peers to serve consumers directly rather than to supply other businesses” and that they “depend on local markets and workers more heavily than do businesses in most other cities studied in this report.”
This relationship to direct service and reliance on local markets left Philadelphia in a particularly vulnerable position following the economic disruptions brought on by COVID-19. But it also emphasizes the important work that small businesses do in supporting the vitality of the city’s economy.
Selling a place: real estate perspectives on small business activity
David Wilk, assistant professor at the Fox School and academic director for the real estate program, leverages his background as an educational and management consultant to offer a perspective that is both practical and theoretical. He shared some observations on the economic recovery and resurgence of business activity around the city in the years since 2020.
“After lockdowns, people became much more aware that social interaction is important for happiness,” says Wilk. “So going forward, being able to create places and ecosystems that appeal to a broad range of market segments is key to delivering more exciting future possibilities for the community at large.”
The desire for in-person experiences is reflected in the rise of mixed-use workspaces like the Bok Building, RecPhilly and NextFab that appeal to a broad range of creative and developmental pursuits. Wilk cited the role real estate plays in facilitating these opportunities to offer these hubs for productivity and collaboration.
“When it comes to creating exciting and vibrant places, you’ve got two options,” says Wilk. “You’re either building on dirt or in the Cloud.”
Organizing and networking to build stronger local economies
Developing an identity and brand for a space is an essential task in producing a culture around a particular building or neighborhood and driving commerce. Many nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) around Philadelphia address the needs of local businesses and residents.
"Post-pandemic, it's even more striking how businesses on better-resourced corridors are surviving and thriving,” says Jamie Shanker-Passero, director of programs at Temple University’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which is housed at the Fox School. “When your business is located in a neighborhood that has a CDC with a corridor manager or in an active business improvement district, that means you may have increased marketing opportunities and a liaison to help connect them to resources, both federal and local."
While CDCs typically service businesses by neighborhood and are independent of universities, the SBDC serves the broader Philadelphia community of startup entrepreneurs and business owners. The center offers services such as no-cost consulting, a digital transformation and eCommerce Program, and connections to resources for networking and accessing capital.
Erika Tapp-Duran is the startup business consultant at SBDC, working directly with clients of all backgrounds who use SBDC’s services to develop their vision and ideas into a functioning business plan. In 2021, the center served over 1,500 clients and helped start 62 businesses, creating and retaining almost 5,000 jobs in the region.
“Most of my entrepreneurs are coming from challenged neighborhoods and areas,” says Tapp-Duran. “In the past year, 75% of our clients either lived or had their businesses located in low to moderate-income areas, and a majority of our clients were women.”
In the world of retail startups, Tapp-Duran noted a lot of small businesses are being launched by women seeking to address shortcomings of the marketplace. Beauty and wellness products for Black women's skin and hair care, for example, are now emerging to fulfill the needs of consumers, as well as companies that design clothing for petite and plus-sized women.
“People came up with really creative solutions to problems during the pandemic,” says Tapp-Duran. “These folks are trying to find a new path. When people come to us and ask, ‘Can I turn this into something?’ the answer is often yes.”
Empowering small business owners with free resources and training
SBDC partnered with other colleges inside Temple to expand the types of services they offer, bringing in students from the College of Science and Technology to develop websites for businesses, while J.D. candidates from the Beasley School of Law provide basic legal assistance.
“When you’re starting a business, personal resources are limited,” says Tapp-Duran. “You only have so much time and money and need to be strategic with those. The SBDC offers quality, no-cost services to help you acquire some financial stability and have the chance to accumulate generational wealth.”
According to Tapp-Duran, many people who come in for consulting are trying to launch services that aren’t immediately tied to a brick-and-mortar location. Tapp-Duran cited businesses like cleaning companies, life coaches and financial planners as examples of clients she serves.
“From the perspective of launching a business, it’s much easier and more affordable to do something service-based,” says Tapp-Duran. “A storefront might come once your products and services are out there and people’s interest in the business is leveraged into a social media following. Those are all things that would be very appealing and important to show to a lender.”
The SBDC seeks new ways to serve its clients, especially since the start of the pandemic. Tapp-Duran is hopeful about the future of the center and its mission to assist in the economic recovery of the city, starting at the grassroots with startups and small business owners across the city’s diverse neighborhoods.
“What we do is really powerful. We’re trying to uplift people and help them get stability and accumulate wealth,” says Tapp-Duran. “Small business ownership is one of the best pathways out of poverty and into the middle class. They are a huge part of our economy, generating jobs and real economic impact in our communities. It’s important to support their efforts.”
This article originally ran in Fox Focus, the Fox School’s alumni magazine. To check out the full issue of Fox Focus: Refine, click here.