Small business support hits the streets of Philadelphia

The new Biz on Wheels van brings office services and free tax, loan and marketing advice to the city’s commercial corridors.

Throughout the pandemic, as The business center helped Philadelphia small business owners with their Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, there was a recurring challenge: many hadn’t scanned their documents, meaning they didn’t have an extra copy to share with The Enterprise Center.

As the pandemic dragged on, the organization had an idea: what if we provided comprehensive support directly to businesses, delivering tools and resources to their doorsteps? The result is Biz on Wheels, a vehicle designed to provide services such as on-board scanning, faxing and printing, as well as free consultation from volunteers on issues such as taxes, loans and marketing.

“In our trade corridors, many small businesses are owned by independent contractors. So they can’t just close the store to come get the help they need,” says Iola Harper, senior executive vice president of The Enterprise Center. She plans to support any retail establishment along high-density commercial corridors that need it, with a focus on minority and immigrant-owned businesses. “It’s going to give store owners a chance to sit down with someone and address their specific needs.”

The idea for Biz on Wheels originated last year, in an application for the US Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency. Community Browser Driver. Beyond the challenges of document scanning, The Enterprise Center knew that the virtual events the organization had hosted over the past two years were inaccessible to some small business owners, due to lack of staff support or even internet access. They proposed a van that could turn up at business doors, reducing the planning burden and bringing digital tools and resources to those who might not have access to them.

Although The Enterprise Center did not win the pilot grant, there was enough momentum and interest to do private fundraising. The organization raised money from Spark Therapeutics, the Minority Business Development Agency, Comcast and Wells Fargo, bought a van and spent about nine months upgrading it.

The Enterprise Center worked with a bespoke OEM to turn the van into a business service center: there’s a small conference table, a screen for viewing presentations and a print, scan and copy station .

“The vehicle has a side window, so when it’s hot outside, you can get help through the window and you won’t even have to get into the vehicle,” says Harper. (Although the van can accommodate approximately four people, due to COVID-19, the Enterprise Center will only serve one person inside the van at a time.) The service window has a retractable awning to ensure that services can be provided regardless of the weather.

Community awareness was just as important as the design of the van. Biz on Wheels was launched in partnership with local business support groups including Mt. Airy, USA, African American Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia and Beech Companies.

The Enterprise Center also mapped Philadelphia’s business districts to initiate neighborhood-based outreach. “We have 19 corridors that we’re going to start with, and each of them has different needs,” says Harper. They will work with city trade corridor managers to raise awareness of Biz on Wheels and distribute an app to business owners asking them what their needs are. “We will look at issues in each corridor that go beyond general issues,” she said.

The next step is to recruit and onboard enough volunteers to maintain regular service. (The only paid staff will be the van driver, with volunteers assisting with actual consultations based on expertise.) business needs,” Harper says.

Support will depend on volunteers – if a lawyer is available, for example, Biz on Wheels can invite small business owners to have their lease reviewed. With a social media specialist, they could refresh their online branding. Organizations such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia and the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia will also provide in-vehicle translation services as needed.

Karen Fegely, assistant director of commerce for the City of Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Commercial Services, said the city will also use Biz on Wheels to provide support. “We’ll be partnering with Enterprise Center so we can be in the van…with a business coach, there’s going to be one of our business services employees,” says Fegely. “We can also do some of the groundwork to let businesses know this is coming.”

Biz on Wheels’ launch event took place in early February and it is now in its first few weeks of service. The Enterprise Center will publish its travel schedule on its Facebook and Twitter, with the amplification of its partner organizations and the city. “The intent is to build name recognition alongside trusted community partners and community development companies,” a press representative for The Enterprise Center told Next City.

The goal is to expand into the region, including South Jersey and Delaware, and serve as a model for business support on the go and at your doorstep. “Using the vehicle,” Parker says, “is something someone could really use and provide support for across a wide geographic area.”

Emilie Nonko is a social justice and solutions-focused journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and public transit.

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