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From the Front Line to the Fast Lane

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U.S. military veteran Chris Nolte received a business loan from Renaissance to jump-start his electronic bike business. This is his story.

Going to war was never part of the plan for Chris Nolte. He didn’t dress up as a soldier when he was a kid growing up on Long Island. Nor did he pour over war movies wishing he could have the chance to become the protagonist in his own adventure. Back in 2000, when Chris joined the U.S. Army Reserves, he was a college student hoping to get a little assistance with his tuition fees in exchange for training one weekend a month. It seemed like a fair deal, at the time.

“The recruiter I met really wanted to sell me on the military,” Chris recalls. “He said, ‘The last war we were in was 1990. We’re not going to be in another war again.’ Fast forward one year and the September 11 attacks take place. A year after that I was overseas on my first tour of duty.”

In the space of a few months, Chris went from college student to army field truck driver in Iraq, swapping his dorm room for an army base in Kuwait as the U.S. prepared for the Iraq War.

“I was a little nervous about going to war,” Chris says. “When I signed up, I knew that this could happen, but I don’t think anyone ever feels really fully prepared for it. And if they do, they’re fooling themselves.”

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Chris served a full tour of duty in Iraq, before returning to the U.S. in 2003. He left the military for good in 2005. Like many former service-members, Chris found the transition to civilian life jarring. To go from the front line to waiting on line was a disorientating experience.

“For the first couple of months after I came back I was not very motivated to work. Life was difficult. I had injured my back while I was overseas, and I felt a little bit broken,” he says.

Finding employment is a major issue for many veterans who spend years removed from the civilian workforce and often experience difficulties transitioning upon returning from military service. Things can be even harder for New York-based veterans: The unemployment rates are consistently higher than the state average, especially among younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, the unemployment percentage for new veterans in New York was 16.7%; in the nation as a whole, it was 12.1%. These numbers equate to over 234,000 new veterans in New York looking for work after leaving the military.

Fortunately, Chris managed to get back on his feet after a family friend offered him a job in a luggage store. Soon he was managing the company’s website and, through his innovations and improvements, the business’ profits doubled. Chris had a knack for this type of work, it was obvious. The problem was that he just wasn’t passionate about luggage. He needed his eureka moment, something to inspire him.

“I knew I had to find some sort of product that interested me and that I could build a retail business around,” he says. “I came across electric bikes and they blew me away. As a disabled vet [Chris injured his back during his military service], I wasn’t getting much exercise. I ended up getting an electric bike for myself and I loved it.”

Chris initially started selling electric bikes online in a small second floor office in Suffolk County, Long Island. “I only had six or eight bikes initially,” Chris recalls. “Then I moved to a larger space with room for 20-25 bikes. Every year the business tripled in size.”

Chris’ business, recently re-branded as Propel, has continued to go from strength to strength. The success satisfied him, but there was something missing: Chris grew up working retail and food service jobs and he missed the bustle of the shop floor. He wanted to deal with customers face to face so he could share his passion for electric bikes.

“The online thing was great to get my start and I feel like the business does that well,” he says. “But I’ve always dreamt of having a home base. And it takes a lot money to do that.”

Access to capital was a problem for Chris. After relying on his credit card to see his business through the start-up phase, he lacked the impeccable credit rating required to be approved for a loan through traditional lending sources. That’s when Chris turned to Renaissance. Renaissance launched the Veteran Small Business Program to provide self-employment opportunities that will enable New York’s veterans to establish successful post-military careers. Chris was the program’s first client, and the loan he received will allow him to open the retail store he always wanted.

Chris Nolte with Renaissance Business Associate Fernando Aguilar (right)

Chris Nolte with Renaissance Business Associate Fernando Aguilar

“I now have the resources to do everything the way I want to do it, not just the way I can do it,” he says. “At the risk of sounding cheesy, Renaissance’s loan will allow me to achieve my dreams. I don’t have to do anything halfway now. I can go all the way and be the best, and that’s what I’ve wanted all along.”

Propel will open its doors this spring. To find out more about the company, click here.

To find out more about Renaissance’s loan programs for U.S. military veterans, click here.

 

Renaissance Holds Entrepreneurial Assistance Program Graduation Ceremony

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On December 11, Renaissance Economic Development Corporation held a graduation ceremony for students who successfully completed the organization’s Entrepreneurial Assistance Program (EAP).

The EAP, which was first offered in 1995, is a 12-week, 60-hour course designed for first-time business owners who want to develop the skills necessary to grow and maintain a healthy business. Program topics include targeted sales strategies, concept development and team management, legal issues and government regulations, operations and growth management, and basic budget management. The course is led by qualified instructors in their respective fields, including representatives from the Internal Revenue Service and New York State Department of Taxation, certified public accountants, attorneys, and representatives from financial institutions.

This year, six students graduated from the program. The business interests of the group included bakeries, retail stores, and wholesalers. Renaissance’s Technical Assistance and Outreach Coordinator, May Kuang, believes that the course offers each of the graduates a solid platform for future success. “The EAP program fulfills a vital role because it provides all budding business owners with the basic building blocks for success,” she said. “I am optimistic that all of this year’s graduates will go on to find future success in their respective ventures. Renaissance looks forward to working with more entrepreneurs in the future and helping to create more sustainable local businesses.”

To find out more about Renaissance’s EAP program, click here.

Renaissance Selected for Immigrant Business Initiative

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Renaissance Economic Development Corporation (REDC), has been named as one of five community-based partners selected to participate in the Department of Small Business Service’s (SBS) Immigrant Business Initiative. The scheme, first announced in May, is funded through a $250,000 contribution from Citi Community Development. In addition to REDC, the selected community partners include the Business Outreach Center Network, Brooklyn Public Library/HABNET Chamber of Commerce, Make the Road New York, and Shorefront YM-YWHA.

REDC was selected after submitting a proposal to the SBS that identified the specific needs of the immigrant entrepreneurial communities the organization serves, as well as proposing tailored solutions to meet their needs. REDC, along with the other community partners, will execute their tailored plans, and also provide free business courses, one-on-one counseling, and community-based outreach in five target languages: Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Haitian-Creole, and Russian. Services will be available in late-fall.

“Immigrant entrepreneurs are vital to the City’s identity and economy, opening businesses that create jobs and bring great diversity and energy to our most dynamic communities,” said Maria Torres-Springer, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services. “Thanks to Citi Community Development, the City will work through the Immigrant Business Initiative with five community organizations to help tailor available assistance, and better assist immigrant entrepreneurs with free services that will help them start, operate, and grow.”

Chris Kui, AAFE’s executive director, welcomed REDC’s involvement in the program: “Renaissance’s experience working with Chinese and Korean immigrant communities leads us to believe that offering technical and financial assistance to small business owners in their native languages enables sustainable business growth and greater access to much needed capital. The Immigrant Business Initiative will enhance our ability to provide business services and create new jobs in New York City,” he said.

Renaissance Launches U.S. Veteran Loan Programs

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AAFE-affiliate, Renaissance Economic Development Corporation (REDC), has launched two new loan products designed to support United States veterans seeking to start small businesses. The first, the Veteran Small Business Loan, offers loans of up to $30,000 at 4% interest with terms of up to 36 months. The second, the Veteran Mini Microloan for Street Vendors, offers loans of $5,000-$8,000 at 4% interest with terms of up to 24 months. This second loan is aimed at veterans who wish to obtain a New York City General Vendor license in order to establish a street vending operation. A comprehensive technical assistance program, offering guidance on obtaining a General Vendor license as well as support on how to successfully manage a new business, will run parallel to these loan programs.

REDC has identified a great need for this kind of assistance. Finding employment is a major issue for many veterans, who spent years removed from the city workforce and who usually experience difficulties transitioning upon returning from military service. The unemployment rate among veterans in New York is consistently higher than the state average, especially among younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, the unemployment percentage for new veterans in New York was 16.7%; in the nation as a whole, it was 12.1%. These numbers equate to over 234,000 new veterans in New York looking for work after leaving the military. For veterans aged 18 to 24 years old, the statistics are bleaker still, with a nationwide unemployment rate of nearly 30% reported in 2011.

Even with the job skills learned in the U.S. military, veterans frequently need assistance transitioning from military service and reintegrating into a labor market that requires different skills and, in many cases, an undergraduate degree. REDC recognizes veterans as a demographic that would greatly benefit from having greater access to capital, and technical assistance in order to set up their own small businesses, or become licensed street vendors.

“Renaissance is dedicated to assisting populations of people where unemployment is a large factor. We are so honored to be given the opportunity to work with the men and women who have served our country so proudly,” said REDC Business Associate, Fernando Aguilar.

“For various reasons, veterans often encounter significant roadblocks throughout the job market here in New York City. We want to work with them to help overcome these obstacles by creating opportunities of their own,” he added.

For more information about the Veteran Small Business Loan, click here: Veteran Loan Program

For more information about the Veteran Mini Microloan for Street Vendors, click here: Veteran Street Vendor Microloan

REDC Awarded PRIME Grant

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Renaissance Economic Development Corporation (REDC), was awarded a $100,000 grant by the U.S. Small Business Administration‘s (SBA) Program for Investment in Micro entrepreneurs Act (PRIME). The grant was presented to AAFE’s Executive Director, Chris Kui, by SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, alongside Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), House Small Business Committee Ranking Member.

REDC, an SBA-approved Micro-lender, was awarded the grant in order to aid the organization’s work providing direct financing and technical assistance services to entrepreneurs throughout New York City, focusing on low-income, immigrant neighborhoods where barriers of language, culture and conventional loan underwriting have stymied the growth of small businesses.

PRIME grants are intended to help qualified community-based organizations provide training to small businesses with five or fewer employees that are economically disadvantaged, and businesses owned by low-income individuals, including those who live on Indian reservations and tribal lands. Twenty-four non-profit organizations from 16 states and the District of Columbia were named this year. Grants ranged from $94,000 to $250,000 and totaled $3.5 million.

“PRIME grants are important vehicles for the SBA to provide ladders of opportunity to underserved, economically disadvantaged small business communities. These micro-loans have a macro-impact by spurring economic growth, creating jobs, and propelling small businesses forward. This round of PRIME grants will help create more success stories across this city, this state and our nation,” said Administrator Contreras-Sweet.

Rebuilding in Rockaway

We catch up with two Renaissance clients to find out what life has been like after Superstorm Sandy.

Fighting spirit: Rockaway gym owner, Chris Romulo

Fighting spirit: Rockaway gym owner, Chris Romulo

Ask locals for characteristics that typify the people of Rockaway and the chances are that you’ll hear words like “tough,” “resilient,” and “gutsy.” All are traits that residents here have needed in spades in recent years.

First there was 9/11. Fifty locals perished that day, many of them firefighters called into action as the Twin Towers smoldered in the distance. Then, a few months later, a plane crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood, killing all 251 passengers and five people on the ground. The area looked like a warzone in the aftermath as a gyre of thick black smoke unspooled into the sky from the scorched crater below.

The landscape and the community were both scarred, but Rockaway residents picked themselves up, as they always do. A handsome memorial was built, inscribed with the names of the victims. Life went on.

Then, in late October of 2012, disaster struck again. The peninsula was one of the areas worst affected when Superstom Sandy battered the Eastern Seaboard. Nine people died, countless homes were ruined and the area’s most iconic landmark, the Rockaway boardwalk, was torn apart.

“It was unbelievable, the amount of water that started coming from everywhere when the bay met the ocean,” said Anna Burkle, a dog groomer, who lived one block from the beach at the time of the storm. “A piece of boardwalk with a bench attached to it washed up our street.  It was really dangerous.”

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A Renaissance business counselor compares height with the Sandy waterline

Sandy threatened to strip Burkle of her home, as well as her livelihood. The high waves that swept down her street flooded Burkle’s basement and destroyed much of the dog grooming equipment she had stored there.

Burkle wasn’t the only small business owner whose source of income was swept away. Hampered by the floodwaters, local firefighters were unable to stop a blaze that burned down a two-block commercial strip of more than a dozen buildings.

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Chris Romulo in his current gym

Chris Romulo, owner of Crom Martial Training and Fitness Center, remembers the dark days after the storm. “For at least 4 months we didn’t have a place to hold classes. All of our equipment was wrecked, and a lot of our members were displaced. We lost everything,” he said.

The impact of Superstorm Sandy on small businesses such as these was particularly brutal. Many ventures lacking the cash reserves to endure weeks without any income during the aftermath simply disappeared. The city doesn’t track business closures caused by storm, so it’s tough to say how many vanished in the wake of Sandy, but FEMA estimates that around 40% of all small businesses were unable to rebuild post-disaster.

Burkle and Romolu were able to count their businesses among the survivors after seeking assistance from Renaissance Economic Development Corporation. Both applied for, and were granted, a Hurricane Sandy Emergency Loan.

For Romolu, the money provided the working capital that kept his gym going in the limbo period before he could reopen. “For a while we did fitness classes in our living room. Then we started holding classes in a small yoga studio in the evenings. We made the best of what we had,” he said.

Burkle used her loan to invest in new equipment and secure a location where she could set up a dog grooming salon. “It’s thanks to Renaissance that I could start all over again,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, and not all of the customers I had before the storm have returned. But I’m still in business, so I consider myself fortunate.”

Was your business impacted by Hurricane Sandy? Find out about our Post-Sandy recovery loan product here

 

Renaissance to Hold Online Selling Seminar

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Renaissance Economic Development Corporation is to hold a seminar aimed at small business owners and entrepreneurs who are interested in opening an online store. The seminar will take place on Thursday, July 31st at 6:30PM at 2 Allen Street, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10002.

May Kuang, Renaissance’s Technical Assistance and Outreach Coordinator, hopes that the event will prove to be a gateway for those who would like an online store, but are unsure of how to go about setting one up.  “We’re going to give people all of the basics: Tell them what eCommerce is, explain the concept of an online store, and evaluate different types of online stores. We’ll also explain how to set up the store, examine payment options and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type,” she said.

May pinpoints one of the key benefits of establishing an online store to be their ability to help small business owners expand their operations. “Selling online has a great potential for existing businesses to reach out to customers who are beyond their local community. It also helps generate more revenue through another selling channel,” she said.

As well as developing growth, May also suggests small business owners try online selling because of the relatively low levels of risk involved. “The risks of starting an online business are really manageable because the operating costs are far less than those associated with physical stores that require money for rent and deposits, utilities and so on,” she said.

For further information, contact may@www.miginc.net/renaissance. To download a flyer, click here: Selling Online seminar flyer 07_31_14

Please note: This seminar will be conducted in Mandarin only.

Rebuilding Businesses Post-Sandy

In October of 2012, much of New York resembled the aftermath of a scene from a big budget action movie. This was chaos on a grand scale: Cars flipped, trees uprooted, utility poles snapped like toothpicks and entire homes swept away. But this wasn’t a movie; it was real. Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, had battered the city, claiming 53 lives and causing an estimated $18 billion in damages.

Darcy Flanders was among those caught up in the devastation. “I have two very large pine trees in my front yard, and they fell onto the front of my house,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

It wasn’t just homes that were destroyed by the storm; many lost their livelihoods.  More than 23,000 New York City businesses employing 245,000 people were impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Among those hit hardest were small businesses with less than 50 employees: FEMA estimates that around 40% of these were unable to rebuild post-disaster.

Darcy, the owner of Baseline Group NY, a design and branding firm, was among those struggling to recover. “Our office was in the blackout zone so we had no power for a week, but it took much longer than that to get back to normal. Our server shut down so we couldn’t access files and our phone system went back to factory settings. Sandy disrupted everything,” she said.

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Examples of Baseline Group NY’s work

Darcy’s business was out of action for three weeks in total. During that time the company didn’t earn anything, but the expenses didn’t stop: There was still rent, and people, to pay. Things got so tight that Darcy was forced to use her own savings to stay afloat. “I couldn’t just not pay my staff,” she said. “It’s not like they were on vacation. So I had no choice but to pay people out of my personal retirement account.”

It was a cruel blow, crueler still when you hear Baseline’s backstory. “When we first started out, most of our clients were financial service-related. So, when the market crashed in 2008, they stopped outsourcing. We lost 75% of our business altogether,” she said.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the ensuing recession, Darcy fought to reestablish her firm and build a new client base. Just when she thought she had succeeded, Sandy struck. The pain was almost too much to bear:  “I would say that, of anything that’s ever happened in my 17 years of business, that was probably the lowest point,” she said. “I wasn’t sure whether I had the inner strength to rebuild the company again. I was really contemplating bankruptcy and ready to give up at the time.”

Darcy knew that she would only be able to save her company if she took out a loan. But in an economic environment where banks are subject to increased regulatory scrutiny, it can be hard for a business to find a lender.  “I couldn’t get money from anybody,” she said. “It was really hard to find anyone willing to buy into the fact that I was going to be a good person to give money to because my business had taken such a hit.”

Rejected by traditional lending sources, Darcy began to seek other options. That’s when Renaissance Economic Development Corporation came into the picture.  “Renaissance was the only financial provider that even entertained working with me. It made me believe that there were people out there who looked at things other than just the pure number ratios. You asked questions that had to do with my ability to build my business, and you looked at things like how much progress I had made recently. Nobody else took any of that into consideration,” she said.

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Darcy (center) and her team

Darcy has received two loan products from Renaissance to date: A hurricane Sandy emergency loan and a post-Sandy recovery loan. Since then, her business has gone from strength to strength. “The first year we doubled our revenues and had 75% growth. We won’t continue to grow at that rate, but this year we’re hoping to at least experience 25% growth,” she said.

When asked to summarize what Renaissance did for her, Darcy’s response is hyperbolic, but reveals much about how difficult it is for small businesses to find loans these days. “You saved my life,” she said. “You gave me what I needed, when I needed it most.”

Was your business impacted by Hurricane Sandy? Find out about our Post-Sandy recovery loan product here.  

 

REDC Helps Inventor Fight Curtain Cling

Over the years, Renaissance Economic Development Corporation has loaned money to a variety of New York-based businesses. The majority of these are the kinds of ventures that are commonplace throughout the city: grocery stores, restaurants, hair salons, clothing stores, and the like. But every so often someone comes to us seeking assistance for a project that’s a little out of the ordinary.

That happened earlier this year when local inventor Patrick Raymond walked into our office.

Patrick came to us with a product he believes will revolutionize the way we shower. Patrick’s invention, Curvit, is designed to counteract the effects of what he terms “curtain cling,” the feeling you get when the shower curtain starts to stick to your elbow while you wash. Curvit, a series of curved plastic tails that attach to a shower rod, works by curving the shower curtain out and away from your body.

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Predictably, Patrick came up with the idea while he was in the shower. “I knew I could simply curve the curtain, instead of going through the hassle of trying to install a curved shower rod. That insight turned out to be the easy part,” he says. That epiphany came in 2010. What followed was four years of trial and error before Patrick finally settled on a design that worked.

The next challenge was taking this product to the marketplace. Initially, Patrick used his own money to get Curvit off the ground. “I invested all my personal savings into successfully completing the product development stages first. Some months, I could not afford to work on the project at all. It was agonizing, really,” he says. The decision to seek additional financing came after Patrick secured two purchase orders from major retailers. In order to meet the demand, Curvit needed to secure a small business loan.

That’s when Renaissance came into the picture. Wary of approaching a bank—“I knew I would never be accepted,” he says—and fearful that his product was not hi-tech enough to be picked up by venture capitalists or angel investors, Patrick approached Renaissance. Since the organization’s inception in 1997, Renaissance has sought to help New York-based entrepreneurs who, while deserving of loans, may find it difficult to gain financing from traditional lending sources.

The prospect of securing a loan wasn’t the only thing that attracted Patrick to Renaissance; he was also drawn to the organization’s style of working with clients. “The Renaissance staff were very patient and professional. And this might sound a bit strange, but they were also refreshingly non-judgmental. Inventors of new products are often ridiculed, and I was no exception. Thankfully, I felt that I was taken seriously as a businessman,” he says.

Patrick’s loan application was successful and he has used the funds to fulfill the purchase orders he received earlier this year. Curvit is available for pre-order on the company’s website and will appear in stores from fall of this year. But the Manhattan-based inventor doesn’t plan to stop there. When asked about his plans for the future, Patrick continues to think big: “I won’t rest until every bather is delivered from the daily annoyance of shower curtain cling! Once that’s done, I plan to invent more cool stuff.”

Looking to jump-start your start-up? Drop in to Renaissance’s offices located at 2 Allen Street, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10002 for more information. You’ll also find details of the loan products we offer here.