published on October 26, 2018 - 7:00 AM
Written by Frank Lopez

Starting a business is not easy.

While finding funds to start a business might be the most challenging aspect of an entrepreneurial venture, there is a lot more that has to get done before someone can celebrate a grand opening.

In May, The San Joaquin Valley Rural Development Center (SJVRDC) at Fresno State launched a new initiative that assists businesses to be competitive in a complex marketplace and help new entrepreneurs meet their goals of business ownership.

The new initiative, Fresno State Small Business University, provides business resources and tools to start and grow a small business, with a focus on assisting enterprises in rural areas of the Central Valley.

The initiative is a continuation of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) that was run by various departments at the university for over 20 years until December 2017, when matched funding was not available. Because there were still gaps in providing services in rural communities, the Office of Community and Economic Development decided to continue the work and developed Small Business University in January, to pick up right where it left off.

Though the SJVRDC had been doing work before the SBDCs were shut down, Small Business University helped them continue the work.

Eduardo Gonzalez is the development director of the SJVRDC, and was instrumental in continuing the work from the SBDC and forming the university.

“The primary goal is to provide Fresno State Students with real opportunity,” Gonzalez said. “Getting them in front of clients and doing actual work. These aren’t mockups, these are real life situations and they’re driving a business.”

Funding for the Small Business University comes from the California Department of Transportation, Bank of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. People seeking services are charged nominal costs to pay students employed by SJVRDC.

Funders can specify where they want to see their money go for the most personal impact.

“When we apply for funding, for instance from the USDA, their funding source would have parameters of what places they want to reach, and we identify the areas where we could meet that,” said Shelby Gonzales, finance director at SJVRDC.

Money also goes into marketing, translations of information for the Hmong, Punjabi, and Spanish-speaking communities, and the development of the SBU website, which is expected to launch at the beginning of November.

Funders provided about $500,000 for the Small Business University for 2018, with a goal of reaching $1 million by 2019.

Small Business University uses students majoring in graphic design, business management, or web development to help entrepreneurs with business strategies and technical assistance with financial management, business planning and management, marketing, and making their businesses energy efficient.

Small Business University operates with 5 employees. Many employees are actually offered jobs when they are out in the field, which the organizers jokingly refer to as a blessing and a curse.

Recently, Small Business University partnered with Bitwise and the Patiño School of Entrepreneurship to identify 10 small businesses, put their websites up and help them with marketing.

It is also part of Fresno 4 Biz, a business resource hub that has a partnership with the Fresno Regional Workforce investment Board, along with others that offer free services for businesses that meet up once a month to ensure that they are not duplicating services and to promote each other.

Small Business University is looking to partner with school districts to help students produce and brand agricultural products, and eventually get them into the local job market, and to show students that there is more to the ag industry than livestock and crops.

“Lets get students to understand that there is a career in ag that is separate from coming home dirty and muddy,” Gonzalez said. “That’s where we come in and show people how to be entrepreneurs and start their own business.”

Small Business University also partnered with U.C. Berkeley Law School to access lawyers that offer services including contract reviews and consultation free of charge – a service that could cost $200 to $300 dollars an hour.

Rodi Hernandez is a student at Fresno State with a mind for business, and he went to the Office of Community and Economic Development looking for work. As he continued his studies, and learned to assist others with their businesses, he decided to use what he learned and start his own business.

Hernandez is working on bottled coffee that will be crafted with Mexican flavors such as horchata, cajeta (a Mexican style of caramel), and Mexican hot chocolate, and wants to market it to the large Mexican community in the Valley.

He is close to releasing his product and is working on the nutritional information, which he says could be a long and complicated process.

“When I went to the SBU, I was able to see the awesome things they do and all the resources they have and I told myself, ‘this is it, this is the opportunity I was waiting for,’” Hernandez said.

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