“Give Back While Learning About the Vicissitudes of Entrepreneurship” read the invite to an unusual mentorship event on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, hosted by the YU Career Center, the Sy Syms School of Business, the YU Office of Government Relations and the Uptown-West Bronx Vanguard. The Vanguard is a group organized by U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, congressman for the district including Washington Heights and Inwood, to develop a community response to the COVID crisis within his district in areas of mental health, public health and small business and nonprofit development.
It was that last item, small business and nonprofit development, that was the focus of the evening. Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, who is on the Vanguard’s steering committee, directed Michael Strauss (associate dean, Sy Syms), Susan Bauer (executive director, YU Career Center) and Jon Greenfield (director, Government Relations) to work with the Vanguard to develop a mentorship program where YU student volunteers trained in loan underwriting would spend about 100 hours helping small businesses and nonprofits apply for the current round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding disbursed by the federal government.
Benny Lorenzo, managing general partner of B.L. Capital Partners, LP and a member of New York Angels, heads up the Small Business and Economic Development Committee of the Vanguard, which is spearheading this mentorship project. The mission of the Vanguard, he stressed, is “to address the root causes of the problems in the district,” and he spoke with great feeling about how the small businesses and nonprofits that have been “crushed by this pandemic” truly need access to this next round of PPP. “We want to use this mentorship program as an entry point to create a trusting relationship so that we can not only help them navigate the application process but also help them survive and thrive.”
He detailed the challenges faced by the local organizations eligible for the funding, many of which are very small operations without a deep knowledge about modern business practices, and the knowledge that the cadre of YU student volunteers would be bring to them would “elevate their financial and business processes to survive, profit and grow employment.”
Several other Vanguard members also spoke to how crucial it would be to have YU students working in the local community to keep it strong and intact. Eleazar Bueno, chairman of Community Board 12 and president of the Chamber of Commerce of Washington Heights and Inwood, called the effort to bring the University and community together “unique,” and Angelina Ramírez, senior vice president at MBE Capital Partners, whose company would be taking the lead on the volunteer training, noted that the volunteers “will learn a lot, not only from a technical financial standpoint but also on the human interpersonal interrelational perspective: you’ll get a wonderful understanding of the culture and how hard the business owners work and why this program is so necessary.”
Of the 92,000 businesses in Rep. Espaillat’s district, about 20,000 would be eligible for PPP funding. In the initial PPP round, which began in April 2020 and ended in August, approximately, 6,000, or 30%, got loans, and Lorenzo noted that a primary goal of this round is to increase that percentage significantly. “For those organizations not able to participate,” said Lorenzo, “we will refer them to other sources of assistance—we won’t abandon them.”
As Entrepreneur-In-Residence and director of The Rennert Entrepreneurial Institute at Sy Syms, Strauss has worked closely with businesses in the area and was very enthusiastic about the mentorship program because he could see how significant an impact the students could have on the community’s health and well-being: “I think that the learning they will get will be tremendous. They’ll have the chance to apply their course knowledge in the real world, get to see how to start a business and make it work, and build really important connections to important people.”
For Greenfield, a program like this was a natural fit between YU and Rep. Espaillat. “YU has worked closely with the Congressman, and this is a tremendous opportunity to work with a leading member of Congress who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Small Business Committee, and also the Democratic Israel working group in the House. It’s a great opportunity to work closely with the community and with a great group of partners.”
In response to a question from a student about when the program starts, Lorenzo stated emphatically, “Now! These people don’t have access to things we do, but they are out there fighting to make something work, and I want to get started helping them do that. Getting you onboard and going through the training as quickly as possible is crucial.” Ramírez noted that the funding for this round “is much less than before, so we need to get these applications in as quickly as possible.”
According to Bauer, sign-up for the program has been posted on YU Career Link.