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Lawyers for Civil Rights hosts 3rd annual small business event

Saphia Suarez
Lawyers for Civil Rights hosts 3rd annual small business event
The Lawyers for Civil Rights BizGrow event featured more than twenty free technical assistance workshops for entrepreneurs. PHOTO: RENATO CASTELO

Hundreds of entrepreneurs and small business owners turned out last Thursday for the annual Lawyers for Civil Rights BizGrow event, which connects community members to pro bono attorneys and provides workshops on how to establish and maintain a small business. The event is part of the organization’s Economic Justice Project, led by director Priya Lane.

“The goal of the whole program is to bridge that opportunity gap between what entrepreneurs of color and immigrants have coming into this country and what they need to succeed,” Lane said. “We find that it’s relatively small areas of lack of knowledge, which we can fill. We connect them with legal resources so they are getting the same quality resources as other entrepreneurs who might have more means.”

Lane said BizGrow is the first foot in the door for many entrepreneurs.

Pro bono attorneys from Boston law firms, including Goulston & Storrs, provided free legal consultations to hundreds of entrepreneurs at BizGrow. PHOTO: RENATO CASTELO

Pro bono attorneys from Boston law firms, including Goulston & Storrs, provided free legal consultations to hundreds of entrepreneurs at BizGrow. PHOTO: RENATO CASTELO

“Then [after BizGrow] we have programming throughout the year that they can use to supplement that work and develop ongoing relationships with us,” she said.

The Economic Justice Project works with more than 350 small businesses a year. To manage the growing demand, Lane partners with larger firms like WilmerHale and Goodwin Procter, which use their pro bono hours to represent Lawyers for Civil Rights’ clients.

Many of those clients made up the nearly 300 BizGrow participants last week, who could attend an array of classes and panels, from hiring and firing to alternative lending. On the alternative lending panel, representatives from socially responsible investment organizations explained the dos and don’ts of borrowing, particularly from organizations like theirs.

“If you’re going after ‘impact capital,’ make sure you align with the mission of the group you’re applying to,” said Aliana Pineiro of Boston Impact Initiative.

The panel also discussed technical assistance resources available in the Boston area, credit issues, and the need for conservative sales projections. Most of the lenders said they do not check credit, and instead use other means to assess the traditional “four Cs” of lending — credit, character, collateral, and cosigner. For character, they may look at the track record of a business if it’s are already established, or how prompt the entrepreneur is in communicating with the organization overall.

One point the panel emphasized was timing. They discussed predatory lenders, which prey on businesses that need quick money, often to meet payroll or other immediate, business-threatening expenses.

“Think of the time you put into this [applying for a loan] as an investment in your business,” said Carolyn Edsell-Vetter from the Cooperative Fund of New England. While funds like hers may take longer to process a loan than a predatory lender does, in the end the low interest rate and support will pay off. “I think I speak for all of us — we don’t want our borrowers to fail, we want to be very sure they are going to succeed,” Edsell-Vetter added.

While the alternative lender panel was in progress, small business owner Ruby Chan was talking to volunteer attorneys from Goodwin Procter about intellectual property and trademark for a new product she’s launching. And business owner Shannon O’Brien was discussing contracts and online business with other volunteer attorneys. O’Brien said she connected with Lawyers for Civil Rights in 2012 as she was establishing her business in career and life strategy consultancy.

“You grow and there are different changes that arise, so I wanted to talk about contracts. The law firm helped me with that, which has been so helpful,” she said. “I got a tremendous amount of benefit from being a part of the organization and from the lawyers they connected me with.”

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