THE COMMISSIONER OF NEW YORK CITY’S DEPARTMENT OF SMALL BUSINESS SERVICES, ON A PROFESSIONAL LIFE THAT BEGAN WITH MOM AND POP COMMERCE AND EXTENDED INTO ADVOCACY AND POLICY PLANNING
BY CHRISTINE SIRACUSA • PHOTOS BY JON GORDON
A majority of New Yorkers will likely agree that a large part of what makes our city great is the presence of small and independent storefronts. While there are clearly Starbucks and Barnes & Noble builds welcomed in just about every neighborhood, the commerce that makes our communities truly feel like home is formed by the coffee shop on the corner, the antique and consignment store across the street, and the irreplaceable show repair kiosk across from church. Big box stores have their place, but these small businesses keep us from feeling as though we live in a mall. They’re also, according to Empire State Development’s Small Business Division, our economic backbone: small companies, its latest report states, make up 98 percent of New York State businesses and employ more than half of its private sector workforce. To keep this financial engine going, there’s a New York City government run office whose sole purpose is to guide small enterprise owners toward success. There is no application process required to engage New York City’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS). No screening. No secret handshake. When an entrepreneur walks through the doors of any of its Business Solutions Centers, help is waiting. The man who runs the Department is Commissioner Gregg Bishop.
Bishop came to East Flatbush from Grenada at age 7. His mother, a single parent, arrived ahead of him and was employed as a domestic worker until she saved enough to send for Gregg. After he arrived, she began nursing school while working full time and caring for her son.
In his role as Commissioner of SBS, Bishop wears his immigrant status as a badge of honor. Immigrants and entrepreneurship often go hand in hand, he said, and under Bishop’s leadership, SBS puts a high priority on helping them at all stages of growth. The Department’s resources are extensive and its spirit is genuine, he explained an ongoing effort to rewrite the David and Goliath story daily. It has supported scores of business owners across all five boroughs, but the SBS still qualifies as a largely untapped resource its chief obstacle simply getting word out about the office and its programs.
There is no “typical day” in the life of the Commissioner, except that it always starts early. Five in the morning, to be exact, in the form of catching up on email and local news. After that, Bishop is off and running to fill the demands of the day. The agenda always looks different, but has a common theme: outreach. That could take the shape of attending town halls, high school or college events, community board meetings, or ribbon cutting ceremonies, but one of his favorite tasks is simply popping into local businesses unannounced and asking, “Have you heard about our free services?” (A bit of advice: It’s best to dress down for these instances. If you arrive in a suit and tie, he stated, “the owner or manager is almost always ’not available.’”)
Free SBS services are most immediately experienced in business courses, offered in all five boroughs. A selection of one week’s offerings includes Crowd funding your Business with Kiva, QuickBooks, Choosing the Right Legal Structure, and How to Become Certified as a Minority and Woman Owned Business Enterprise. The Department also helps explain rules and regulations so companies can avoid costly fines. Connecting entrepreneurs with free legal guidance is another core service.
In addition to putting his own boots on the ground, the Commissioner works to forge relationships with people he terms “community influencers.” He recognizes that some areas of the city are inherently suspicious of government. In those stretches, it’s helpful to have familiar, trusted faces from within the neighborhood who know what SBS has to offer and who can act as liaisons between the department and people it might benefit. Bishop works hard to identify those key influencers and forge meaningful relationships with them.
In addition to its resources for small business owners, SBS is helping to build up the workforce generally. It runs training programs throughout the city that teach skills in a number of growing sectors, including food service, media and entertainment, healthcare, and technology. The Department also provides oversight and support for the city’s 75 Business Improvement Districts areas where local stakeholders oversee and fund the maintenance, improvement, and promotion of commerce ($148 million is invested in them annually). Strong communities give rise to strong businesses and vice versa, Bishop explained, and SBS is working to bolster support on both sides.
Bishop’s road to this position was not exactly direct. In his 20s, he taught himself how to write computer code, and subsequently dropped out of college to work in the private sector. A lay off caused him to reassess this trajectory, and he decided to return to college. While at Florida A&M, he started feeling the call to give back, which led to a job at the N Power organization, preparing military veterans and underserved youth for careers in digital technology. He began his career at SBS in 2008. In 2012, he was appointed to the Deputy Commissioner position by Mayor Bloomberg, then re appointed under Mayor de Blasio. When his predecessor, Maria Torres Springer, concluded her term as Commissioner, Bishop approached de Blasio and asked for his shot.
He got it.
One of Bishop’s favorite success stories involves a business in Red Hook, Linda Tool, that since 1952 has manufactured precision machined components for private and governmental applications, including military. They came to him with a problem: the people with the skills to run their machinery were aging out. So, SBS glanced over at the Red Hook Houses, home to a large number of underemployed people, and a potential solution for both issues emerged. The Department created an apprenticeship program to teach residents there first how to be a good employee, then they created a space in Sunset Park at the Brooklyn Army Terminal to begin to acclimate apprentices to the kind of environment and types of equipment they would soon be working in and with. Specific training in how to operate machinery is done on the job, so the program subsidizes a portion of the apprentice’s salary during the learning process, with the goal of full time, long term employment.
Bishop’s Department, he explained, is like a tree with branches reaching into the three areas that continue to make this city livable: small business, its workforce, and its neighborhoods. In the end, he added, when his term is through, he hopes growth in outreach to underserved and underrepresented New Yorkers will be his legacy.
New York City Department of Small Business Services
110 William Street, Manhattan
212.513.6300 / nyc.gov