S2,E5 - Erik Jankowski

Posted on March 6, 2024

Talk CNY Season 2 Episode 5 - Erik Jankowski

This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank, a semi-monthly podcast by CenterState, CEO, Central New York's premier leadership and economic development organization. Join us as we meet the people and explore the projects driving the regional economy forward. 

Thanks for joining us. This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, director of communications at CenterState CEO and your host for Talk CNY. An important part of CenterState CEO's economic development efforts is community investment. Through this work, we make sure that small businesses receive business development services and that those services extend to those from historically underserved communities. Helping Central New Yorkers navigate all the ins and outs of small businesses is CenterState CEO's, small business manager, Erik Jankowski. He's here with us today. Erik, thank you for joining us. Hey, 

my pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

As we said, your role at CenterState CEO, small business manager, that helps people turn their ideas as entrepreneurs into our regions, small businesses. So what was your path to this role? How did you start helping other people start their small businesses? 

Yeah, so I actually have a background in business. I have a business degree from St. Bonaventure University. So since then my career I've been able to play a lot of different roles and held a lot of different positions in the business world. So (I have) just been able to learn and kind of grow through that. And small business does hold a special place in my heart because I'm a former small business owner myself. My wife had a small business many years ago. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I was able to learn the struggles and issues that small business owners will deal with and I can use that day-to-day with the clients that I work with now. So when I was approached about the position, I really just wanted to learn more about it. And when I learned about the great work the team is doing and the work that I'd be able to do with these small business owners, I really was passionate about jumping in and getting on board. 

So this is really personal work for you then. Yeah, 

absolutely. And especially with the connection to the underserved communities, which I grew up in. Yeah, it definitely hits home. 

Starting a small business, as you know, as a small business owner formerly, it's a big task and for those from underserved communities, it can be even harder. So how is CenterState CEO trying to make entrepreneurship more accessible and attainable for all? 

Yeah, I think the approach that we've taken is really just trying to, it's a quality over quantity. Trying to identify where small businesses have issues and meet them where they are, and really try to take a comprehensive approach with our programs and services to identify the biggest needs that small businesses will face and try to meet those needs. So a lot of that has to do with the training components. A lot of small business owners, they're great at a certain service, they're great at doing something, but they might not have the ability when it comes to business ownership or they know how it comes to business ownership. So just getting them trained on multiple facets of business ownership and then getting them on the most solid foundation as possible when they start their business or launch their business so they can be sustainable. 

What are some of those things that when you think of business ownership might get either overlooked or things that entrepreneurs aren't prepared for? They might have the idea, but there's a lot that goes into owning a business that isn't just the idea. 



Sure. I mean, even things as simple as entity formation or bookkeeping or accounting, tax preparation, things that are vital and key to running a business, but if you've never done it before, it's not something you would just know how to do. And unfortunately, a small business owner will run into issues, especially when it comes to finances or when it comes to taxes if they're not prepared to have those skills. 

So a lot of CenterState CEOs programming to help small business owners kind of directly deals with that. That's along our Up Start programming and Start It classes. So can you tell me a little bit about those programs and how they directly interact with those entrepreneurs? We try 

to direct our services in a four-pillar approach. So it's training, technical assistance, access to capital and real estate. Most of the work I do specifically focuses on the training, technical assistance and access to capital. But with all the businesses I work with, we end up touching all four pillars at some point. But our training component is really for people who just have an idea, haven't really ...ran with it yet, but they want to develop a business plan. So we have, it's called Start It. It's a 12 week comprehensive business development program where they can learn multiple aspects of business ownership, develop a fully actionable business plan, and really have that foundation ready for when they do launch the business. After that, we try to take them a step further. Once they have that business plan, they can get into our Up Start program, which is where we start applying technical assistance to their ideas and to their business. So I take a deep dive with them, identify what the pain points are, what the gaps are, and then just try to start allocating resources to meet those needs, like I said, so they can be the most solid foundation as possible when they start operating and when they start really validating that concept. 

So when you say take a deep dive, I mean our cubicles aren't too far from each other, so you are on the phone often with these entrepreneurs kind of helping them - very one-to-one services, isn't that right? 

Definitely. Yeah. So lots of either in-person meetings or phone calls or Zoom calls, definitely try to set up a regular cadence of meetings with these folks to keep touch points, make sure that their technical assistance engagements are progressing well, make sure that they're getting the resources they need, and really just developing a relationship with these folks. So they see me as a trusted resource to continue helping them through the journey. 

You have now met dozens of entrepreneurs through Up Start and Start It! programming. When you think of the program and its success, are there certain people or businesses that come to mind? I mean, I'm sure there are countless, but also are some that you have continued relationships with that you really take pride in their growth? 

Yes. As you mentioned, there's too many to name probably, and they all stand out for their own special and different reasons. But one that I always like to reference is It Takes a Village. It's a family daycare center. Tanika Jones is the owner, and I've been working with her closely for a few years now. When she first came to us, she was having some issues with operations, some infrastructure issues, some low enrollments. So we really just wanted to identify what those pain points were and then what resources we could put toward helping her move forward. So fast forwarding a little bit, we were able to get her connections with consultants and different technical assistance engagements, access to capital. So she's gone through a litany of different resources and she takes advantage, full advantage of everything that we can provide her. And she actually just opened her second location at the beginning of the year, and now she's eyeing a third location in the spring. So she's had a lot of great growth. And I always emphasize to everyone, her growth is her growth. These business owners and these entrepreneurs are the ones that put all the work in. I'm just lucky enough to be along for the ride and try to help as much as possible, but all the kudos and all the work and effort, it all goes to them. 

So Start It! classes are getting ready to start again this month in March. What can someone who is either enrolled or looking to enroll expect from the classes in this upcoming month? 

Yeah, so Start It! classes will start in March, as you said, and anyone who's interested can expect it's a comprehensive 12 week program where they're going to learn all the ins and outs of starting and owning a business. They're going to be able to develop a fully actual business plan. We have incorporated a new online system called Live Plan that is intended to help them develop the business plan, make that process as easy as possible, and really we're looking to constantly adapt and evolve the programming that we do provide. So we're trying to mitigate as many barriers as possible. So we're integrating language services for people with language barriers, trying to help with any educational barriers people may have, working closely with people if they have tech barriers that they face, trying to identify if people have transportation issues and help them with those issues. And even financial barriers. There is a cost to the program, but if that's an issue, we can waive those fees. So really just trying to mitigate as many barriers as possible for people and let them take advantage of the program. And I think it's really beneficial for anyone who's looking to start their own business 

And mitigating those barriers. Is that something that's been since the inception or is it something that you kind of continue to add on and evolve as the program goes through to make it more accessible? 

Yeah, I mean, the idea has always been that, but as we learn more through each continuing training, we try to identify what these barriers are for folks and then try to address those issues. So I think as people are learning in our trainings, we're constantly learning how we can help people more. I 

Mean, I think of tech, as you mentioned, I'm sure with the rise of e-commerce during COVID and things of that nature, that was probably a barrier that you guys addressed even more heavily once you started noticing that. So were there other moments that kind of stuck out as like, oh, this is a barrier we do need to address in order to ensure that our entrepreneurs are succeeding? Sure, 

yeah. I think specifically to the language barrier, we have a lot of new Americans that try to come through the program. So really trying to identify what local community partners we can utilize to help with those language barriers, translators, things like that. So yeah, we're constantly identifying new ways that we can improve our programming. 

And for someone who's hearing this and is interested in maybe enrolling or learning more, what's a good way to contact you to learn more about services? Any sort of direct connections you can make? 

Yeah, I mean, I'd always recommend you can find me on Center States CEO's website. You can go to the website and I'll go find the upstart program under the programs tab, call our offices directly and just ask for me by name or hopefully you just see me out somewhere and come say hi. 

Alright, we're going to take a quick break here, but first, we have a word from our presenting sponsor NBT Bank. 

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Welcome back to Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, and with me today is CenterState CEO's, small business manager, Erik Jankowski. Erik, thanks for being here. Absolutely. So before the break, we were talking about Start It! classes, and for someone who might be listening to this and thinking to themselves, oh, that's interesting, but I'm only at the idea stage. Where should someone be ahead of enrolling in Start It! courses? 

Yeah, I mean, really people can come to us in any stage. I mean, you might not gain as much value if you're already kind of further down the line in the market, and then you may be a better candidate to dive right into our Up Start! program. But really if you just have an idea, a skillset that you wanted to pursue or just an interest in starting a business, this will really not only help you develop your business plan, but help you flesh out whether this really is a business you want to pursue or something that you want to move forward with. 

So another part of Start It! and Up Start programming is the Growth and Equity Fund. It helps people to access capital that may not have had as easy of a time accessing it traditionally. So can you tell me a little bit about the Growth and Equity fund and how it's making capital more accessible for entrepreneurs? 

Yeah, absolutely. So typically we try to help people pursue the traditional avenues that's going through a local bank or a financial institution for a loan. And a lot of times we can help leverage our relationships with those institutions to even if someone had been denied in the past, we can try to reengage that institution and see if we can get them loan ready and help build that relationship. But if there absolutely is no opportunity for them to go through traditional means, then the Growth and Equity Fund is a great opportunity. We try to make it more flexible when it comes to if someone might not have good credit or if they have not enough track record and business ownership, the business hasn't been established long enough, then we have this opportunity for flexible funding that we can provide to them to get them started and hopefully make them more attractive to lenders in the future. 

Now, we've already started distributing some from the Growth and Equity Fund, Tanika Jones, who you mentioned earlier is one of the recipients, but is there another one that you could highlight for us to explain how kind of they got the funding and it helped them advance their business? 

Definitely. Yeah. A great friend of mine. His name is Durin Leckie. He owns Ali Fix It Contracting. Yeah, he came to us. He wasn't able to get a loan from traditional financial institutions. We were able to get him set up with a loan through the Growth and Equity Fund. And really he needed the funds to help buy some equipment, help with some operating capital to help him move forward, and that was able to allow him to take on more contracts and build his business, hire more people, help the business grow. So that's really the goal is to just kind of inject some funds into the business to help them bridge that gap. 

So these entrepreneurs, like you said, they can come in the very early stages of their business and through this 12-week course, you see them grow a great deal. So what's it like seeing someone who starts kind of maybe with just an idea graduate after that 12-week course and with almost a fully fledged business plan, ready to kind of enter the market? 

Yeah, I mean, it's super exciting and I love being a part of seeing these people's journeys all the way from just that little idea to really fleshing out an entire actual business plan and identifying how they should operate the business. So yeah, I feel privileged just being able to be a part of that and then being able to review their business plans and provide them feedback after the fact, and then hopefully at one point work with them in the Up Start program. So it's super exciting for me and hopefully it's exciting for them as well. 

So we often hear about big economic development projects in the community, but small business does play a very important role to our total economy. So can you tell me a little bit about why small business communities are so important to our entire region? 

Yeah, I mean, I always say small business is a lifeblood of the economy, and I do think that the statistics kind of hold that to be true. Small businesses account for 45% of all economic activity, a third of job creation. So I mean, they're really vital to the overall health of the economy, and I think it's just important to support a diverse economic ecosystem, really, because a lot of people may not realize, but the diversity within the Syracuse area really isn't represented in business ownership as much as it should be. And Black, for instance, the Black community represents 29% of the population, but less than 5% of businesses are actually owned by Black owners. So I think that just shows a glaring issue that needs to be addressed. 

And when we help diverse entrepreneurs or enable them to really reach their maximum potential, how does that help neighborhoods in the region overall? 

Yeah, I think for one, just more wealth and more prosperous businesses within the neighborhoods is going to lift up the neighborhood and boost the neighborhood overall. But these entrepreneurs are really, they're bringing to bear not only their business, but they can help with job creation. They can help with overall wealth creation for these people's families within their community. And a lot of instances the way small businesses operate is they're purchasing services and other things from other local small businesses. So as these small businesses grow and become more successful, it's lifting up the community as a whole. 

So looking maybe two, five years down the line, how would you like to see Central New York's small business community change and grow? 

Yeah, I think just if possible, more, well-capitalized, sustainable small businesses within these historically underserved and other resources areas, more partnerships with local organizations that are focused on helping these businesses and really a focus on how important these businesses are. I mean, currently we have great partners with the Key Foundation and Family Foundation, HUD grants that help support with funding some of a lot of the work that we're doing, but hopefully more people will get on board and realize how important this work is. I'd also love to see more interest at younger ages in entrepreneurship and small business ownership really have high schools and maybe even younger kids learning about small business ownership and the importance about entrepreneurship. 

So people who might want to partner or mentor some of our really successful small business owners in the community, how would they be able to be a part of Up Start and Start It! programming? 

Yeah, I mean, people can partner in multiple ways. Like I mentioned, if it's strictly funding, there's always a need for more funding. If people want to be mentors, if people want to provide subsidized cost services, if you're a content expert that you can help other small businesses with some of their needs, I mean, providing access to your network. There's multiple ways and it's all appreciated. So any help is welcome. 

Well, Erik, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate you being 

Here. Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

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