“I just love the idea of making something from nothing.” — Minnie Luong
Minnie Luong’s gentle voice exudes a sense of sweetness — one that would not generally evoke thoughts of pickled cabbage. However, it is this very product — kimchi — that she and her family have built their lives around.
Minnie was born on a rice farm in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, and immigrated to Boston with her family at a young age. Food, she says, has always been “an essential part” of her family’s identity. As she describes, “I just love the idea of making something from nothing. That comes from my childhood, my father gardening and fishing; we didn’t have a lot growing up, but we still were able to have these amazing meals.”
In fact, it was her father who eventually motivated her to become an entrepreneur. After he concocted a “massive, delicious jar” of Korean kimchi during a family gathering, Minnie was inspired to begin experimenting with the recipe herself. What she created was a homemade brand of vegan kimchi, made from fresh, local ingredients. After working twelve years in California’s culinary industry, she and her husband moved to Rhode Island in 2015 with the goal of establishing their budding food venture. Once she had a location and a name, Chi Kitchen Foods, Minnie’s next step was to start a company.
But where to begin?
Finding and Accessing City Resources
Like most Providence entrepreneurs, Daniel Sheehan, founder of Humble Pie Company, began by accessing online government resources. However, he said, when it came to City requirements, “there was a lot of confusion about what is necessary, and when it’s necessary.” He added, “I haven’t found the information presented on the websites to either be helpful, or exist at all.”
Alan Alberto, co-founder of Mesa Fresca, a food venture specializing in traditional Argentinian sauces, confessed that the process of starting his small business in Rhode Island was “frustrating.” Even after consulting the Secretary of State’s website and calling their main office, he felt that he “didn’t really know a lot about the resources that were available” and that the information provided by the City wasn’t targeted enough to be helpful for his specific enterprise.
Alan’s testimony points to a broader issue: the vast diversity of small business needs and the lack of resources to accommodate them. This becomes especially pertinent for the business licensing process, as licenses vary by establishment function, location and the nature of goods provided. When the pathways to licensing are unclear, entrepreneurs can end up frustrated, under-licensed, or even with unnecessary licenses — in which case they have to fight the City for a refund.
Interacting with the City
When Minnie and her husband were first trying to start Chi Kitchen Foods, she “had a lot of questions but couldn’t get straight answers [because] different places didn’t communicate with each other. She elaborates, “I got one license from the health department, which triggers another license at another place. If you ask any questions or do any pushback, no one really answers.”
Another Providence small business owner agrees. ”You’re on your own, she says. “I sat for many nights in tears. I know it sounds stupid, but this whole trying to open business is so frustrating, between the Health Department, the licensing, the tax people… It’s like there’s no one in charge. Personally, I fantasize about going and firing all the top people at the top, throwing all these stupid rules out, and starting all over again.”
When City and State Don’t Communicate
In addition to the requisites mandated by the City, other licenses, fees, and forms exist at a statewide level, resulting in a tangled web of requirements. Daniel from Humble Pie refers to it as a “domino effect” that briefly left him operating without a license.
While they wait for the different levels of government to coordinate, entrepreneurs like Daniel are forced to choose between opening shop without proper licensing or losing valuable time and resources. If they do decide to operate without a renewed license, the rules surrounding “forgiveness” are murky and subjective at best.
An anonymous entrepreneur faced similar struggles while getting the necessary licenses for her food company. When she first received her Food Service license from the Department of Health in May of 2015, she was never informed that she would have to renew the license just a few months later in September and pay another $500. She was ultimately able to fix the issue for all subsequent licenses, but it took a toll on her. “I swear to God, it was me crying on the phone, saying ‘I’ve got no money to pay it. I’m out of work.’” This confirms a fundamental problem in the communication between business owners and the government and between departments in the government.
Organizations as Intermediaries
The state of Rhode Island has numerous organizations, some publicly-funded and others private, dedicated to supporting small business owners. They provide resources such as one-on-one counseling, business planning, and technical assistance. As Sherri Carrera — a twelve-year veteran of the Client Services Team at Commerce RI — describes, these organizations act as the “hand-holders” for small business owners who may otherwise find themselves lost in the process of starting a business.
Commerce RI: Here to Help
As a federally-funded organization, Commerce RI holds very strong ties with both city and state governments. “We’re a quasi-public,” explains Sherri, “so we have a Board of Directors, and the Governor sits at the head of the board. And our loan fund is federal money.”
They are also a participating member of both the Statewide Action Team (STAT) and the Agency Crosstraining Team (ACT), two statewide initiatives to promote collaboration and communication between government agencies. Through monthly meetings, Sherri connects with her counterparts at other agencies to learn about the programs they offer. These ongoing connections, she says, help her provide accurate information and resources to the clients she works with.
Commerce RI’s relationship with the government also creates opportunities for organization-driven change in business policy. Service providers at Commerce RI use a document called the “Business Climate List” to track and follow through on client complaints. Unresolved issues from this list are sent directly to the Governor’s office each month. “A lot of [these issues] are being addressed in the general assembly,” adds Sherri.
However, not all organizations have the benefit of a consistently positive relationship with the government. For many, their communication with the City is at times tenuous and lacking.
Urban Ventures: A "Fleeting Relationship" with the City
Enter Urban Ventures, another quasi-public agency created by the State General Assembly to serve Providence’s small business community. In a 2014 press release, Rhode Island Senator Pichardo praised the organization for having made “a real difference in our neediest communities,” and resolved to allocate $140,000 to them to expand their reach and resources.
Given the recognition and financial support that the government has provided Urban Ventures, one would expect to find a strong working relationship between the two entities. However, Executive Director Jr Neville Songwe indicated the contrary, describing their relationship as “fleeting.”
In bridging the gaps between small business owners and the City, organizations like Commerce RI and Urban Ventures function as intermediaries. However, if their relationship with the City is lacking, these organizations can be left just as confused as their clients. This creates an additional roadblock in the communication small business owners have with the City.
Where Some Organizations Fall Short
While some agencies receive government funding, organizations in the non-profit sector are often forced to charge their patrons in order to help them, leaving low-income clients short on options.
The number of organizations catering to entrepreneurs like Minnie can also become overwhelming. When multiple organizations are in competition for clients, a common strategy is to narrow their target clientele. This leads to two adverse results: first, certain people can be left out of these well-defined populations based on economic status; second, these organizations can rub each other the wrong way as they compete against each other. Ultimately, all of these factors can make it difficult for non-profit organizations to fully support entrepreneurs.
Hope & Main: The Price of Help
Minnie — along with Alan Alberto of Mesa Fresca — ultimately ended up choosing the services of Hope & Main, a not-for-profit food incubator located in Warren, RI.
Minnie expresses appreciation for Hope & Main’s services, but points out that it is limited in the number and kind of people it serves. She says, “I would like to see more organizations like Hope & Main. I wish it was cheaper. I realize they need to keep their operations running and that costs money, but for people who are low-income I can imagine it is difficult. There is racial and ethnic diversity, but no socio-economic diversity.” An anonymous member of the incubator confirmed this, recalling one Latina entrepreneur who had to leave Hope & Main after only six weeks due to financial constraints.
Hope & Main also provides entrepreneurs with access to quality kitchen space and other culinary equipment — but the fee is prohibitive. That same anonymous entrepreneur adds, “Hope and Main isn’t packed all the time because they’re too damn expensive. They’re $30 an hour.” Though nonprofit organizations such as Hope & Main aim to help entrepreneurs, they often leave the most disadvantaged unsupported. Other organizations divided instead along ethnic lines, face similar problems.
Tomás Ávila: Tensions Between Organizations
Tomás Alberto Ávila, head and founder of the RI Latino Professionals and Business Leaders Network (The Network), has tried to fill the gap in service for Providence’s underrepresented Latino Community. He serves “as a link between the new generation of the Latino business community and the new leadership at the state level, who don’t have as much familiarity with Latino businesses.”
With various organizations seeking to promote the interests of minority groups, Mr. Ávila states that the small business ecosystem and inter-organizational relationships can become tense. “There is conflict because the organizations don’t see each other as partners, they see each other as competitors. They are seen as the enemy.” He notes particular tension between his network and the Rhode Island Black Business Association. “It shouldn’t be about what is Latino and what is Black, it should be about business,” he says.
Wrapping Up and Moving Forward
Clearly, the need for increased collaboration between organizations and the City of Providence is paramount. What is currently being done, and what can continue to be done to makes this ecology more accessible to small business owners?
What's Being Done...
A coworker of Sherri Carrera’s, Claudia Cardozo, states that different city services “work in silos.” Sherri echoes this comment — but only to an extent. From her perspective, there are already some significant changes taking place within the City’s structure. Back in the early 2000’s, she says, this expansive network of organizations already existed, but were all functioning independent of each other. Since then, she has seen transformation within the complex organizational ecosystem. “Especially under this governor,” she says, “there’s more collaboration. We get invited to participate in more things than we did before.”
...And What Needs to Be Done
Others argue that more drastic changes are needed, especially when it comes to minority businesses and under-served populations. According to Claudia, “When it comes to minority businesses, I see a few groups — like RIBBA, Urban Ventures, Center for Women and Enterprise, SBDC — doing as much as they can, but the need is big.” Her solution: an initiative that brings representatives from different nonprofits together, the same way STAT and ACT function within the state government. “I think a coalition is needed that says, ‘This is the problem. How can we work together to move the needle?’”
Then, as Jr Neville Songwe mentions, there’s a need for restructuring of the entire business sector in order to address issues of initial access. This is especially the case, he says, for entrepreneurs from communities that lie outside the reach of city services. He also stresses the need for more direct, City-initiated contact — in an ideal situation, the City would reach out to organizations. “So what we want is a little bit of what you’re doing,” he affirms over the phone. “Calling me regularly, and asking me to update you on what I’m doing out on the streets. And then telling me, how does that connect with [the City’s] programs? Are we missing something?”
Finally, the City need to address the lack of a direct relationship between business owners and the government. Although small business organizations facilitate interactions between the City and individuals, it is still essential that they share an understanding of each other. In her interview, Sherri mentions that many business owners’ misconceptions about the city are guided by decades-old interactions — one of her clients, she says, based his negative view of the City on an interaction he had with the Department of Environmental Management over twenty years ago. The City, regardless of the changes it makes internally, is failing to keep its business owners in the loop.
Where is Minnie Now?
Minnie’s company is growing fast — her kimchi is now available in seven locations, including Whole Foods. Her journey as an entrepreneur is still beginning, and she hopes that eventually she will see a better and bigger system of support that includes the City as well as organizations like Hope & Main.
Broken communication makes starting a business in Providence difficult. While Minnie loves Rhode Island, other business owners have moved to Massachusetts because they feel that the state is not business-friendly.
This is an issue that goes beyond licensing or individual start-ups, and the City needs to pay attention. As one entrepreneur puts it, “This is people’s business. This is your money. This is everything.”
Credits and Acknowledgements
Photo of Minnie Luong: Michael Cevoli, The Bay Magazine
Photo of Daniel Sheehan: Jenna Pelletier, Providence Journal
Photo of Sherri Carrera: courtesy of Commerce RI
Photo of Jr Neville Songwe: from his LinkedIn page
Photo of Tomás Ávila: Jackson Sales
Photo of Minnie and Husband: courtesy of Chi Kitchen Foods
Background Photos: Vegan Sweet and Simple, How to Grow Napa Cabbage, Minimalist Baker (1), Girl on the Range, Minimalist Baker (2), Maangchi, Platings and Pairings
We would like to thank all of the individuals who have made this project possible, including: Diana and Jamie, our professors; the business organizations, business owners, and policymakers in Rhode Island; and our fellow classmates. We have benefited greatly from your support and resources throughout the entire research process.