Flint, MI—On Friday, Dec. 10, the city of Flint and its partners hosted a networking event to begin work promised in a $1 million Small Business Administration grant the city received last month.

The grant came by way of the Community Navigator Pilot Program, which promotes “targeted outreach to small businesses in underserved communities” according to a Nov. 4 press release announcing the award.

The program is meant to connect entrepreneurs with resources in areas such as “access to capital” and “contracting and procurement,” but that doesn’t mean the grant money will be going directly to the city’s entrepreneurs, said Khalfani Stephens, Flint’s economic development director.

“The money from that grant is not to be re-granted to small businesses,” said Stephens. “The money from that grant is to provide technical assistance and help to small businesses to get them connected with the right resources and access to capital.”

In an effort to form those connections, the Dec. 10 event brought Flint entrepreneurs together with venture capital firms, like Beringea and Flint’s own Skypoint Ventures, and other potential funding sources, like 100k Ideas and Metro Community Development.

“You have actual venture capitalists in the room with you today, to talk and to find out, you know, what are they actually looking for when they’re thinking about investment in a company?’” Stephens said, introducing the networking session. 

“What size? What technology? What really constitutes what they need?” he said. “Sometimes you don’t necessarily need their investment. You just need their knowledge and their information, and they are happy to share that.”

As guests helped themselves to complementary coffee and breakfast items in the Berston Field House gymnasium, Dylan Straka, CFO of Skypoint Ventures, offered insight into what his firm looks for.

“So I would say we typically do ‘SAS’—services and software,” said Straka. “We like healthcare opportunities. I would say we typically stay away from food related products, consumer related products. But I will say one man owns our company. And if he likes it, and he thinks he can help it grow … we’re going to go into it.”

“They’re all looking for different things,” added Ara Topouzian, executive director of the Michigan Venture Capital Association. “I mean, different firms are looking for different things. They’re looking for talent. Talent is big. … They’re looking in the areas of technology, life science.”

Topouzian said that many firms look at growth potential for a business, as well, and that it’s important for small businesses owners to remember VC funding might not be right for them.

“Not everybody is venture ready. A lot of small businesses are going to hear ‘no’ before ‘yes,” said Topouzian. “And ‘no’ doesn’t mean their product is bad, or that they’re bad, just it’s not scalable.”

One Flint business owner, Pamela Price of Priceless Dreams, said she was told a version of ‘no’ at the event, but that she still found the experience valuable.

“Oh, it was excellent,” Price said. “I told (an investor) I was a nonprofit. He said he was looking more for businesses that sell products and services, but he still gave a lot of ideas.”

Price said she also spoke with other Flint businesses who may be helpful.

“I got seven cards. I got seven new connections,” she said, including one to an architecture firm with whom Price plans to partner on her nonprofit’s youth programming and expansion plans.

The networking event was attended by around 40 guests between service providers, investors, and Flint business and nonprofit owners. 

Samantha Fountain, small business specialist for the city’s economic development department, said the city is planning to host more such events in the coming months. Those will feature topics like registration and accounting as well as topics geared toward particular types of businesses, like food trucks and catering service providers.

Details of the next ‘Coffee & Conversation’ have not been announced. Fountain said there will soon be a tab for the Community Navigator Pilot Program on the City of Flint’s website for more information.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....

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