County Hosts First Small-Business Fair

County Hosts First Small-Business Fair

Fair connects entrepreneurs with county, federal services.

Patricia Sands expected obstacles. But with the right assistance, she got her business off the ground. Last weekend, she told nearly 100 entrepreneurs how they could do the same. “I thought being a low-income, woman-owned business made it hard for me to enter the market,” said Sands. “I found out there are special opportunities that are set aside for folks like me.”

Sands addressed some 100 small-business owners and would-be entrepreneurs at Arlington Economic Development’s first Small Business Trade Fair on Saturday, June 21. Along with keynote speakers like Sands, about 20 vendors and government entities provided information on how to start and expand small businesses. “This is long overdue,” said County Board member Walter Tejada. “I’m so happy we did it this year.”

Walking through the displays at the Career Center, at 816 S. Walter Reed Drive, Tejada was particularly impressed with the multilingual resources provided by organizations like the Business Development Assistance Group, a nonprofit offering free counseling in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean for startups or existing businesses.

“We do have a large, diverse, foreign-born population,” said Tejada. According to 2000 U.S. Census data, 27.8 percent of Arlington’s population, some 52,000 people, are foreign-born, and 33.1 percent, or 62,000 people, speak another language at home.

SMALL-BUSINESS OWNERS face numerous challenges, especially in a slow national economy, but opportunities exist, said Sands.

Sands went through hard times before getting into business. Her husband died of cancer, leaving her to take care of her children and her aging father alone. Times got harder when her father suffered a paralyzing stroke.

Out of hardship came opportunity. “I am an art director by trade, and the nature of my business came not from my college or work experience, but by seeing a need in my life experience,” she said.

While caring for her father during a decade of recovery, Sands experienced firsthand the need for quality products dealing with incontinence, and she set out to design a male urinal that would reduce spillage and improve conditions for patients and caregivers. She came up with a design that eventually tested 400 percent better than leading products, and currently Sands is in negotiations with one of the largest medical supply companies in the nation.

“She’s about to be a very, very rich woman,” said Barbara Wrigley, director of the Women’s Business Center of Northern Virginia, who helped Sands develop her business and was on hand as Saturday’s trade fair to give guidance to other entrepreneurs.

Most small-business owners face three main challenges, Wrigley said: technical elements of starting a company, financing, and opportunities for networking with related businesses.

“An event like today’s addresses all three of those,” said Wrigley.

IN THE AUDIENCE at the trade fair, entrepreneurs cited a range of needs. Rashda Arifin hopes to turn her clothing designs into a successful product line, or to make money by importing fabrics from her native India.

She came to the trade fair worried because she doesn’t have the $6,000-$10,000 she’ll need to buy supplies to get the business off the ground. She left more at ease. Wrigley told her about a Small Office/Home Office loan program that can bring up to $15,000 within 10 days. “It’s very much encouraging,” said Arifin.

Similar information helped Sheika Mancle, owner of Aura Apparel and Design, a Temple Hills, Md., company. Mancle came to the trade fair looking for “any information that I can get to help my business grow,” she said.

“Knowing the process is the biggest obstacle,” said Dawit Asmellash, an Arlington resident, who came to the fair. “I want to start my own business, and I wanted to know what resources are available to me.”

Tara Miles, who manages Arlington Economic Development’s BizLaunch program and organized Saturday’s fair, said the county is committed to helping new entrepreneurs like Asmellash.

For instance, the Arlington Employment Center keeps a database to help match businesses with employees. The free resource can save hundreds or thousands of dollars over commercial employment services. “As a small-business owner, you don’t want to spend a lot of money going to the market to find people,” said Miles. Saturday’s trade fair is the first of what will be an annual event, she said.