As a child, Katia Essyad watched her mother, a Moroccan artisan, weave carpets. Years later, Essyad returned to her roots, opening the Casablanca Market, which sells home goods and accessories handmade by Moroccan artisans like her mom.
Essyad began small, with a tiny shop in California. But as she started connecting with artisans and forming relationships, her vision — and her business — grew. Eventually the shop expanded into an online store where consumers can buy everything from textiles to olive oil to tagines, terracotta vessels used for cooking stews.
Casablanca Market is a job creator, Essyad says, but it is also more than that. “We not only provide jobs for these women and men, but we also preserve the culture and the history of handmade things in Morocco,” Essyad says. “It’s a very old tradition, and what we do is, we advise the production and empower the artisans behind it.”
Essyad bridges the gap between artisans in Morocco and consumers in the U.S. She works to make sure the products meet the demands of customers and the standards — including food safety standards — of the U.S.; Casablanca Market only sells tagines, for example, that are lead-free.
But as her business grew, it got harder for Essyad to run it on her own. Demand was intense, she says, and she needed help organizing operations. That’s when a friend told her about Pacific Community Ventures.
A THREE-PRONGED APPROACH TO SMALL BUSINESSES
Based in San Francisco, PCV is a nonprofit social enterprise that works with small businesses, often in underserved communities, providing access to capital and mentorship. Its mission is to help the businesses grow and create quality jobs.
Tech entrepreneurs Bud Colligan and Penelope Douglas launched PCV 17 years ago when they realized that venture capital firms were pairing entrepreneurs not just with capital but also with expert business advisers. They decided to try the same thing with brick-and-mortar businesses, in the strong belief that such businesses are the engine of job creation in America.
Today, President and CEO Mary Jo Cook says PCV has advised or funded more than 4,000 small businesses; 237 across 45 states in 2015 alone. The companies PCV has funded or paired with advisers have seen 14% job growth on average, she says, with more than half of the new jobs going to workers living in low- to moderate-income communities. Cook says more than half of the small businesses were owned by women, and more than a quarter were owned by people of color.
She says PCV uses a three-pronged approach: They provide loans to businesses that are unable to qualify for bank loans, they connect business owners with advisers, and they measure the impact of their investment. “Each year, PCV InSight — our in-house impact evaluation team with a decade of experience — analyzes the social and economic benefits of our work, so that we can reapply what works and drive more capital to underserved communities,” Cook says.
LOCAL LOANS, NATIONAL ADVISING
The loan program is meant to help small California businesses that meet two criteria. They must not qualify for loans from traditional banks, and they must be dedicated to creating jobs in low- and middle-income communities. To date, Cook says, they’ve deployed over $3 million in capital.
“Traditional financial institutions aren’t meeting that need, so more and more business owners are turning to online lenders with predatory rates,” she says. Once a loan is granted, PCV pairs the businesses with volunteer advisers who are experts in specific areas that the small business owner may need help with, like accounting or hiring. Cook says PCV finds the advisers through online listings, volunteer fairs, and companies who want to use PCV to encourage employee volunteerism.
And though PCV only has a business lending license in California, small businesses in other states can still participate in the advisory program. Its second branch, BusinessAdvising.org, is open to any small business in the country that serves or employs people from an underserved area.
ANOTHER SET OF EYES ON THE BUSINESS
Volunteers often find working with PCV rewarding because they enjoy being able to volunteer their expertise rather than just their time, Cook says. Sherry Bijan is one such volunteer. An independent investment adviser based in San Francisco and Manhattan, Bijan has been working with PCV for three years. “I’ve always had a great interest in impact investing and small businesses. They’re very near and dear to my heart,” she says. “When I relocated to San Francisco from Palo Alto in 2013, I was searching for some volunteering opportunities.”
Bijan was looking for opportunities where her knowledge and background could be effective. She heard about PCV from a friend, and has now advised six or seven businesses, including restaurants, online businesses selling retail items, online businesses selling services, and a production company in Detroit. Her role at PCV has even expanded, and she serves on the nonprofit’s lending committee.
She says the advisory role changes based on what the company needs. One may need an adviser to help brainstorm new ideas, while another needs more in-depth guidance with marketing, financials, or hiring.
“It’s a mentorship, it’s another set of eyes on the business,” Bijan says. “It’s not handholding, and it’s not delivering end results. It’s seeing them through the process of getting to where they envision themselves.”
For business owners hoping to participate in the advising program, Cook says the application is easy. They can sign up online, fill out a short profile, and schedule a phone call with PCV to make sure they’re a good fit for the program. If they’re in, PCV will match them with a volunteer.
For Essyad, the program was hugely beneficial. She approached PCV hoping that an adviser could help her evaluate her business. She had a good product, but when she started thinking about scaling, she realized she needed help. Among other things, she says, her PCV contact, Eli Raber, helpfully arranged for her to meet with advisers like Jane Louie, who works for MassMutual Life Insurance in San Francisco. Louie helped Essyad put together an overview of her business operations.
“For instance, baskets take this much time to make, and once they’re made, they need to be shipped,” Essyad says. “So how long does it take to get to California? Based on historic sales, we can say we’ll need these products in January 2017, and we can plan better.”
Essyad says Louie and the other advisers she was paired with were very encouraging as Casablanca Market went through big changes. PCV’s role lasted about a year, on and off, she says, and mostly over the phone — a total of about five hours a month. Advisers would even occasionally stop by to visit, Essyad says.
“We had a very good experience. We had help organizing our operations, and help with our accounting systems,” she says. “With the products and the artisans, no one can advise us on that but ourselves. But with the growth of the company, they were a big help.”
It’s been about a year since her experience with PCV, and Essyad says Casablanca Market may be ready to start growing again. She is seeking funding to support even more growth, and while navigating this next step she hopes PCV will be there to help her again.
“It didn’t start like this, it started as just something I did, that my mom did,” Essyad says. “And then I realized that I could do this positive thing, not only for us here, but also for these artisans. You’re introduced to more and more people and it doesn’t end. That’s the beauty of it.”
MEASURING THEIR IMPACT
Through word of mouth and the publicity of PCV’s network, experiences like Essyad’s have undoubtedly helped small businesses grow. But PCV also wants to make sure the individual success stories have a positive impact on their own communities, Cook says.
“There’s a strong consensus within the impact investing industry that measuring both the financial and social or environmental performance of investments is essential to the growth — and very existence — of the field,” she says. “That’s because, unless we measure those impacts associated with impact investments, there’s no easy way to differentiate impact investing from traditional investing.”
To measure the impact of their investments, PCV works with a number of organizations, including nonprofit debt and equity funds, corporations, pension funds, various foundations, and banks. So far, Cook says, BusinessAdvising.org — the program Essyad participated in — shows average satisfaction ratings of 8.7/10. Nearly 30% of business owners return for additional advisers across different business disciplines.
They also have annual surveys, where they look at jobs created, jobs maintained, and whether a business’s revenue has grown. Notably, they also look at the quality of jobs being created, measured in salary and benefits. “Job quality has been a casualty of the economic recovery. Since the end of the Great Recession, almost 12 million jobs have been created. But during that time the strongest job growth has been in low-wage work, and average wages for working Americans have dropped 23%,” Cook says. “We no longer find it defensible to focus on job creation alone.”
Given their two-decade track record of investing in and creating quality jobs in underserved communities, Cook says Pacific Community Ventures is uniquely positioned to address the trend of rising wealth and income inequality in the country — chiefly through its focus on small businesses as producers of high-quality jobs.
Learn More About Pacific Community Ventures
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