By Jillian Smith
This past Saturday, I spent the entirety of the day traveling from one small business to the next in honor of Small Business Saturday. The day, created by American Express as a response to the high levels of corporate consumption that occur on Black Friday, is celebrated typically with small scale events in communities with discounted sales and entertainment. My tour quickly became more than just a discounted sampling of delicious foods and cute homemade dog toys, however, and evolved instead into a profound learning experience.
Small businesses are integral to the success of communities. Multiple studies from the World Bank, the Kauffman Institute and the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that companies which employ fewer than 200 people and have been in existence for less than five years contribute significantly to both new job growth and overall increases in gross regional product. AJ Sumell, a professor of urban and regional economics at Youngstown State University, notes that this is largely due to a “multiplier effect.” This effect is the idea that for every dollar spent in a locally owned establishment, that dollar stays in the community longer and circulates that community more often, thereby generating far greater economic growth in the aggregate.
Far more than just positive economic growth, however, what I found, and what social researchers have found, is that small businesses contribute to a stronger “social fabric” within whichever community they are located. Multiple small businesses create a more authentic, safe and “walkable” downtown, drawing more visitors due to an increased perception of safety and uniqueness. That uniqueness subsequently generates greater pride and a sense of responsibility for maintaining one’s community and therefore for leads to greater amounts of civic engagement for both business patrons and business owners.
The most striking example of the positive change these small businesses have on their communities that I witnessed as I walked through the main commercial corridors of Youngstown and Columbiana, however, was a nearly palpable feeling of inclusiveness created by the enthusiastic cross promotion of the business owners. Rather than the sense of cutthroat competition, a new breed of entrepreneurs seems to be emerging in the Mahoning Valley. These entrepreneurs are committed to making a profit, just as any business owner would be, but also see their existence as part of a larger story. Through their hard work, these entrepreneurs appear to be striving to create strong, safe, vibrant environments for their neighbors and fellow business owners.
Marissa Devantier, the owner of a local goods-curating café called The Shop on Liberty Street, created her social media campaign for Small Business Saturday using local influencers to highlight and promote her fellow small business owners. She did this as a reflection of what she notes is the culture of mutual support that already exists within the community. “Everyone is doing this out of the goodness of their heart.” She notes, “When business owners work together to cross promote and use their influence to better the community, everyone wins. It’s important to think big and always have a regional perspective in mind, especially when holding events.”
Owning a small business can be a challenge. The U.S. Small Business Administration notes that more than half of all new business created fail within the first year. What’s more troubling: in 2015, nationally, business “deaths” began outpacing business “births” for the first time since 1970. But perhaps the Mahoning Valley has hit on a unique approach. Through mutual support, cross-collaboration and an understanding of a greater good being served, entrepreneurs in the Valley are finding a model that not only strengthens each other’s businesses but the entirety of their respective communities.