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Cannabis Cover Story

Rolling Along

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Massachusetts had already legalized medical marijuana when voters were faced with another question in late 2016: whether to legalize cannabis for recreational use. The vote wasn’t close, sailing through on talk of jobs, tax revenue, and, well, people wanting to light up legally. Reality doesn’t always live up to promise, but in this case, it has. Yes, the industry is still facing growing pains, particularly when it comes to creating a level playing field for entrepreneurs. But when it comes to this new industry’s impact on jobs, real-estate investment, municipal tax revenue, and more, these are truly high times.

 

David Narkewicz wasn’t just a supporter of cannabis coming to Northampton. He was the first customer.

That was three years ago, when NETA opened on Conz Street and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis. Today, with cannabis businesses proliferating in the city and across Massachusetts, the outgoing mayor believes his initial enthusiasm was justified.

“We saw the experience of other states, and a lot of the Massachusetts law, when they were trying to put together the regulatory framework, was based on looking at laws in other states,” Narkewicz said. “First and foremost, I supported legalization just as a public-policy meaure, but I also saw an opportunity for investment in the community.”

Elaborating, he said the city is known as a destination with a vibrant retail sector, arts and culture establishments, and plenty of restaurants and bars. “So my sense, and my hope, was that this would be a new investment in the community and a new source of jobs and revenue, and another reason to come to Northampton. I think we took a pretty forward-looking approach to this.”

Today, Northampton is home to eight retail dispensaries for adult-use cannabis, seven manufacturers, four cultivation facilities, and a testing lab. Those numbers grow seemingly by the month.

Meanwhile, three years of excise taxes on adult-use cannabis have brought in more than $4.3 million. “That helps us continue funding schools, police, fire, DPW, all the services we provide as a city.”

Mark Cutting and Matt Yee certainly saw potential, not only in the state’s legalization of cannabis, but Northampton’s embrace of it. Just last week, they opened the city’s eighth adult-use dispensary, Enlite, just off the Coolidge Bridge rotary — and they have a long-term vision for it based on the idea that this is a still-evolving industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job. It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

“We thought that, with our background in business and the Yee family’s background in restaurants and entertainment, there may be potential beyond even the retail space,” Cutting said. “There may be opportunities to have some type of dining or some type of entertainment along with cannabis partaking at some point in time — though that’s not legal here yet.”

Yee noted that the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts — almost 190 and counting, not just in retail, but in cultivation, manufacturing, and wholesaling — is making it easier for all players to succeed, because of the cross-pollination. It’s why Enlite has adopted the model of many area dispensaries of partnering with boutique makers of cannabis products.

“Early on, it was difficult because [product] availability was so low, you had to be vertically integrated to supply yourself,” he noted. “But Western Mass. has been really kind to small-scale producers, and we’re really happy to showcase them here at this location.”

Cutting added that “a lot of the multi-state operators don’t necessarily like companies like that to sit on their shelves. But we’re basically an open market for some of these producers to share shelf space and advertise their product here locally.”

With each business open, total sales in Massachusetts increase — crossing the $2 billion mark, in fact, earlier this month, a number even proponents might not have expected so soon after voters approved legalizing recreational cannabis in November 2016, four years after giving a similar go-ahead to medical marijuana.

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says cannabis has created fertile ground for hundreds of new jobs in Holyoke — and an impressive diversity of them.

And those businesses mean jobs, said Jeffrey Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

“We’ve experienced high levels of unemployment during the pandemic; both Springfield and Holyoke unemployment have been ahead of the federal and state average. In both communities, we see a strong need to connect people to the workforce,” Hayden told BusinessWest.

That’s one reason HCC became a lead partner in the creation of the Cannabis Career Center in late 2019. If HCC exists to give people the skills they need to get into jobs, he reasoned, then the potential of cannabis couldn’t be ignored — especially in a city rivaled only, perhaps, by Northampton in its full-on embrace of this new industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job,” he explained. “It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

But cannabis is changing Holyoke in other ways, too, notably in its canal district, where long-neglected mill buildings are springing to life with cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and sales.

David Narkewicz

David Narkewicz

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing.”

“The private investment in Holyoke as a result of this industry coming to Massachusetts has been extremely significant,” Hayden said. “Cannabis companies are buying properties that have been long underutilized — and it’s not like acquiring a building and leaving it as is; they’re investing significant dollars to improve it and create new jobs in the city, literally hundreds of jobs already. And, obviously, the tax revenue generated for the city is significant. This is a growing industry in Massachusetts.”

That’s true — literally and figuratively. Five years after that critical vote and three years after businesses started opening, cannabis has proven to be a hardy economic driver, one that not only survived the pandemic, but thrived throughout it. And no one really knows what the ceiling may be.

 

Ironing Out the Issues

Not everything has been smooth in what is becoming a hyper-competitive market. Enlite is the state’s first Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) applicant to open its doors, and Yee concedes that the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to MBE and social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results.

“It’s a really big topic in the industry. We’ve had a lot of commissioners change out in the last year or so, and a lot of people in the program saw CCC failing them as far as getting those applicants to the finish line,” Yee explained. “It’s a combination of things: operators with not a lot of resources can be an issue. Obviously you’ve got your multi-state operators with a million dollars allocated to their lawyers and legal teams, so they’re able to have the resources to get them pushed through a little bit faster. Those are big issues.”

Holyoke’s mill district

Holyoke’s mill district has become a promising location for cannabis cultivation for companies like GTI.

But things are changing, he added, with new commissioners “really focusing on those applicants and assisting them, figuring out where the pain points are and getting them to the finish line and open. We’ve been seeing some traction on that.”

The process can be a tricky one (see related story on page 22).

“The biggest issue — because it’s not federally legal — is access to capital,” Cutting said. “It’s a journey getting through the CCC, and if you do make a mistake and don’t dot your I’s and cross your T’s, it gets rejected, and you have to start all over again, and you don’t necessarily go back to the same queue you were in — you may go to the bottom of the pile. And it can be a long, painful process to get back to the top of the pile. And God forbid you make a mistake again.”

It helped, he said, to deal with a city that didn’t limit the number of application approvals. “We sat down with the mayor, and it was the most seamless, easiest process you can ever imagine, versus other cities that either opted out, or there’s a lottery, or they really capped the number of cultivators or retailers they’re allowing.”

In Narkewicz’s eyes, Northampton’s voters approved cannabis — first medical, then recreational — at a much higher percentage than the state average, and the city’s leaders took their cue from that.

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing,” the mayor said. “And I think we saw a pretty strong response — lots of people wanting to locate here in Northampton.”

He does hear questions from people wondering if the market is too saturated, and has a quick response. “Northampton has 17 liquor stores. I have yet to hear anyone complain that we have too many liquor stores. To me, this is a legal industry, and it’s the free market, which is why I opposed caps on liquor licenses for years, because they hold back economic development in a city like Northampton and only drive up the cost of those licenses and make it harder for entrepreneurs.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations. It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

“In an industry like cannabis, which is trying to focus on equity and economic empowerment, particularly for populations that were disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and the war on drugs,” he went on, “putting up barriers like that defeats the purpose and works against the goals of this new industry.”

Narkewicz also noted that each new business may be 20 or 25 new local jobs as well.

In Holyoke, cannabis means hundreds of new jobs in a short period of time. And the variety of jobs is appealing to us,” Hayden added, noting that someone with strong customer-service skills could become an effective patient advocate, while someone with an agricultural background could work in cultivation, and someone with a knack for science could work in extraction and infusion.

The appealing thing, he noted, is that companies are looking for workers with broad skills who just need, and want, to be trained in the intricacies of this field and their specific roles.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations,” Hayden said. “It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

Kathleen Proper, chief Human Resources officer at Canna Provisions in Holyoke, said as much at a panel discussion that preceded a recent Cannabis Career Fair at HCC, titled “Cultivating an Industry.”

“Our biggest thing is providing outstanding customer service,” she noted. “So if you’ve got experience doing customer service, whether you’ve worked retail, worked in a restaurant, waited tables, tended bar, all of those skills work out really well. Even though cannabis retail is a different animal than other retail … we tend to do really well with people who have waited tables or tended bar.”

 

Word on the Street

Yee isn’t worried about the ninth dispensary that will open in Northampton, or the 10th or 11th. Like Narkewicz, he believes the legal cannabis industry is thriving, with the saturation point well in the distance.

“I always say our biggest competitor is the black market. Many consumers are still shopping on the black market because the pricing is far better,” he said, noting that an eighth-ounce of cannabis may cost $50 in a store and $30 on the street, with no tax.

“A lot of folks who are stuck in their ways, they know the brands they like on that market, they know the cultivators they want to work with … the black market is still very, very strong,” he went on. “As we see more interesting products hit the shelves here at a commercial dispensary and prices begin to drop — and we are seeing a little more of that — we’ll see folks moving over from the black market to the commercial market. So there’s still a massive untapped customer base out there.”

Cutting agreed that, as the legal cannabis industry matures and deepens, the sheer volume of product will lower prices, and that — as well as the aesthetic and educational experience that many cannabis shops tout — will draw more people in.

“Additionally, all the product on our shelves has been tested; you know what’s in the product. On the black market, you don’t have test results and don’t know what metals or pesticides or mold or yeast are in their product. They don’t have to test — they just roll and sell their product from whatever location they’re growing in.

“Here, it’s a safe, friendly environment,” Cutting went on. “You’re not looking over your shoulder buying something off the black market. And I think that market will eventually snuff itself out. Not entirely, but I think, over time, you’ll see it. The question some will ask is, ‘hey, do I want to be safe, or roll with this and take the risk of an untested product?’ I think most people will want to be on the safe side.”

As for public safety, Narkewicz said concerns from cannabis opponents — regarding surging crime and diversion problems — simply haven’t come to pass. And looking back, he’s proud to have been the first customer in the city’s newest growth industry.

“Obviously, in the early going, we had a little traffic crunch and parking crunch, but I don’t know many mayors worried about too many people wanting to visit their city,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a good problem to have.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis

Aiming High

The executive team at 6 Brick’s

The executive team at 6 Brick’s includes, from left, Taylor Shubrick, Payton Shubrick, and their parents, Dawn and Fred Shubrick.

Payton Shubrick always wanted to effect change in the world.

She never thought it would be through a product that was, for most of her life, illegal.

Specifically, when she graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 2015 with a degree in political science — and concentrations in Africana studies and peace and conflict studies — the goal was to enroll in law school, she explained.

“Our speaker for our class talked heavily about moving mountains — ‘how do you leave this college on a hill and move mountains the rest of your life?’” she recalled. “So my idea was, I was going to have this landmark case that would change the trajectory of my career and rewrite some type of law.”

But she found herself working full-time at MassMutual instead — and missing her college days filled with extracurricular activities. “It was work, work out, and go home. There was nothing in between.”

So, with the help of her father, Fred, she secured an internship with the Springfield City Council. Meetings became more interesting after Massachusetts voters approved the legalization of adult-use cannabis in late 2016, with out-of-state operators hanging around and officials trying to hash out what the rules would be for zoning and other aspects of legalization. And Shubrick was intrigued — so much that, when the councilor she was interning for lost a re-election bid, she kept attending meetings anyway.

“I was hearing so much conversation about how these businesses were going to make millions. Honestly speaking, they made it sound so easy.”

“I was hearing so much conversation about how these businesses were going to make millions,” she recalled. “Honestly speaking, they made it sound so easy.”

But as Shubrick thought about her own potential in this new industry, she had something else in mind besides dollar signs. She’d read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and gained an understanding of how the failed war on drugs had impacted urban communities like Springfield. And she saw the cannabis industry as a way to engage with that community, succeed in business there, and pay it forward.

“I went to a Springfield public high school, where, if somebody dropped a dime bag, they were going to in-house suspension or being arrested in the middle of the school day because you had police officers present in the building with you. So, when you start to peel back the layers and realize this is going to be a billion-dollar industry, how can you get people in your community to benefit from that?”

The answer is 6 Brick’s, an adult-use retail cannabis shop expected to open early in 2022 on Main Street in Springfield, in the Republican complex.

“We are what most would describe as a mom-and-pop shop, which I tend to agree with since both my parents are on the executive team,” she told BusinessWest.

The Shubrick family hopes to have 6 Brick’s open by early 2022.

The Shubrick family hopes to have 6 Brick’s open by early 2022.

She thought her biggest hurdle would be getting her father on board. “Saying I wanted to be a lawyer has a certain level of prestige around it. Saying I wanted to be a legal drug dealer and own a cannabis dispensary … not so much. How do you make that business case and get Dad to switch gears?”

But not only has Fred become her biggest supporter, he’s also chief procurement officer at 6 Brick’s — a name that echoes the family name, Shubrick. Payton is CEO, while her mother, Dawn, is executive secretary, and her sister, Taylor, is head of community responsibility and quality assurance. Two younger siblings — who aren’t currently old enough to work in cannabis — round out the ‘6’ in the company name.

Once she decided to wade into this burgeoning industry, Payton knew she wanted to do it in Springfield.

“There’s this idea that, to be a star, you have to leave the area and go to Boston or New York. I heard, ‘you have so much potential; go somewhere.’ That was frustrating because I’ve always seen the potential Springfield has, and this industry, in many ways, allows me to prove people wrong; I can stay here, and I can be successful in my own right, and I don’t have to move out of the city of Springfield to do that.”

“Saying I wanted to be a lawyer has a certain level of prestige around it. Saying I wanted to be a legal drug dealer and own a cannabis dispensary … not so much.”

Furthermore, she said, “I can participate in an industry that previously caused so many people’s lives to be disrupted and negatively impacted, and I can try my hand at something I had always been interested in, which is entrepreneurship.”

It hasn’t been easy, and the journey is far from over — and the cannabis landscape in Massachusetts is still a difficult one for minority entrepreneurs, despite the state’s establishment of a social-equity program (more on that later). In a wide-ranging interview, Shubrick talked about why that’s the case, and what can be done to improve the prospects of business owners who lack the resources of large, established companies and, ultimately, create a more level playing field.

 

No Easy Road

Shubrick and her family officially launched 6 Brick’s in 2019, and the road since has been a thornier one than she had imagined.

Back in 2017, “I thought if I did my homework and put together a really strong application, I would get the license. I didn’t expect an RFP, 27 groups applying, only four being selected. That’s when your heart starts to do many palpitations — what if we don’t get picked? What happens next? I didn’t have a plan B.”

Payton Shubrick and Marcus Williams, president of the Block

Payton Shubrick and Marcus Williams, president of the Block, which seeks opportunity for minority-owned cannabis businesses, share a few words at a recent mixer.

But she did fight through to become one of the four entities chosen in Springfield’s first round of permits.

“The running joke in the industry is they never ask when are you going to open, they say where are you in the process,” Shubrick said, noting that it’s a two-pronged process. At the city level, it involves a special permit and a host-community agreement, while the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) requires a provisional license, post-provisional-license inspections, and other steps, including a certificate of occupancy (back to the city for that), which is required by the state for the final license.

Shubrick described it all as a long sequence of queues, of getting on meeting agenda after meeting agenda. “It’s a very layered process with two entities that don’t talk to each other, and you need a series of documents from each. It’s a series of waiting rooms in some capacities.”

On top of that, 6 Brick’s has had to deal with supply-chain issues during the pandemic to get its space — now 90% built out — up and running. It even had to wait for doors that were stuck in shipping containers. “There’s not a lot in your control as you think about moving through this process. So patience is key.”

All along, a Springfield-based business was the only goal, she noted, as opposed to, say, Northampton, which never capped the number of cannabis permits.

“I didn’t look to start as a business model that was going to be rinse and repeat in any city,” she explained. “I looked at it as, ‘I can be the hometown hero because, when I hire people, I’m going to hire them from the community, and I’m going to hire those who were impacted by cannabis prohibition.’ And that doesn’t just mean who did jail time — it could be their daughter, their niece, their nephew, because, let’s be honest, when someone is removed from the home and incarcerated, that whole family is impacted.”

In short, “for me, this was aligned to social-justice elements of my hometown and less aligned to me becoming a millionaire overnight.”

She found tht the road to being profitable at all begins with a lot of money up front — between $1 million and $2.5 million, typically, depending on the state of the building, its HVAC requirements, and other costs.

“I didn’t look to start as a business model that was going to be rinse and repeat in any city.”

That has been a roadblock for many applicants that have gone through the state’s social-equity program aimed at creating an entrepreneurial path for communities that were particularly hard hit by the war on drugs — most of them minority-dominated communities. Today, only 8% of cannabis companies currently open in Massachusetts are run by those who emerged from the social-equity program.

“Some go through the process but have no funding at the end of the program,” Shubrick said. “So now you’re well-versed in the process and know how to get through it, and you’re looking around, and there’s no banks giving you money. If you don’t know people with deep pockets, how do you get the right investors? I’ve seen horror stories of people who have the best of intentions and got so far in the process, but you have the wrong investor, and then it becomes a nightmare. And now you’re selling for pennies, and you’ve lost time, energy, and money.

“That’s the heartbreak people don’t talk about,” she went on. “And I wouldn’t categorize it as those people failing; I would categorize it as not having have a holistic structure in place that supports people from start to finish. It’s almost a tease in order to say, ‘hey, I’m going to show you how to make a pizza, but I’m never going to give you the ingredients so you can make your own.’ Many people simply can’t raise the money to do what they’ve gone through a program to learn how to do.”

In an editorial last week, the Boston Globe agreed, noting that the state has ignored calls to create a loan program to help equity applicants, adding that, “as if the barriers to entry weren’t high enough already, getting financing for a marijuana business is difficult because of its murky legal status.”

But the Globe cites other barriers to social-equity applicants as well, particularly the power of municipalities — which are not required to consider equity when awarding licenses — over the approval process, not to mention the head start large medical-marijuana businesses have had in the recreational license-approval process, which has paved the way for bigger medical companies to dominate the market.

“So the state has to double down on its social-equity program and prioritize licensing for minority applicants,” the Globe argues.

It’s also a hyper-competitive industry in general, Shubrick said, one where players are fiercely protecting their piece of the pie, and new retailers are often offered unfair deals to partner with growers, manufacturers, and wholesalers, and vice versa.

“It’s key to have a team of lawyers and accountants help you stay away from the sharks in the water because people are so hyper-focused on trying to extract as much money as possible, they’re not thinking through long-term impacts like ‘how can I be a decent businessperson to this other individual so maybe down the line we can do business together?’ Instead, it’s ‘how can I squeeze as much equity as possible? How can I give them terms that maybe aren’t favorable because I’ll benefit in the short term?’

“Other states around us are legalizing, so the captive audience in Massachusetts won’t be the same,” she went on, “and that doesn’t bring out the best in people when they don’t view competition as healthy and an opportunity to get better.”

 

Seeking Solutions

Proponents of true social equity in cannabis are working toward a more equitable industry, however. Earlier this month, the Block — an organization that aims to support black and Latino cannabis professionals in Massachusetts — held the last of three networking mixers at White Lion Brewery in downtown Springfield. About 80 people attended, including a CCC commissioner.

In addition to efforts around business development, resources, and connections for its members, the Block is also developing options for members to gain capital, such as minority-owned investment firms, crowdsourcing, and more traditional, institutional backing.

“Plenty was discussed. It was a really good evening overall,” Shubrick said. “Social equity here in Massachusetts is well-intentioned, but logistically, it has opportunities to become more meaningful so we see more people opening doors who have gone through the program.”

She stressed that she’s fortunate to be entering this business backed by people — her family foremost — with her best interest at heart, and she’s passionate about using her business to lift up the only city she considered for this business.

“I want to hire folks from the community who can benefit from this industry, not just because they were impacted by the war on drugs, but also because Springfield should be benefiting from these jobs.”

That passion, she noted, will be shared by ‘budtenders’ who understand the plant and can educate customers on the store’s products, many of them created by local manufacturers that are also smaller companies, many owned by women, veterans, and people of color.

“We’re being intentional about our partnerships and helping customers understand why we’re partnering with them,” she said. “So it’s more of an experience and less of a transaction.”

Certainly, opening a cannabis retail shop — and, again, it’s a long process, one that’s not over yet — has been quite the experience for the Shubrick family.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote James Baldwin, a quotation Payton calls her favorite. Indeed, she’s facing the challenging realities of cannabis entrepreneurship — with a mind to change things for the better for those who come after.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

This Nonprofit Ensures That Entrepreneurs Won’t Have to Go It Alone

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll Holyoke.  (Leah Martin Photography)

“If your dreams don’t scare you … they are not big enough.”

That’s the quote, attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian president, economist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, that is stenciled onto one of the walls at EforAll Holyoke’s headquarters on High Street, in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of this nonprofit since its inception, chose it for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with her and also because it accurately sums up entrepreneurship in general, as well as the work that goes on in that facility.

In short, she said, dreams of running a business should scare someone, because there is nothing — as in nothing — easy about getting a venture off the ground … and keeping it airborne.

“Entrepreneurship is so terrifying,” she said. “And when our entrepreneurs come to us, they often don’t have the support of friends or families or big networks telling them to go for these dreams. That’s why we’re here — to tell them that they’re not alone … and that you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur.”

Helping turn dreams into reality is essentially what EforAll is all about. This is a statewide nonprofit with offices in a number of cities with large minority populations and high unemployment rates — like Holyoke. Its MO is to blend education in the many facets of business with mentorship to help entrepreneurs navigate the whitewater they will encounter while getting a venture off the ground, to the next level, or even through a global pandemic (more on that last one later).

It will be many years, perhaps, before a city or a region can accurately gauge the impact of an agency focused on inspiring entrepreneurship and guiding entrepreneurs, but Murphy-Romboletti believes EforAll is already making a difference, especially with the minority population.

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to.”

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to,” she told BusinessWest. “The model that we use, providing really close mentorship, makes such a difference — you don’t have to go through the process alone.”

Her sentiments are backed up by some of those who have found their way to EforAll and been part of one of its many accelerator cohorts. People like Sandra Rubio.

Years ago, she started baking cakes for family members because she wasn’t happy with the quality and price of what she found in area stores. Soon, she was making cakes and other items for friends, neighbors, and even total strangers who had been exposed to her work. And her success promoted her to launch Totally Baked 413, which will soon open a location in the Holyoke Transit Center on Maple Street.

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, with helping her get her venture, Totally Baked 413, off the ground.

She credits EforAll with helping her make the leap from part-time activity to full-time enterprise — but not leap until she was ready and not make too big a leap too soon. She also credits her mentors and Murphy-Romboletti with getting her through those times when she was tempted to let the dream die.

“There were times when I just wanted to give up, say ‘forget it,’ and go back to work,” she recalled. “But then, I would meet with my mentors, meet with my class, and it got me right back on track — it gave me the push I needed to press on.”

And people like Jailyne Torres, who launched Shyguns, a creative clothing brand and seller of vintage clothing. She said she took part in the Spanish-speaking accelerator, called EsparaTodos, and credited EforAll with helping her gain consistency and take a concept she conceived when she was only 16 years old and make it into a business.

“I always had the idea, the concept, but I never really knew how to make it actually make it a brand,” she said. “But EsparaTodos helped me with all that.”

Such comments explain why EforAll, while still small and emerging, if you will, like the businesses it mentors, is already a Difference Maker in the community it serves.

 

Dream Weavers

As she talked with BusinessWest at EforAll’s facility, Murphy Romboletti said being there elicited a number of different emotions.

Indeed, while she said it always feels good to be in that space, COVID-19 has made the visits far more infrequent, and it has brought what is often an eerie quiet to a place that was always full of people and energy. The co-working space is now unused for safety reasons, and there are far fewer meetings and activities taking place there, with most programs carried out virtually. All this is made more frustrating by the fact that it took more than a year of hard work to secure the space and get it ready for its opening in the fall of 2019, only to have the world change and the space go mostly dark just a few months later.

“For those first couple of weeks when I would come back, it was like, ‘oh, man, this is tortuous — this is a hard pill to swallow,’” she noted before quickly taking the conversation in a different, more poignant direction. “The irony is that’s exactly what so many of my entrepreneurs were feeling; a lot of them, especially those in the cohort that we graduated that March, were just coming into the world as new entrepreneurs, and the world said, ‘hold on … we’ve got some other plans.’

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there,” she went on. “But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

COVID has changed some things, certainly, but when you get right down to it, EforAll Holyoke has always been about providing a community and helping entrepreneurs not only survive, but thrive.

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental in helping her take Shyguns to the next level.

Launched five years ago as SPARK, the agency quickly became an important part of the region’s growing entrepreneurship ecosystem. In 2018, it affiliated with EforAll, short for Entrepreneurship for All, a network that now boasts eight offices across the state, including the most recent, in the Berkshires.

Like many of the other offices, the one in Holyoke now conducts accelerator programs in both English and Spanish (EsparaTodos), and graduates four cohorts of entrepreneurs each year, two in the spring and two in the fall.

Like most accelerators, these XX-week programs are designed to educate participants on the many aspects of starting and operating a business — everything from writing and updating a business plan to working with the media — while also connecting them with mentors who can impart their wisdom and first-hand experiences.

When asked what it’s like, Rubio said simply, “intense.” By that, she was referring to everything from the classwork to the back and forth with her mentors. And that intensity helped her persevere through the challenges of getting a plan in place, finding and readying the site for her bakery and café, and getting the doors open.

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there. But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

“Every time I was close to saying, ‘I’m done,’ they would say, ‘you’re on the right track; keep going,’” she recalled. “And we would keep going.”

Likewise, Carlos Rosario kept going with his venture, Rosario Asphalt, which specializes in residential driveways and repairs.

Rosario, speaking in English that is, like his bottom line, improving consistently from year to year, said EforAll has helped him make the big leap from working for someone else to working for himself.

He told BusinessWest that those at EforAll helped connect him with sources of capital, including banks and Common Capital, to secure loans that have enabled him to buy the equipment needed to handle more — and larger — jobs, including a trailer and a truck. And he’s hired his first employee, a truck driver.

“If it wasn’t for EforAll, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said, adding that the agency and the mentors assigned to him have helped with all facets of running a business, but especially with making those all-important connections to professionals, capital, and potential clients.

Torres agreed. She said EforAll has helped her with aspects of her business that people don’t think about when they’re focused on an idea and maybe a brand. Things like data entry, pricing, marketing, and “allowing transformation to happen.”

“When I started the project, it was based on the creative clothing part,” she explained. “And then, I was able to add second-hand clothing, and not limit what the future might bring.”

That’s certainly another colorful and poignant way of summing up what EforAll does for those who participate in its programs.

 

Scare Tactics

Here’s the full quote attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”

Most people have the capacity to dream as big as Johnson Sirleaf believes they should. But not everyone has what it takes to make those dreams become reality. Those who have entrepreneurial ambitions and spirit are among those who can.

But even such driven individuals can’t go it alone. EforAll exists to make sure they don’t have to. And that’s why it’s a true Difference Maker in Holyoke — and beyond.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Special Coverage

The Business of Pivoting

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz remembers a lot of people having some serious doubts about whether she should go forward with her plans to put a food truck into operation late last spring.

After all, it was the middle of a pandemic, people were staying home, the economy was tanking, and the restaurant business, perhaps more than any other, was suffering mightily.

But Ortiz, a graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Holyoke Community College, was determined to make her dream, which she would call Crave, become reality — pandemic or not.

She had already acquired the vehicle itself, and her experience in the accelerator program operated by EforAll Holyoke had given her the confidence (and technical know-how) to get her show — a food truck specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine — on the road … literally.

Problem was, it was not business as usual when it came to securing the needed approvals and permits from city officials.

“It was even difficult to speak with officials from cities because people weren’t working as much, and you couldn’t even get into city halls,” she said. “Everything has to be mailed in, which takes … as long as that takes. Meanwhile, a lot of cities don’t have ways to do this online; you can’t e-mail them or submit a form online. You have to mail it in, and that took a while.”

But Ortiz persevered, and opened for business just over a month ago. Her truck, usually parked on Race Street, not far from the Cubit Building and just a few blocks from the computing center, is actually exceeding goals set higher than most everyone she knows thought were reasonable.

Successful launches in the middle of COVID-19 are certainly rare, and for most area entrepreneurs, especially those trying to get a concept off the ground or to the next level, these are challenging times, when the focus is on pivoting and adjusting to meet changing needs and changing ways of doing things.

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness, are like many small-business owners in that they have had to pivot during the pandemic and create new revenue streams.

In most all ways, the same can be said of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem itself, which specializes mostly on programs focused on people gathering in large numbers or sitting across a table from one another — things that can’t be done during a pandemic. Agencies within the ecosystem have been pivoting and adjusting as well.

This is especially true of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), the nonprofit based in Springfield’s Innovation Center, which is in the midst of what interim Director Chris Bignelli, a partner with the Alchemy Fund, calls a ‘reset.’

That’s the word he chose to describe a retrenching after most of the agency’s staff members left within a week of each other last spring, and after COVID prevented it from staging any of the large gatherings for which it became known — not only here, but across the state and beyond.

“Our mentors advise entrepreneurs about the importance of pivoting and changing directions when needed, and we’re doing the same,” he said, adding that the pandemic and other forces are compelling the agency to look inward and find new and perhaps different ways to provide value to entrepreneurs while also providing support to other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners.”

As VVM resets and reinvents, though, work within the ecosystem goes on during these trying times — despite COVID, and in many cases in an effort to help business owners survive it.

People like Juan and Elsie Vasquez. They operate 413 Family Fitness in Holyoke, a business that, like most all gyms, was devastated by the pandemic. With help from those at EforAll Holyoke, the couple has pivoted to everything from outdoor classes to staging quinceañeras, or sweet-15 birthdays (a tradition among Hispanics), and leasing out their space to third parties (more on that later).

Meanwhile, another initiative within the ecosystem, WIT — Women Innovators and Trailblazers — is continuing its mentoring program despite COVID, and is preparing to embark on its third cohort of matches.

Leah Kent

Leah Kent says the mentor she’s been matched with through the WIT program, Melissa Paciulli, has helped her set firm goals for her business and move out of her comfort zone.

The second cohort, featuring 45 teams, up from 20 in the first, was started just before the pandemic shut things down, noted Ann Burke, vice president of the the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts and one of the architects of the program, adding that she had some concerns about whether those matches could withstand COVID and its highly disruptive nature.

But for the most part, the partnerships persevered, and many have the legs to continue even after the formal program is over.

“We were really trying to see what would happen with the cohort and how they would respond with all that was happening,” said Burke. “I thought most of them would just throw up their hands and say, ‘we can’t do this’ amid all the business issues, personal issues, and issues at home. But for the most part, that’s not what happened.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the local entrepreneurship ecosystem and how it is carrying on through the pandemic, providing more evidence of its importance to the region.

Keep on Trucking

Flashing back several months and then fast-forwarding to today, Ortiz described the process of opening with a single word — ‘crazy.’

That sentiment applied to everything from getting her truck outfitted for the road — meaning wrapped with her logo and fully equipped — to buying all the supplies she needed (which meant going to the grocery store a number of times), to getting those aforementioned permits and approvals. Work started later than she wanted, and everything was made more difficult by the pandemic.

“Most of March and half of April, I called a halt to everything,” she said, noting that she bought the truck in February, but, because of the pandemic — and also the fact that she was still in school, which was also more complicated — she wasn’t able to advance her plans. “And then I started to feel more comfortable, and by the end of the April, I was going full speed.”

Or at least the speed at which City Hall would allow her to travel.

Now that she’s open, all that craziness seems like a distant memory, and business is, as she noted, exceeding expectations.

“We’ve been busy every day, and we usually sell out by the end of the day,” she said, noting that Craze features tacos, rice bowls, vegetarian and vegan dishes, and more, and uses social media to connect with potential customers. “COVID might actually be helping because people don’t want to go to restaurants.”

She credits EforAll — she was the first-place winner in its recent winter accelerator — with helping her get the doors open, especially with such matters as insurance and accounting, but also focusing on the model she wanted and the service she wanted to provide.

And such work is carrying on in the COVID-19 era, although it’s somewhat different and also in some ways more challenging, said Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we can continue to offer a lot of the services that we provided before the pandemic in a virtual format,” she explained. “And we made that pivot very quickly, out of necessity.”

Elaborating, she said the agency was in the final stages of its winter cohort when the pandemic hit, and quickly shifted to not only a virtual platform, but a somewhat different purpose as it helped both those cohort members and other small businesses cope with everything that was happening.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners,” she explained. “We felt like there were a lot of things out of our control, but what we did want to do was support them, whether it was with help navigating PPP loans or even just applying for unemployment. We were doing a lot of one-on-one support and just helping people however we could.”

“It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

And such help was certainly needed, she said, adding that, in the case of PPP, many small businesses didn’t know if they were eligible, and if they were, they certainly needed assistance with paperwork that most established businesses turned over to a seasoned accountant. Meanwhile, a number of local, state, and federal grant programs emerged, and small businesses needed help identifying which ones might be appropriate and then navigating the application process.

Beyond that, EforAll also helped some businesses identify ways to pivot and find new revenue streams in the middle of a pandemic, Murphy-Romboletti said, adding that such assistance was provided to restaurants — helping them move beyond takeout and Grubhub, for example — and to other kinds of ventures, like 413 Family Fitness, which is one of those businesses that just ‘graduated’ from the most recent accelerator.

Like all fitness centers across the state, this operation had to shut down back in the spring, said Elsie Vasquez, forcing the company to pivot. It did so by offering classes online, then a shift to outdoor classes, more one-on-one personal training, and finally a reopening of the studio in July, with a host of restrictions.

“We’ve even done some space rental to bring in some revenue,” she told BusinessWest, adding that EforAll has been invaluable in helping to not only identify ways to generate business, but make them reality.

“The biggest thing we learned is that we have to pivot our business,” she explained. “We came in with an idea of what we wanted to do, and it’s been working out OK, but EforAll really opened our eyes to the fact that we have to think differently, and that your beginning result may not be your end result.”

In Good Company

While companies are pivoting, so too are some of the agencies within the ecosystem that serves them. And VVM is probably the best example.

Hope Gibaldi, who was serving the agency in a part-time role when the pandemic hit and is now full-time, serving as engagement manager, told BusinessWest that the agency has had to readjust as a result of the pandemic and its inability to stage the large gatherings it became known for.

Meanwhile, is doing what its mentors advise entrepreneurs to do — assess needs within the community and go about meeting them.

“There were listening sessions prior to the pandemic,” she noted, “and we’ve been taking the priorities identified during those sessions with an eye toward addressing them, while also trying to figure out how we can continue to provide value to entrepreneurs during COVID and what programming might look like when we come out of COVID.”

Elaborating, she said hybrid models blending in-person and remote programming are being considered, while, in the meantime, the agency is creating ways to bring people together on a remote basis to share ideas and work through common problems.

One such program is the introduction — or reintroduction, to be more precise — of ‘Entrepreneurial Roundtables,’ a peer-led “accountability group,” as she called it, that meets via Zoom.

“It’s a place where mentors and entrepreneurs can come and address their challenges,” Gibaldi explained. “It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

Other initiatives already in place or in the planning stages, she said, include everything from the agency’s once-thriving Community Nights (now handled remotely) to expert-in-industry mentorship, to a book club, to be launched in January, focusing on offerings in entrepreneurship, marketing, personal and professional growth, and more.

Overall, VVM looks a little different, but its mission hasn’t changed, Gibaldi said, adding that it is working to partner with other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem to help them succeed.

One example is WIT, and helping to recruit mentors for that program, which has thus far created dozens of effective matches.

Leah Kent and Melissa Paciulli comprise one such match. The former is a writer and book designer who also helps other writers with the process of getting published, while the latter is director of the STEM Starter Academy at Holyoke Community College. Kent described the relationship as an intriguing, and effective, collision of science and creativity.

“We can understand each other quite well, but we bring different strengths,” she explained. “That complementary pairing has been so fantastic. In my work, she’s really honed in on the way that I help readers finish their manuscripts and get their work published.”

The two were part of the cohort that launched last March; the kickoff gathering was on March 12, and the next day, schools were shut down, and much of the business world ground to a halt. Kent’s original mentor was not able to continue participating because of the pandemic, so she was reassigned, if that’s the right word, to Paciulli, whom she credits with taking her outside her comfort zone and helping her set the bar higher professionally and personally.

Paciulli said Kent is her second match through WIT, and one of many business owners and students she has mentored over the years. She finds the work invigorating and rewarding, especially when the mentee is coachable and open-minded — like Kent.

“When you’re working with entrepreneurs and they’re coachable, and they take action on your direction, because it’s an iterative process of finding your product, getting it to market, and pivoting when you need to … it’s a super-cool experience to be part of one’s journey in that way,” she said. “When they’re coachable and they’re action-oriented — and she is — it’s awesome.”

Where There’s a Will…

Summing up what the past seven months or so have been like for entrepreneurs and small businesses, Murphy-Romboletti said it’s been a continuous run of challenges that have tested them — and her agency — in every way imaginable.

In many ways, COVID-19 and everything it has thrown at these businesses only reinforces what she pretty much already knew.

“What always inspires me about entrepreneurs is that, if you tell them ‘no,’ they just say, ‘OK, let me find out a way to make this work,’” she said.

Many have been doing just that, providing more evidence of their resiliency and more reminders of the importance of the entrepreneurship ecosystem to this region and its future.

The pandemic has slowed some things down and added to the already-long list of hurdles entrepreneurs have to clear, but it certainly hasn’t stopped people like Nicole Ortiz — and countless others — from getting down to business.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

Over the years, we’ve written a number of times about the importance of promoting entrepreneurship and mentoring those trying to start and grow their own businesses.

This component of economic development, one that is often overlooked amid efforts to attract large businesses, open new industrial parks, and grow new business sectors like biotech, is vital because small businesses have always been the key to the growth and vitality of individual communities and regions like Western Mass.

Just as important, these small businesses — everything from restaurants to dry-cleaning establishments; from dance studios to clothing stores — help give these communities their identity and make them more livable.

And that’s why we’ve been a strong supporter of what has become a movement of sorts in this region to encourage entrepreneurship and help those who have made the decision to put their name over the door — figuratively if not, in many cases, literally. Within this movement has been the creation and development of what’s been called the entrepreneurship ecosystem, which has many moving parts, from agencies that support entrepreneurs to colleges with programs in this subject, to venture-capital firms that provide the vital fuel to help businesses get to the next stage.

This ecosystem has always been important, but it’s perhaps even more important now in the middle of this pandemic. That’s because — and you know this already, but we need to remind you — a large number of small businesses are imperiled by this crisis. Their survival is not assured by any means, and as the calendar turns to fall — with winter not far behind and no relief in sight from this pandemic — uncertainty about the fate of many businesses only grows.

As the story on page 6 reveals, agencies and individuals that are part of the ecosystem have been working to help businesses navigate their way through this whitewater, be it with help securing a grant from the local chamber of commerce or a Paycheck Protection Program loan, or making a successful pivot to a different kind of service or a new twist on an old one that would help with all-important cash flow.

Meanwhile, the work of mentoring those in business or trying to get into business goes on, often with powerful results, as that same story recounts. Initiatives such as WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) creates matches that provide rewards to both parties, but especially the young (and, in some cases, not so young) women working to turn ideas into businesses and smaller businesses into larger, more established ventures.

It would have been easy to put such initiatives on the shelf for several months until the pandemic passes, but we don’t know when it’s going to pass, and the business, if we want to call it that, of supporting people like Nicole Ortiz, who recently put her food truck on the road in Holyoke, and Leah Kent, who wants to grow her business that supports writers and helps them get works published, must go on.

And it does, because, as we said, the creation and development of small businesses isn’t just one component of economic-development activity in this region; it is perhaps the most important component of all. v

Features

Casting Call

Laura Teicher and Adam Rodrigues, seen here at FORGE’s satellite office in the Springfield Technology Park, say the agency is more than living up to its new name.

The agency formerly known as Greentown Learn has been rebranded as FORGE, a name that more effectively speaks to its mission of making connections between entrepreneurs and manufacturers that can create prototypes of their products or actually produce them. Since its inception, FORGE has facilitated such connections for nearly 200 companies, helping improve the survival rate of such ventures while also bringing more work to a number of area manufacturers.

Neil Scanlon equated it to a sales force — a different kind of sales force, to be sure.

He was referring to the agency now known as FORGE and formerly known as Greentown Learn — a rebranding was deemed necessary, and we’ll get into that in some detail later — the nonprofit arm of Greentown Labs in Somerville, which loudly proclaims itself the “largest clean-technology incubator in the United States” and “the best place in the world to build a clean-tech hardware company.”

FORGE was created to help those entrepreneurs developing this hardware to create prototypes and find manufacturers that could build the products they’ve developed and specific components for them — more specifically, manufacturers in Massachusetts and especially Western Mass.

Indeed, one of the primary goals behind FORGE was to build what’s being called an east-west connection — products developed in the eastern part of the state and prototyped and produced in the western region. It’s still a work in progress, but there have been a number of matches made, including several with Scanlon’s company, Worthington Assembly in South Deerfield.

“It’s like a sales force in a way — not a traditional sales force in most respects. It’s giving recognition to a manufacturer that might be able to help a startup — a connection that might not have happened otherwise.”

He’s not sure exactly how many of these matches have been made because many of the orders are placed through a sophisticated online system. But he’s quite sure that a good number of boxes heading out the door are bound for Somerville.

“Worthington ships to Greentown quite often, and I don’t always know how that connection was made,” he said, adding that he does know that his firm, which specializes in circuit-board assembly and has customers in many different sectors, has gained some new customers through FORGE.

“It’s like a sales force in a way — not a traditional sales force in most respects,” he went on. “It’s giving recognition to a manufacturer that might be able to help a startup — a connection that might not have happened otherwise.”

This is exactly what those at Greentown Labs had in mind when they created its sister organization, now known as FORGE, said Laura Teicher, the agency’s executive director.

As she talked with BusinessWest in FORGE’s satellite office in the Springfield Technology Park in Armory Square, she said the nonprofit is succeeding with its basic mission of helping to see that products blueprinted in Massachusetts are prototyped and manufactured here, when possible.

“Through its Western Mass. office, FORGE is able to engage a critical cluster of precision manufacturers in producing prototypes, early runs, and production at scale, deepening the east-west link between Eastern Mass. startups and Pioneer Valley manufacturers that was started with the support of leadership in the House of Representatives,” she said.

Startups like RISE Robotics, which is working to replace energy-intensive hydraulic systems with clean and efficient electronic models, and has engaged area manufacturers such as Peerless Precision and MTG Inc., both in Westfield, to create prototypes.

And like Clean Crop Technologies (CCT), a Haydenville-based startup working to solve the crisis of aflatoxin infection in grain and nut crops, which reportedly causes more than 100,000 deaths and $1.7 billion in lost revenues each year, especially in developing countries.

Led by co-founder and President Dan White, the company has, through FORGE, connected with Newbury, Mass.-based Product Resources to create a prototype of a post-harvest assembly-line-like fumigation process that removes up to 90% of aflatoxin from crops in less than 20 minutes.

But White noted that some components for this system, which he equated to the sandwich-making line at Quiznos, may be produced by manufacturers in the 413.

For area manufacturers, meanwhile, FORGE acts as that sales force that Scanlon mentioned by introducing entrepreneurs to area shops and acquainting them with their capabilities. And most need some help in this critical step in bringing a product to the marketplace, because they don’t know what skills are needed or how to find a firm that possesses those capabilities.

“Greentown Labs is inventing products in Massachusetts, and FORGE’s mission is to make sure they’re made in Massachusetts,” said Kristin Carlson, president of Peerless Precision, adding that she conducts ‘lunch and learns’ in Somerville and takes other steps to educate entrepreneurs not only about the firms in the area and what they can do, but also how to approach manufacturers, what those shops need to submit a quote, and about the higher quality they’ll get if they choose a Baystate firm instead of one overseas.

Scanlon agreed. “It’s not easy to figure out who might be a good match just by doing Google searches,” he said. “Especially when it comes to small, Western Mass. shops that are not strong in marketing themselves — that’s where FORGE comes in.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with manufacturers and entrepreneurs alike to find out how FORGE is living up to its mission — and its name.

Testing Their Metal

Teicher told BusinessWest that, even as she was being interviewed for the job of executive director of Greentown Learn more than a year ago, she was thinking the agency’s name didn’t effectively convey what it was all about, and that it needed to be changed.

And when she won the job, she made it one of her first priorities to orchestrate a rebranding.

This was a months-long process, she noted, adding that the agency wanted a name that reflected its mission, a task made more difficult by the fact that most words associated with manufacturing, making, metalworking, and so on were not usable because they’d been copyrighted or trademarked, or incorporated into a URL.

“It might be six months or 12 months later that you hear from the entrepreneur who has a set of fabrication files, and they need something quoted.”

“Any cool name that you can come up with that signals hardware has been taken,” she said, adding that some that weren’t already taken came with other problems, or baggage.

Like ‘KINECT,’ a brand option that was one of several finalists, if you will. It’s a play on words, and an effective one, blending ‘connect’ with ‘kinetic energy.’ Problem was, said Teicher, that research revealed this same name was attached to a failed Super Nintendo app.

“We were very close; we were attached to it for a while,” she said. “It was great because we’re forging connections, we’re working with physical products, and it’s pretty simple. But we didn’t want to be mixed up with a failed product at all. And there’s something a little childish about it because of the K’Nex toys — so we didn’t want that association, either.”

Kristin Carlson says FORGE helps educate entrepreneurs on the capabilities of Bay State shops and also the advantages to getting work done in the Bay State instead of overseas.

Eventually, those involved with the process settled on FORGE, which is not an acronym for anything (the capital letters are used for emphasis), but a name that drives home that ‘forging relationships’ is a critical part of the equation.

Which is important because, while the companies at Greentown Labs are pushing the envelope when it comes to clean-tech hardware, they often struggle to find partners to take their concepts off the drawing board — or the computer image, as the case may be.

And they are likely unaware of the large and in many ways historic precision-manufacturing sector in the Pioneer Valley, a sector born, in many respects, essentially where that satellite office is located, within what was the Springfield Armory complex.

FORGE makes introductions to companies in a number of ways. It organizes tours — manufacturers we spoke with said they have hosted a number of visits as a result of the initiative — and also helps companies draft requests for proposals for specific projects. And it organizes events such as the first annual Supplier and Innovation Showcase at Greentown Labs.

The gathering was designed to support connection-building efforts between inventors and makers, and it drew more than 200 attendees from the innovation and manufacturing ecosystems, said Teicher, who noted that, since its inception in 2015, FORGE has helped more than 190 startups source their supply chain with what she called “right-fit and ready local connections to manufacturers,” thus helping them over some critical humps that often derail such ventures.

“These startups have an 85% survival rate to date, far exceeding national standards, proving that FORGE has identified and provides a critical intervention for these startups,” she told BusinessWest, adding that programming has led to more than 130 contracts to manufacture innovative physical products and components in the region, infusing a known economic value of roughly $11 million — and counting.

The Western Mass. satellite office plays a key role in these efforts, said Adam Rodrigues, director of Regional Initiatives, adding that it serves as a clearinghouse for connecting startups with area manufacturers, often through those aforementioned tours, which are often eye-opening.

Companies may or may not be ready to seek manufacturing help when they take the tour, he added, but they’ve made a connection and generally go home with a business card. And when they are ready, they use it.

Scanlon agreed.

“Oftentimes, the connection may happen much later — it’s not right after the tour,” he explained. “It might be six months or 12 months later that you hear from the entrepreneur who has a set of fabrication files, and they need something quoted.”

Getting a Lift

The case of RISE Robotics, which has recently ‘graduated’ from Greentown Labs and is now operating in Somerville, exemplifies just how FORGE makes those connections.

Arron Acosta, co-founder and CEO, told BusinessWest that the company is making strides in its efforts to create a ‘green’ alternative to energy-intensive hydraulic systems used in everything from fork trucks to bulldozers to tractor trailers. Through FORGE, the company was connected with three manufacturers with the requisite capabilities, including Peerless and MTG, to produce prototypes of the RISE cylinder, which, according to the company’s website, “delivers hydraulic-like performance in a simple, maintenance-free and fluid-free package.”

The prototypes developed by the firms in this region have not moved to the production stage for various reasons, he said, but the experience of working with those firms has been very beneficial on the company’s long climb to find the optimal market fit.

CCT is another solid example of how FORGE works, said Teicher, noting that the nonprofit not only connected the company with relevant manufacturers, but also helped it find R&D lab space in Haydenville and at the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst that allowed it to remain in Western Mass.

White said the ag-tech startup combines air with electricity to degrade contaminants in food and is focusing much of its energies on combating alfatoxins on peanuts.

“But as a technology and as a venture, we’re looking much bigger and broader than that over the long term,” he told BusinessWest. “By sterilizing the surface of foods with these ionized gases, we can get up to two to three times shelf-life extension for perishable foods; for example, we’ve been treating blackberries, and we’ve been able to get an additional five days of shelf life in the refrigerator because we’re knocking off that surface mold while otherwise not affecting the quality of the food.”

White said the company, looking to scale up, was drawn to the Bay State and, more specifically, Western Mass. — instead of Virginia, where his partner in the venture was living — because of the extensive innovation ecosystem in the Commonwealth.

And FORGE is a big part of this ecosystem.

“Fairly early on, in April or May, I can’t remember how, but I found out about Greenfield Learn,” he explained. “And they were extremely helpful in connecting me very quickly to a range of product-prototyping and manufacturing partners that I had no idea existed here in Massachusetts.”

Those thoughts sum up why FORGE was created — to give entrepreneurs an idea of the shops that exist and their capabilities, but also some education in why firms in the Bay State are often their best option, said Carlson, who, like Scanlon, sits on the board of advisors for the nonprofit agency.

She told BusinessWest that, oftentimes, entrepreneurs are looking for “cheap and fast” to get a prototype out the door.

“One of the goals at FORGE, and also within the firms in Western Mass., is to educate these entrepreneurs that, in Massachusetts, you get what you pay for,” Carlson went on. “You’re not going to get something you didn’t order.”

Jack Adam, vice president and co-owner of MTG, agreed. He said his firm, which provides a wide range of services, including high-volume laser cutting, welding, machining, precision forming, and more, works with clients — and RISE Robotics is one of them — to look at products and “make them more manufacturable,” as he put it.

“We support the OEMs and new-company startups to some degree, to come up with a product that’s manufacturable — we try to tell them that, ‘if you do it this way, instead of that way, you can eliminate a lot of welding, save some money, be more cost-effective, and be more competitive out there,’” he said, adding that this is the kind of support it provided to RISE Robotics as it helped the company produce close to 20 prototypes of its products.

And while helping startups by providing such services, these manufacturers are also helping themselves become more nimble and more competitive, said Scanlon, adding that it also helps them think more globally.

“It gets them thinking that there’s more out there than defense work, there’s more out there than United Technologies work,” he noted. “Meanwhile, these projects will be a little more challenging, they’ll be a little more cost-sensitive. It’s kind of like working out; it gets you more fit — it gets your business more fit.”

Parts of the Whole

As he talked with BusinessWest about RISE Robotics and the team behind it, Adam said, “they’re trying; they’re young folks, and they’re pretty talented. They’re going to hit some home runs someday, and they’re getting pretty close.”

With that, he described most of the startups at Greentown Labs and those who have graduated as well. Many are getting close, and a good number are potential home-run hitters.

To clear the bases, though, most need help taking a product from the concept stage to the prototype stage to the production line. And the aptly named FORGE is helping companies find that help.

As Scanlon noted, it’s become a different kind of sales force, and a very effective one.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Pivotal Support

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

The agency is called SPARK EforAll Holyoke. It represents a merger of SPARK Holyoke, an entity created to inspire and mentor entrepreneurs, and EforAll, the Lowell-based organization that has created an effective model that does essentially the same thing. By whatever name it goes, the agency is helping to spur business ownership among minorities, women, and other constituencies, and it is already changing the landscape in the Paper City.

They call it ‘Everything Sauce.’

That’s the name India Russell and Lamont Stuckey gave to a product that is now the main focus of a business they call Veganish Foodies.

This is a company, but also a mindset and what the partners call a “lifestyle brand for anyone making the change to ‘healthy living.’” Elaborating, they told BusinessWest that veganish foodies are individuals who love food and are ready to explore the more-healthy vegan lifestyle one meal at a time by substituting their favorite foods with healthier alternatives or ingredients.

The Everything Sauce? That’s part of it. It’s something they concocted themselves as a spicy alternative to other things people put on their food and something that may make the healthier foods in a vegetarian or vegan diet more, well, palatable.

“It has an alternative to soy … it has different spices to give you flavor … it has an alternative to sugar in there,” said Stuckey, trying hard not to identify any secret ingredients. “It’s all blended together to give you a sweet heat that makes all kinds of foods taste better.”

As noted, this sauce has become the main focus of this business venture since the partners became involved with a program called SPARK EforAll Holyoke, the latest branch office (if that’s the proper term) of an agency that started in the Lowell-Lawrence area of the state in 2011 and has expanded to a number of small and mid-sized cities, including Holyoke, that share common challenges and demographic profiles (more on that in a bit).

Overall, EforAll, short for Entrepreneurship for All, is an agency that essentially promotes its chosen name, specifically in cities that have large ethnic populations but few resources for individuals with entrepreneurial energy and drive.

Holyoke certainly fits that description, and EforAll became part of the landscape in the city when those managing the agency known as SPARK decided last year to merge with EforAll and fully embrace its model, said David Parker, CEO of the organization.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director EforAll, Alex Morse, was encouraged by the progress being made in her hometown, and wanted to play a bigger role in those efforts.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director EforAll, Alex Morse, was encouraged by the progress being made in her hometown, and wanted to play a bigger role in those efforts.

Like the better-known Valley Venture Mentors, SPARK EforAll Holyoke features mentoring, accelerator programs, pitch contests, and other forms of programming to help participants take an idea and eventually transform it into a business — while also helping them avoid many of the mistakes that turn businesses into casualties, said Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, the agency’s executive director. But its work generally involves a different constituency.

“The people we’re working with … they’re not necessarily making the next big mobile app or finding a cure for cancer — although they might be,” she explained. “They may just be running a cleaning business, but that’s feeding their families. Being able to work with people who may have never considered themselves entrepreneurs, and being able to show them that they’re able to do that, I think that’s what makes us unique.”

As for Russell and Stuckey, they became part of the accelerator class at SPARK EforAll Holyoke that graduated late last month during ceremonies at Wistariahust Museum, a fitting location because it was the home of William Skinner, one of Holyoke’s most noted and inspirational entrepreneurs.

“The people we’re working with … they’re not necessarily making the next big mobile app or finding a cure for cancer — although they might be. They may just be running a cleaning business, but that’s feeding their families. Being able to work with people who may have never considered themselves entrepreneurs, and being able to show them that they’re able to do that, I think that’s what makes us unique.”

Their mentors helped persuade them that making Everything Sauce shouldn’t be one small aspect of their venture — it should be the main focus. And they followed that advice, securing space in a commercial kitchen (Cornucopia Foods in Northampton) to scale up production, a process that is ongoing; you can now buy a bottle (price tag: $12) at Cornucopia or Crispy’s Wings-N-Fish in Springfield.

“When we came to SPARK EforAll, they really helped us organize ourselves and focus more on our sauce,” Russell explained, adding that the partners had several products and services, ranging from a 40-day cleanse to a seven-day challenge, but their mentors narrowed the company’s focus to something scalable and something it could sell.

In entrepreneurship circles, they call this a pivot, said Murphy-Romboletti, adding that such moves are usually vital to shaping a developing concept into a growing business.

And there was a lot of pivoting going on with the latest accelerator class, she noted, adding that it included eight companies, four of which split $5,000 in prize money to help take their ventures to the next step.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the entrepreneurs behind those prize-winning ventures to gain some perspective on SPARK Efor All and its growing impact within the region’s entrepreneurial infrastructure. Those companies came away from the ceremonies with one of those large ceremonial checks, but the reality is that they won much more than that — specifically a better road map for taking their business on the path to success.

Positive Steps

Alex Sandana told BusinessWest that he had aspirations to be a professional dancer while growing up. But his family was sternly tested by the expensive classes and training it would take to make that dream reality.

So he can certainly relate to the young people he’s now giving lessons to in a studio on High Street in Holyoke he calls Star Dancers Unity.

He opened it in 2013, and, like most people in business for any length of time, said his experience has been a roller-coaster ride — meaning both ups and downs.

Alex Sandana with some of his students at Star Dancers Unity.

Alex Sandana with some of his students at Star Dancers Unity.

Things have become somewhat less turbulent since he became involved with SPARK EforAll Holyoke, a step he wishes he had taken much sooner.

“I got into this knowing … zero,” he recalled. “I had an idea of what I was getting myself into, and I knew that Holyoke needed a place where kids could be themselves and not be burdened by the high tuition that other dance studios charge. But I never had any experience in business; I was learning as I was going.

EforAll has helped him expand the portfolio, if you will, serving not just young people, but also providing lessons, and choreography, for weddings and quinceañeras, the fiestas staged for girls turning 15 — that Latin equivalent of the sweet-16 party.

“I was able, with the help of my mentors, to identify other ways to generate revenue,” said Saldana, adding that this more-diversified business has much greater growth potential.

Helping business owners execute such changes and key pivots is essentially the mission statement at SPARK EforAll Holyoke, said Murphy-Romboletti, 29, who worked for several years as the executive assistant, scheduler, and press secretary for Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who coaxed her into returning to her hometown after she relocated to Brooklyn, feeling, as many young people did and still do, that she had to leave this area to find what she was looking for.

As she explained how she took the reins at the small agency, she said she watched as many of Morse’s initiatives in the broad realm of economic development — from promotion of the arts to development of an innovation district to programs to inspire and support entrepreneurship — began to change the landscape.

And she decided she wanted to be part of it.

“A position opened up in planning and economic development,” she recalled. “I loved working with the business owners in our community, and there were so many cool projects happening, especially in the downtown, so it seemed like a natural next step.”

One that led to another step when the directorship of SPARK came open. That provided an opportunity to work on a project she helped get off the ground while working in the mayor’s office.

“I loved working with the business owners in our community, and there were so many cool projects happening, especially in the downtown, so it seemed like a natural next step.”

“I was able, through my job at City Hall, to be there for the early planning stages for SPARK,” she recalled, noting that the initiative was funded through a Working Cities Challenge grant. “I loved it; I thought, ‘what an awesome opportunity to create an entrepreneurship program that’s inclusive and empowering and not your typical accelerator.’”

Those sentiments help explain why and how SPARK came to merge with EforAll. Holyoke’s demographics are similar to those in other cities it serves — 51% of its residents are Hispanic, and 9% of its businesses are owned by Latinos — and there is a need for services to help that latter number rise. Meanwhile, EforAll had an established model generating measurable results in other communities.

Getting Down to Business

Thus, she now leads what amounts to the latest in a series of expansion efforts for EforAll, which, after being launched in Lowell-Lawrence, has subsequently added offices in New Bedford, Fall River, Lynn, and Hyannis (an office that serves the entire Cape), as well as Holyoke.

The business model for the agency — launched under UMass Lowell with initial funding from the Deshpande Foundation and known originally as the Merrimack Valley Sandbox — involves working in communities, and with individuals, who are generally underserved, at least when it comes to initiatives within the broad realm of entrepreneurship.

“Generally speaking, this means immigrants, people of color, women, those who are unemployed, veterans, people returning from incarceration … those are the kinds of communities we look for,” Parker explained. “And we want to encourage people with ideas for businesses — we don’t give them ideas — to come to our programs, share their ideas, and see if we can help them get those businesses started.”

There are a number of measures for success, he said, including the number of businesses launched (both for-profit and nonprofit in nature), jobs, sales, and the capital raised for those ventures, he went on, adding that there have been a number of success stories as well.

The one cited most often is that of Danaris Mazara, who came to this country from the Dominican Republic at age 22.

Parker, who has told the story often, said that, after her husband was laid off from his job and the family began to struggle, Mazara took food stamps her mother gave her to buy groceries and instead bought ingredients for flan, a popular Dominican dessert. She made enough to sell to her co-workers and friends and made $500 in a few weeks.

Fast-forwarding a little, Parker said EforAll helped her move the flan operation out of her home and into a commercial bakery that she now owns by helping her secure a loan. It also assisted with product lines, pricing, and other aspects of the business. Today, she has 13 employees and is already looking for a larger bakery.

The EforAll model itself is scalable, said Parker, adding that the agency is certainly in an expansion mode. Indeed, now that it has shown that its formula for bolstering a community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem works in several Bay State cities, EforAll is ready to embark on expansion into other areas of the country.

“We hope to announce new EforAll programs in other states within this year,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the goal is to have another four sites by the end of this year, another six by the end of 2020, and perhaps as many as 50 in the years to come.

Julie Molianny and Rashad Ali, who launched Cantina Curbside Grill, a food truck featuring Latin fusion items, aspire to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.

Julie Molianny and Rashad Ali, who launched Cantina Curbside Grill, a food truck featuring Latin fusion items, aspire to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.

Meanwhile, in Holyoke, SPARK EforAll is getting set to open co-working space in a building on High Street — the doors will likely open in May — and thus take its mission to a still-higher level. Funded by a MassDevelopment Collaborative Workspace grant, the 1,500-square-foot facility has a large room that can accommodate perhaps 20 desks and several smaller cubicle-like areas, said Murphy-Romboletti, adding that there is obvious need for such space in Holyoke, and she expects that it will be well-received.

At the same time, the agency’s mentoring and accelerator programs are helping a number of entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs move their concepts forward.

The 12 weeks of classes — two classes a week — are “intense,” Murphy-Romboletti, adding that each company is assigned a team of three mentors that act as an advisory panel.

“These entrepreneurs are deeply immersed in this process,” she explained. “We’re helping people navigate the challenges in front of them and do their business right.”

Spicing Things Up

People like Julie Molianny and Rashad Ali, who launched Cantina Curbside Grill, a food truck featuring Latin fusion items such as tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and more.

They started slowly in 2017, said Molianny, focusing on events on area college campuses and farmers’ markets. But the truck will soon shift into a higher gear, figuratively, she noted, adding that later this month it will be parked Monday through Friday at a still-to-be-determined location near Springfield’s riverfront.

Down the road, and probably not far down, the partners want to add a trailer to the lineup so they can handle bigger events, she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

EforAll has helped the two with the accounting and pricing sides of the ledger, said Ali, and also with focusing on not only the big picture — what’s in the business plan — but also myriad day-to-day issues involved with running a business.

“The hardest part is keeping tabs on everything, crossing all the T’s and doting all the I’s, staying on top of taxes and everything else,” he said, adding that the accelerator classes have helped the partners stay focused and organized.

Specifically, that means focused on the best options for stability and growth moving forward, which brings us back to Russell, Stuckey, and Everything Sauce, which is just one bullet point in their ever-changing business plan.

Indeed, the partners also have plans to put a food truck on the road, one that would offer what they called “plant-based alternatives,” and operate what might be considered non-typical hours.

“We want to specifically focus on food after 9 p.m., because after that hour, most eateries in this area are closed,” said Stuckey. “And what is open … let’s just say there aren’t many alternatives for healthy eating; we intend to change that.”

In the meantime, they intend to scale up their sauce. They’ve moved from a few gallons at a time in their home to four or five gallons at Cornucopia, which they found with the help of SPARK EforAll, and aspire to production runs of perhaps 200 gallons or more, perhaps at the Western Mass. Food Processing Center in Greenfield, which they also found with help from their mentors.

These mentors are entrepreneurs themselves, said Murphy-Romboletti, meaning they’ve been on the roller coaster themselves and have real-world experiences that translate into sage advice about if and how to take an idea from scratchings on a table napkin to Main Street, or High Street, as the case may be.

From left, Marcos Mateo, his mother, Madeline, and Abiel Alvarado, look to open their auto-service business in June.

From left, Marcos Mateo, his mother, Madeline, and Abiel Alvarado, look to open their auto-service business in June.

That was the case with Abiel Alvarado, his girlfriend, Madeline Mateo, and her son, Marcos Mateo. The three are going into business together, in a venture called Mateo Auto Sales, which has an interesting backstory.

Indeed, Alvarado was in the auto sales and service business in Puerto Rico, and essentially saw that business, and his life, turned upside down by Hurricane Maria. He relocated to Holyoke, where he met Madeline and expressed his desire to soon get back into business for himself. Looking for some help and direction, Madeline went to City Hall, and was soon redirected to the Chamber of Commerce and eventually SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

The three partners applied to, and eventually became part of, the latest accelerator class. Marcos Mateo told BusinessWest they’ve received many different kinds of support for their mentors.

“They provided a lot of guidance,” he said. “They lined everything up, they showed us exactly what we should be focusing on; our mentors helped us with identifying where to go and how to find information.

“We’re not just guessing and having to waste our time doing research,” he went on. “Every class was full of information we needed.”

In Good Company

Alvarado and the Mateos are currently in lease negotiations on a building, and hope to be open for business in June.

After that, they’ll begin what will likely be a roller-coaster ride, something all entrepreneurs endure. With the accelerator behind them and quarterly meetings with their mentors to continue for at least the next year, maybe the ride won’t be particularly wild or feature many significant dips.

Helping create a smoother ride is what SPARK EforAll Holyoke is all about. Its accelerator programs and other initiatives are unique when it comes to the constituency being served, but similar to others in that its mission is to open doors to business ownership and the opportunities it creates.

And that’s why these services are pivotal, in every sense of that word.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

Looking back, 2018 was, overall, a year of progress and accumulated momentum for the Greater Springfield region. As the calendar turns, we have a short wish list for 2019:

• Continued success for MGM Springfield. Not everyone is a big fan of gambling, but everyone should want this facility to not only succeed, but continue to grow and expand its influence. Most all of the things we wanted to happen with this casino — thousands of jobs, more vibrancy downtown, a boost to the convention and meetings market, and people loading ‘Main Street, Springfield, Mass.’ into the car’s GPS — have happened, and things we didn’t want to happen — traffic jams, turmoil in the labor market, and damage to other businesses — really haven’t happened. Let’s hope this pattern continues into the new year and beyond.

• More progress with helping the unemployed and underemployed get into the game. In most all respects, the economy is solid, and individual sectors are doing well. Employers are still struggling to find good help. But the regional unemployment rate remains higher than the national average, and many are still on the sidelines when it comes to the job market because they lack the needed hard and soft skills. Several area agencies and institutions, especially the community colleges, are aggressively attacking the problem, and it is our wish that these efforts generate some real results in the year to come, because, in many sectors, the only thing holding them back is securing enough talent to get the work done.

• More work to aggressively market this region and the many good things happening here. Yes, we know that Greater Springfield has come a long way since the dark days when a receiver controlled the City of Homes and its downtown was essentially dead as a doornail. But the rest of the region and the country don’t. We could wait for the New York Times and the Boston Globe to tel the story (they might get around to it someday), but we should probably tell it ourselves through targeted marketing, as other cities (New York) and states (Michigan) have done. We don’t need a catchy phrase, but we do need to get the word out. The Economic Development Council has recognized this as a priority and we hope to see some progress made in 2019.

• Continued efforts to inspire and mentor entrepreneurs. We’ve said this many times before, but need to keep emphasizing the point. The most logical way to create jobs and revitalize individual cities and their downtowns is not by luring large companies, but by building from within, by promoting entrepreneurship and then mentoring those who go into business for themselves. Yes, it takes longer, and for every Google — and we’re probably not going to get a Google — there are hundreds of ventures that fail to take flight. But we have to keep trying to build from within. We’ve made great progress in this realm through the efforts of Valley Venture Mentors and many others, and we have to continue building on the foundation that we’ve laid.

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