By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer
When Alana Ramsay was preparing to graduate from Sac State in the fall of 2020, she started looking for an internship. She ended up finding the Economic Gardening Fellows Program through the university’s career center.
She had a great experience as a diversity, equity and inclusion fellow at Sacramento-based design and marketing agency Honey. That experience set her up for success in her current role at Valley Vision, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that she learned of through colleagues at Honey.
“I definitely recommend the program,” Ramsay said. “It really is, when I think about my time at Sac State, one of the things I remember the most clearly.”
Ramsay’s experience is an example of the Economic Gardening program, run by the City of Sacramento, doing exactly what it hopes to do: keep young people in the area, working at local companies that support the regional economy.
Though the program started right before the COVID-19 pandemic began, it turns out that was the perfect time to support entrepreneurship. New business applications rose significantly in Sacramento County from 2019 to 2021, according to U.S. Census business formation statistics.
While there’s no data available reflecting how many of those businesses are Black-owned, national data suggests that minority women are one of the largest growing demographics in entrepreneurship.
The potential help posed by the program also couldn’t be more necessary than for Black-owned businesses, who faced more difficulty staying afloat during the pandemic and struggle more to scale up than White-owned businesses
According to a national report by the federal Committee on Small Business, the rate of Black business ownership dropped more than any other group (41%) between February and April 2020.
Before that business in the Black community was growing, and Pew Research found that from 2017 to 2020, the number of Black-owned companies grew by about 14%, but still only comprise about 3% of all companies. Though, Black-owned companies tend to be small. Of those companies, about 66% of them had fewer than 10 employees, and 17% had no employees.
That plays right into the purpose of the Economic Gardening program: to help a diverse array of local businesses in Sacramento grow.
While Sacramento State manages the program’s fellowship and each business in the cohort can hire an intern paid for by grant funding, Berkeley Strategy Advisors manages the businesses as each goes through the program.
Kenny Sadler, managing partner at Berkeley Strategy Advisors, said it provides in-depth research to participating businesses to help them identify areas for growth, then helps make the necessary connections to get there.
“Come with as much information as you can share with us and we’ll go to work for you, digging up useful research that not only tells you who your target market is but tells you when they’re buying – like, are they buying today, or will they be ready to buy in the summer,” he said.
While the program isn’t specifically for Black-owned businesses, it was developed with inclusivity in mind and has supported several Black entrepreneurs so far, said Aubree Taylor, a development project manager in Sacramento’s office of innovation and economic development.
“We ask for folks who either represent with their leadership, or through their company values, a focus on diversity and inclusion,” she said.
Kenneth Johnston, the “KJ” in KJ2 Productions, which he runs, is among the Black entrepreneurs who were in the Economic Gardening program’s second cohort.
He said the experience was valuable and that he gained valuable insight in recruiting new customers. Consultants analyzed the company’s on line and social media presence and engagement. “They did kind of deep dive into opportunities that we were missing.”
He did say he wished there was more peer-to-peer engagement among the cohort, but that the COVID-19 pandemic created a challenge in facilitating such networking opportunities.
Johnston still felt like he got a lot out of the experience, especially being able to take advantage of grant funding, and would recommend other minority business owners participate.
“We’re more than qualified to do the work,” he said. “It’s sometimes just having the opportunity or the exposure to do it. And sometimes minority-owned businesses, as cliche as it may sound, we are sometimes disadvantaged because we don’t have those access points. Having opportunities to be in programs like this, I think it just opens up opportunities and opens up doors.”
He also has hired two of the Sac State students who interned at KJ2 through the Economic Gardening program, paying forward his success to more young people.
Ramsay had a similar take on the importance of her experience.
“Something that I run into, just in the various things that I’ve done, whether that be volunteer work or my jobs that I’ve had is, a lot of times students of color – or just people of color, I should say – are underrepresented,” Ramsay said. “It’s really important for us to be in the room, and this was one way of us getting our foot in the door and getting ourselves in the room.”
Applications likely will open for the next cohort in late summer or early fall. More information on the Economic Gardening program can be found on the city’s website, or by reaching out to Sadler at Berkeley Strategy Advisors.
Taylor emphasized the importance of taking advantage of such opportunities from the city.
“The value that you get from this program for absolutely free, or that these businesses get for this program for absolutely free is in the thousands, tens of thousands of dollars, so it would be crazy not to take advantage of that,” she said.
Sac State students interested in a fellowship can find more information by contacting the university’s career center.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Casey Murray is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento Observer.