Bergen County Executive James J. Tedesco III, Bergen Community College President Eric M. Friedman, Ph.D., the Bergen County Commissioners and Bergen County Division of Economic Development Director Joanne Cimiluca have joined forces to develop a portfolio of free support services for entrepreneurs through the Bergen County Business Resource Network.
“Keeping our nearly one million residents safe by ensuring access to testing and vaccines during the pandemic was critical; simultaneously keeping those residents on their feet economically was also essential,” Tedesco said. “Bergen County was there for our local ‘mom-and-pop shops’ when the pandemic first hit by distributing over $55 million through the Bergen County CARES grant program to help keep the lights on and their doors open. But we knew we needed to do more for our small businesses who are the heart and soul of our county. We needed to provide something sustainable to help them thrive as we emerged. That’s where the Bergen County Business Resource Network comes in.”
The newly launched program features free tools such as “SizeUp” software that provides small business owners with customized data on their business and market sector they wouldn’t otherwise has access to. Students from the College serve as consultants that assist entrepreneurs with promotion, marketing and data analysis.
Buoyed by a $90,000 grant from the County to support the initiative’s execution and 16 student “small business support specialists” – including business administration student David Kim – the undergraduates have now worked with more than 150 restaurateurs, realtors and e-retailers to launch websites, disaggregate SizeUp data and write business plans.
“The Bergen Resource Network internship is really something special,” Kim said. “You get hands-on experience to learn about entrepreneurship and business consulting. Every business you help is a new opportunity to learn something new about small business and create meaningful connections with peers and business owners. My time here has been such an eventful and exciting experience.”
Though secondary to the more than six million global citizens who lost their lives to COVID-19, the virus’ crippling impact on the worldwide economy reached from Wall Street to Main Street, devastating many entrepreneurs who could least afford such disruption.
According to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Bergen County entrepreneurs disproportionately felt this pain, as small businesses in the New York metropolitan area experienced the worst economic effects due to population density, proportion of minority-owned businesses and unavoidable, prolonged lockdowns.
Business owner Mark Jefferies, who recently opened Go Fish, a Latin-fusion seafood restaurant in Teaneck, has relied upon the small business support specialists and speaks highly of them.
“The program has been a godsend to me, my partner and our restaurant,” he said. “They have been my rock to lean on in getting open and getting everything on track. Every time I’ve reached out to them for any reason – from menus to social media to attending my opening and bringing their colleagues – they’ve always come through with great ideas, encouragement and a helping hand. I wouldn’t have been able to open it successfully without them. Any business in Bergen County would be lucky to have them and take advantage of their services.”
The College’s involvement with the Bergen Resource Network represents one of the first major initiatives emerging from President Friedman’s economic recovery committee taskforce. The group, which began meeting shortly after Friedman took office in 2021, serves in an advisory capacity to him, creating and implementing strategies that position the institution as a catalyst for recovery from the pandemic.
“The committee really takes the College’s positioning as an engine for economic development and puts that work into overdrive,” Friedman said. “I’m grateful that our Bergen County government partners have embraced the opportunity to collaborate on the institution’s economic development work. I’m especially proud of our students, who are using what they have learned to make a demonstrated impact in the communities we live.”
Before becoming small business support specialists, the students benefited from one-on-one training from business mentors facilitated by County government on essential skills such as communication. The students also earn a series of digital badges summarizing their skills that they can display on their resumes and professional social media.
Friedman credits the College’s Linda Caruso, manager of the business accelerator for entrepreneurs, for working with the County to launch the program. Caruso recently received the College’s “Economic Recovery Champion” award from the president.
“The SizeUp program is mutually beneficial for students and businesses,” Caruso said. “It provides an opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience while also giving businesses access to talented students who provide free consulting services.”
The County and College previously collaborated on economic development projects such as when government officials paired the College with Volvo Car USA. The automobile manufacturer then selected faculty and students from Bergen’s hotel and restaurant management program to fully operate the company’s corporate café at its national headquarters in Mahwah.
Bergen County Commissioner Chair Tracy Zur said the public-private partnerships developed by the College and County represent models for others to follow.
“We are thrilled to provide free access to critical information and young talent to help our businesses not only survive, but thrive,” Zur said. “This exciting program provides opportunities for our students to gain invaluable real-world experience while enabling businesses to innovate.”
For more information on the Bergen County Business Resource Network, or to sign up for complimentary assistance, visit bergenforbusiness.com
Based in Paramus, Bergen Community College (www.bergen.edu), a public two-year coeducational college, enrolls more than 13,000 students at locations in Paramus, the Philip Ciarco Jr. Learning Center in Hackensack and Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands in Lyndhurst. The College offers associate degree, certificate and continuing education programs in a variety of fields. More students graduate from Bergen than any other community college in the state.