Currently in the midst of a very active Business Month, observed annually in November, Barbara Innocent Charles is a woman on a mission. This week the Director of the Small Business Development Centre (SBDC) shared with us her 19-year journey within the Ministry of Commerce, serving as the head of the agency that not only provides assistance to micro and small businesses on-island but also helps turn the ideas of aspiring entrepreneurs into fully functioning businesses.
WHAT IS THE SMALL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT CENTRE?
Barbara: The Small Business Development Centre is more widely known as the Small Enterprise Development Unit (SEDU). We have been a part of the Department of Commerce from inception, in 1996. Our focus has been to develop the entrepreneurial culture in Saint Lucia. Our doors are open to all persons: everyone who wishes to set up a small business or already has a small business and wants to improve and grow. We’re here for those people who’ve come to some stumbling block and need to find a solution. We are here to help businesses get started, and help those who have already started to flourish. Our target groups are school leavers, women, unemployed persons and anyone who has a business idea or a business in existence.
WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND? HOW DID YOU BECOME A KEY MEMBER OF SBDC?
Barbara: I started with the SBDC at one of the lowest levels: Business Development Officer 1. That was almost 19 years ago, when I returned from completing my Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and Marketing. Prior to that I’d worked with the tax department, and I have experience as an auditor. I also obtained an Associate Degree – it’s a double major, in Small Business Administration and Food Production and Processing – and an MSc in Development Studies.
I came into this very fresh, very green, but very eager to learn. I learned a lot along the way. I learnt on my own, through research and other activities, through more experienced colleagues, and attending training. The field of small business is so dynamic. Even though there may be two businesses who are doing the same thing, in the sense of offering the same service, the business model is always different. Some of the challenges may be the same, but again, other challenges are different. There is always something new to learn, either from the business, the business person themselves or the fact that as policies change on the global scope, you always have to look to see what’s next; what can we do to prepare the sector for what is coming? There’s never a dull moment! You always have to be thinking of new projects, new activities or other areas of knowledge that may need to be tapped into.
PLEASE CLARIFY THE FUNCTION OF SBDC VERSUS SEDU.
Barbara: To set the record straight, we have not done away with the name SEDU. The SBDC, it’s really a model where we work closely with the private sector and academia to bring services to the business sector – to take them from idea to market. Many times agencies tend to go at it alone but we wanted to approach things in a more organised way. SEDU is the hub, and we have 13 partners on board. These include academia: the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, The University of the West Indies, Monroe College; specialty agencies like the Bureau of Standards, the Ministry of Environmental Health, the Trade Export Promotion Agency (TEPA), National Competitiveness and Productivity Counsel (NCPC), as well as financial institutions such as the James Belgrave Micro Enterprise Development Fund (Belfund) and the Saint Lucia Development Bank. We make a deliberate effort to bring our resources together, to collaborate, as this is, after all, a nation with very limited resources.
ACCESS TO FINANCE IS OFTEN CITED AS THE MAIN CONTRIBUTOR TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR’S UNDER-PERFORMANCE. HOW CAN THE SBDC ASSIST?
Barbara: When people call, their first question is usually, “How do I get finance?” Within our unit, our mandate is not to provide finance but to develop and build that individual so they become more attractive to the financial institutions; they understand how to manage their finances; they’re more disciplined. So, at the end of the day, you get people who are not just relying on government to do things for them but they understand other creative ways of solving their problems. Banks want the best for their clients but, at the same time, the client has to prove not just that the idea is viable but that they have capacity to implement the business idea. Banks are also managing other people’s money so they need to use it wisely. That’s where the value of SBDC comes in.
HOW MUCH IS THE PUBLIC TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE RESOURCES AND SERVICES THAT YOU PROVIDE?
Barbara: On a daily basis we have people coming in: persons who were referred to us, persons coming in for the first time. We do outreach in various communities; we go to schools and so on. If you’re talking about small business, there’s always someone who’s going to be doing it for the first time. We have found that no matter how much we promote our work, sometimes people don’t approach us until they get into a crisis. Maybe when someone falls into unemployment, that would be the time when they’re thinking about business. At the time when they were gainfully employed, they didn’t think about starting a business. Now, when we go to the schools, we push entrepreneurship as a career option. There are just not enough jobs available to give everyone so they have to think about self-employment, and think about it very early, because then they can start preparing and saving towards it.
WHAT KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS DOES THE SBDC USE?
Barbara: An important metric relates to the formalisation of businesses. We monitor how many clients we have helped register their business name or incorporate their business. With a registered business the client can open a bank account in the business’s name, among other things. Approximately 75% of our clients operate sole proprietorships. We also look at growth in our clients. I can proudly say that for the last three years, every year we’ve had an increase in the number of people coming for assistance, and that is due to the outreach, our partners, dedicated staff and the good quality work that we do.
TELL US ABOUT RECENT SUCCESSES OF THE SBDC.
Barbara: For the last three years or so, our clients have been able to capture the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award through the Saint Lucia Business Awards, organised by the Chamber of Commerce. This year we collaborated with the Toastmasters to help a client improve his sales pitch in preparation for an innovation competition in Mexico. SEDU/SBDC also partnered with the Saint Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association (SLHTA) in 2016 to open its membership to SBDC clients at a concessionary rate. We were also instrumental in preparing the MSE sector for the implementation of VAT through the ‘VAT Preparedness Training Programme’ in 2012. We have played a role in the development of various sectors, including the Construction, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) sector, Beauty and Wellness, Textile, Agro processing, etc.
WHERE DO YOU SEE ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES IN SAINT LUCIA IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS?
Barbara: It’s all e-business. A lot of businesses now have to have an online presence. Regardless of what you’re doing, being able to facilitate e-payments and so on, we recognize that, and one of the things the government has been doing is the Business Month, which we started in 2015. The various activities are meant to help the general public understand, and to prepare for the years ahead. One such activity is the Digital Marketing Symposium, done in collaboration with TEPA. It’s all meant to help small business developers prepare and look beyond what they’re doing today.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE ‘DOING BUSINESS IN SAINT LUCIA?
Barbara: I’ve seen us make a lot of strides, and a lot of progress in taking certain processes: something that would normally take ten days, it’s now down to five days, or maybe two. This is something we continue to work on in the process of improving the ease of doing business in Saint Lucia.