The take-away message from the East Bay Women in Business Roundtable luncheon on April 4th was decidedly non-macho: we in the business community will thrive by helping each other out. This was no conference on how to get an edge on the competitor or how to maximize profits at the top, it was a discussion about how to optimize the interests that align across all of Oakland’s entrepreneurs and stakeholders.
The five panelists are all known for devoting their careers to sustainable business practices geared toward growing the local economy. “When you aggregate small businesses we make a major economic impact so the city needs to prioritize what is good for us as a constituency,” said Sarah Filley, co-founder of PopUpHood, the small business incubator that works block-by-block to revitalize neighborhoods in Oakland and in other cities.
One of the biggest barriers to starting and growing a business in Oakland, according to Angela Tsay, CEO and creative director of Oaklandish, is outmoded planning policies that allow storefront spaces to be occupied by things like offices when they should be filled by outward-facing businesses that generate foot traffic.
Anca Mosoiu, founder of the co-working space Tech Liminal, described a snowball effect that occurs as soon as one, and then two, retail or social venues open up on a block. “Just knowing someone is there during the day, being accountable for that space, being invested in that space, makes it much more reassuring for another business to come in,” said Mosoiu. Instead, in Oakland, said the panelists, we have a lot of non-residential strips that seem like risky places to set up.
As Sarah Filley points out, Oakland has a huge retail leakage in part because there’s no core corridor that’s associated with shopping, except for Rockridge or Piedmont which serve a very limited demographic. For that reason, the city is putting a lot of focus on attracting businesses to the Broadway corridor from Jack London all the way to 51st. “A lot of it is about perception- that these are not places you want to be walking around in to shop,” said Filley, “but with each new business the neighborhood becomes more attractive and inviting.”
“So much can be improved with better communication and coordination,” said Erin Kilmer-Neel, executive director of Sustainable Business Alliance and Oakland Grown. “You need to contract someone for this service, or you need a supplier of this product or whatever, don’t go on Amazon or find someone remote– ask around, there’s someone in Oakland.”
That kind of tight-knit local ecosystem is the key to sustainability, argued Ashara Ekundayo, Co-Founder/Chief Creative Officer at Impact Hub Oakland, the co-working space, venue and “collaboratory.” Ekundayo says the difference between sustainability and profitability, when it comes to business, is “radical inclusivity.”
Local collaboration and support can allow businesses to take risks that are usually only safe for big chains. “Look to each other, we can rely on each other,” she said.
“The difference between sustainability and profitability is just who profits,” said Kilmer-Neel. Big department stores are profitable and necessary, she argues, “but why can’t it be a collectively-owned, mostly locally-sourced department store where everyone gets a living wage,” and all the profits stay in Oakland instead of being drained to headquarter bosses?
The question that was largely left pending due to time was what role exactly should the city play in the marketplace?
How can the city be more responsive to innovation and more dynamic in its zoning?
Barbara Leslie, the newly elected (and first female) CEO of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce asked the room what the Chamber can do for them. The panelists cited high membership dues as a major deterrent. They suggested that the Chamber, which they said has been ceding relevance to the Sustainable Business Alliance, find ways to be more inclusive to micro-enterprises and sole proprietors. Ekundayo recommended stronger ties between the Chamber of Commerce and other chambers, perhaps in the form of dual or multi-chamber membership packages.