With grant, small companies launch into the digital age

mobile sm bizBy SIMÓN RIOS
May 12, 2014 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — In spite of the seeming universality of conventions like WiFi, smartphones and HD monitors, Saenz Cafe Organico is still on the dark side of the technology divide.
That’s going to change next week, however, as the small Acushnet Avenue coffee shop will receive an arsenal of hardware, software and IT training — all free of charge.
“This is great,” said owner Karla Ayala, speaking in Spanish. “I’ve never heard of an organization helping small businesses in this way.”
With a crucifix on her chest and a well-worn Bible on the table, the Honduran-born New Bedford resident thanked God for the onrush of technology she’s set to receive. But it’s a local nonprofit that’s giving it to her, funded by a state organization that continues to hand out money from the federal stimulus package.
Along with four other Spanish-language businesses, the cafe will launch into the digital age with $6,000 in goods and services. That includes a Dell touchscreen laptop, an iPad, a mouse and color printer; Microsoft Office and QuickBooks; and $3,000 in training in their language.
Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center, said it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to make a big difference for a small business.
“For relatively short money and relatively small kinds of investments, like under $10,000, you can really transform a business and help that business get on the right footing to grow,” Williams said.
The CEDC received a $150,000 grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a state-funded nonprofit whose mission is to expand broadband (high-speed Internet) across the state. Largely free to design the program, the CEDC focused a portion of the funds on Hispanic-owned businesses, while the bulk goes to the small business community-at-large.
The Broadband Institute is targeting communities where the “technology gap” is greatest, not just in terms of access to fast Internet, but also in terms of using what’s available. Similar grants are going to economic development groups in Ware, Dorchester and Pittsfield.
The CEDC’s Ken Rapoza is doing the leg work, going into the community and assessing the tech needs of the small companies selected under the grant. He said many of them are lacking “100 percent” in technical know-how.
“They need the direction to go into that route,” he said.
“They’re going to be up to par with the competition.”
Folco Jewelers is a step ahead of many on the Avenue. They’ve already crossed the digital divide, but what they don’t have is their own computer-assisted design software, a pricey technology that represents the latest in jewelry making.
“With this software program we’ll be able to completely design someone’s ring from the bottom up, from scratch,” said Tony Folco, the third generation owner of the Acushnet Avenue jewelry store.
“We can actually design the ring at the customer’s house in the privacy of their own home.”
Folco Jewelers will get a $5,000 piece of CAD/CAM software produced by Gem Vision. They now outsource the work to companies with CAD technology, at a cost of $300. With Gem Vision installed on a laptop, Folco said he will be able to skip the middleman at a savings to the customer.
Without funding from Broadband, Folco isn’t sure he would have gotten the software.
“I would have had to save a lot of pennies,” he said.
Ben Dobbs, deputy director at the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, said the funding isn’t intended to have a broad impact on business growth. But it aims to boost efficiencies and thereby help businesses both to sustain and to grow.
“In communities like New Bedford, every little bit helps,” Dobbs said.

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