When Pat DiPrima first started to think about opening an Italian bakery and café, she asked everyone for advice. But among the best suggestions she received was to check out the Business Outreach Program at Portland State University.
"They helped me tremendously," said DiPrima, whose DiPrima Dolci Italian Bakery and Café is a neighborhood gathering spot at 1936 N. Killingsworth St. "They did everything from helping me gather data to apply for loans, to advising me on marketing and advertising plans and employee issues.
"They helped me before I opened, and I'm still here, celebrating my fourth anniversary,"DiPrima added.
The outreach program patted itself on the back last month with a star-studded celebration at the Legacy Emanuel Hospital Atrium. Former NBA All-Star and local entrepreneur Terrell Brandon was the keynote speaker at the event, which was co-chaired by Oregon Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, and Bruce Warner, executive director of the Portland Development Commission.
Joining in the celebration were the students and businesses the program has worked with. Since 1994, more than 400 companies have been helped by the program, without charge. More than 1,000 students have assisted those businesses, and, in turn, learned firsthand what it is like to be an entrepreneur. Program Director Gary Brown estimates the program has helped to create at least 150 jobs in the past three years.
"We provide long-term, hands-on technical assistance," Brown said. "We have two full-time staff members for mentoring and coaching existing and emerging businesses, and we assign student teams to work with businesses to do market research, help with business plans and do other comprehensive projects."
The program focuses on minority- and women-owned businesses in North and Northeast Portland. More than 75 percent of the business owners have incomes less than 80 percent of the area's median family income. Funding for the outreach program comes from the federal Bureau of Housing and Community Development.
The students working with the local businesses through the outreach program are juniors and seniors enrolled in the university's School of Business.
"What they bring to the table is what they do in class; they use every talent they have," Brown said. "A lot of them are adults with families, and they have been in the business world themselves."
But for many, he added, this is the first time they get real-life, hands-on experiences with small businesses.
Cody Gray, the program's assistant director, agrees. Gray, who works in the program's outreach office in the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs building, at 4134 N. Vancouver Ave., notes that business students often are taught how to work in large corporations, but they aren't exposed to the problems small businesses face.
"Two of the largest problems small businesses have are marketing and financial analysis," Gray said. "They don't know how to plan for the future so they won't run out of money in a few months."
Local entrepreneurs often ask the outreach program for money, but the only purchase the program makes is a computer software program that helps them keep their books. Accounting students train the business owners how to operate the system.
The student teams and the program's mentors don't get involved in the specifics of each business, but they do provide general assistance, Gray said.
"I don't know how to make bread, but I can look at the company's financials, he said. "We have helped contractors take a look at the jobs they're bidding on and show how to submit a bid without losing money on it. We helped several businesses that worked on the Interstate light rail project."
Back in her Italian bakery, Pat DiPrima recalls her early days working with the program's mentors.
"They helped me with difficult decisions that I wouldn't have been able to make — everything from staffing issues to the purchase of this building. They talked to me about which banks to go to and how to approach the commercial real estate market.
"They held my hand through the whole thing," she added.
In addition to giving advice, those who helped DiPrima encouraged her, she said.
"I went to other sources, but no one had the positive influence and positive focus they had. They thought I had the potential and knowledge and pointed me in the right direction."
The student teams have helped her set up computer spreadsheets that track the cost of the raw products DiPrima uses in her recipes for the breads and other bakery items. Those costs are added up for each recipe, and from that she knows how much to charge customers.
Student teams have given her advice over the past four years, and she listens. But, she notes, "The bottom line is that I'm going to make the final decision."
Now, DiPrima gives back the help she gained by talking to business students in the classes that Brown teaches. She tells them what it is like to start a second career, as she did, and to take a risk by being an entrepreneur.
Her time is a small price for the assistance she has received, she said.
"They have been an enormous help; how could I pay for a consultant to do that? It's just immeasurable."