By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
In January 2018, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a $1.4 million grant to promote small businesses in ‘historically disenfranchised communities in Seattle.’ The Ethnic Chamber of Commerce Coalition (ECCC) received $565,960 of this sum. The ECCC includes 10 chambers and trade organizations representing ethnic communities, including the Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Latino, Vietnamese, Indian, Eritrean, and Taiwanese, as well as the LGBTQ-focused Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA), Business Impact NW, and Cascadia Consulting Group.
Calling Durkan’s grant commendable, Martha Lee, president of the ECCC, said, “The City of Seattle is thinking of minorities and disadvantaged groups and trying to do something to help.
In 2017, ECCC worked to help small businesses understand the city’s new labor laws and its impact on them. These efforts were supported through an earlier grant from the Office of Labor Standards of the City of Seattle. The ECCC collaborated with its partner groups, mentioned earlier.
“We also partnered with Business Improvement Northwest (BIN) that focuses on women, veteran-owned, and small businesses, and Cascadia Consulting, who helped us capture our ideas, organize everyone’s input, and write extensive reports,” Lee said.
Besides assembling a team, ECCC had to write a Request for Proposal defining their goals and committing to deliverables that essentially demonstrated why they would be the best organization to receive grant dollars. “It takes time, but by and large, the city responded favorably to our approach,” Lee said.
Lee has held key management and financial roles over the past 35 years, the most notable being Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer with Royal Philips Electronic Corp that included Philips Electronic North America, Philips Lighting in North America, Philips Consumer Communication in Asia Pacific, and Philips Medical Sales and Service Region in North America. Her corporate experience has set ECCC’s operations apart.
“With my corporate background, I know how things should be managed,” Lee said. Noting large amounts of data that need to be organized and reported take a special skill set, she said, “With a large group of partners, we can leverage each other’s strengths and resources to gain efficiency, collaboration, and professionalism.”
“We are very proud of our results in 2017. We over-delivered and underspent. We set a goal to do around 1,200 trainings through workshops and one-on-one consultations, and we accomplished around 1,300 trainings,” Lee said.
As a former CFO, Lee is good at managing what she has.
“I never lose money and I always over-deliver,” she said, but added it wasn’t easy. “I was worried about how we were going to make it, but as a team, you can do it,” she added. Given last year’s limited resources, this year looks promising for the organization. Lee said she is always on the lookout for self-starters join the team.
Commenting on minority business needs, Lee said, “A lot of minority and disadvantaged immigrants with small businesses don’t have money.” They are trying to make a living and don’t have a lawyer readily available.
“Many don’t have accountants to guide them about the law, that’s where we come in,” she said. ECCC’s primary objective is to help them understand and comply with labor laws.
Small businesses are competing with bigger businesses and e-commerce and what ECCC is trying to do is not easy. “It’s the labor law, it’s not sexy. It’s not how you make money and it doesn’t teach you to make money,” she said. To get people to listen and understand that they are trying to provide a service and help them is a challenge. “To help them understand that you are not representing the city, not trying to spy on them, but just trying to help them. For them to listen to you and ask questions takes time. You have to build trust and a relationship,” she said.
Learning from experiences in 2017, Lee said, “We focused a lot on difficult deliverables like training, but we are changing our deliverables a bit to have greater opportunities to reach more people, rather than sit someone down for an hour,” she said.
Lee has also had to learn things. “The process of coordinating is standardized, but outreach is customized to each community. It’s not easy because everyone has to learn,” she said. “I didn’t know about the East African culture to start with, but I learned a lot,” she added.
For Lee, there is no one special group of business owners that need help. “All equally need help in this subject,” Lee said. “Some older businesses that have been here for a long time feel they don’t need our help. Though the law is new and there is a lot they don’t know, they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s hard to earn their trust,” she added. She finds it easier with younger, newer immigrants. “They are eager to learn and want to know.
“A lot of people approached us recently about the new soda tax,” Lee said. “It’s total confusion for some small businesses that don’t know what to charge and their employees don’t know how to ring up customers,” she said, adding that Seattle has a lot of new rules.
She cited the $15 minimum wage. “It raises questions for small businesses because it’s time phased. Every year on January 1, it changes and along with it whether you offer health insurance or not, a tip or not, the dollar amount changes,” Lee said. Then, she adds things like giving employees paid personal time off, sick leave, family leave. It all has to be properly calculated and recorded.
“It’s no longer just a timesheet,” she said. “Sometimes, businesses don’t know basics like if you hire someone new, you must give them a piece of paper saying you’re hired for a certain position, who your supervisor is, what your wage is, what your overtime is,” Lee added.
The ECCC has to get business owners’ attention, but be wary of scaring them off. So, the organization takes a softer approach. They go to shopping centers or food courts at various locations. They talk to business owners or organize a group workshop.
With the Chinese community, the ECCC started with workshops.
“We leveraged our relationships with banks, lawyers, accountants, and business owners, offering to provide information to their clients. So, we reached people we wouldn’t have otherwise met,” she said.
In other communities, such as the East African and Eritrean community, representatives go door-to-door to do one-on-one outreach and education. All organizations use culturally-appropriate methods and languages to reach their business owners.
With players from diverse backgrounds, ECCC has regular meetings to share knowledge, feedback, and make sure everyone understands basics, such as what they are trying to accomplish, who they are trying to accomplish it with, and what feedback or reporting they need to do.
“Everyone learns and it’s a good way of getting to know each other,” Lee said.
After a corporate career that involved jetting across the globe to solve tough problems for Philips, Lee could have had a comfortable life going skiing or taking vacations, but she feels like she is running a startup with 14 organizations.
“The reason we have this coalition is to ensure minority communities have a voice. Single-handedly, nobody listens, and you don’t have the time for it,” she said. “Once you get involved with something and care, you want to do it right,” she added.
Having been a woman in the corporate world, Lee has been a trailblazer in her generation and has had her share of trials. Passing her wisdom down to women in the corporate world, as well as women who run small businesses, she said, “I attribute my success to my sustaining power. Push out all the politics and you still have to know what you are doing. You must know your business, then nobody can fool you. Nobody can take that away from you.”
“Learn what is culturally workable in your environment. If you know what you’re doing, work hard, are objective, and make the right decisions for your business and people, it’s only a matter of time before people realize your value,” Lee added.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.