Small Biz Center Puts Alumni, Students Behind the Camera

Two Humboldt State alumni and two students recently teamed up to create a series of videos highlighting the work of the Small Business Development Centers of Northern California, a national program that helps local entrepreneurs and small businesses succeed.

The project was spearheaded by Ann Johnson-Stromberg, a 1997 journalism graduate and communications manager for the Northern California SBDC region at Humboldt. Produced by Johnson-Stromberg and directed by Benjamin Bettenhausen (’07, Physics), the series of ten videos captures the stories of Northern California business owners, from Crescent City, Calif., to Santa Cruz, Calif., who have benefited from the regional program. Frank Cardenas (’12, Journalism) and Jeff Cronise (’11, Film) provided interviewing and editing support.

Administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, small business development centers, or SBDC’s, are located throughout the country, frequently on college campuses. There are 35 centers in California and 10 in the Northern California Network. Drawing on the experience of regional entrepreneurs, centers provide consulting services to start-up and existing businesses on such topics as loan packaging, business plans, marketing and financial projections. Services are usually free and funded through grants and state and federal dollars.

The impetus for the video project came last year after the NorCal’s Central Coast center in Aptos, Calif., helped two budding entrepreneurs apply for a $250,000 small business loan. Thanks in large part to federal stimulus funds, the partners were able to open The Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz, an organic, locally-sustainable ice cream shop. As a token of their appreciation, the owners posted a video on YouTube thanking President Obama and other politicians for passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Not long after the video was posted, the two received a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden, followed by an invitation from First Lady Michelle Obama to be her guests at the State of the Union Address in January.

Johnson-Stromberg wasn’t looking for that sort of attention when she set out with a camera crew in late January to document small business success stories on the North Coast. What she was hoping for, she said, was to shed light on a regional program with a far-reaching impact.

“It’s pretty extraordinary to have an influence on programs that positively affect small business in the state of California,” said Johnson-Stromberg, whose office provides fiscal and programmatic oversight for 10 centers in 14 counties. “Our clients tell our story better than we do and these films provided an opportunity for the public to visualize the economic impacts of our services as well as provide students with quality work experience. It has been an extraordinary process.”

Between 2008 and 2010 the NorCal SBDC contributed to the creation of 3,700 new jobs, helped retain more than 4,200 jobs and increased sales by more than $200 million. Statewide, the California SBDC provided services to 50,000 entrepreneurs in 2010.

“These are very real impacts in Northern California and statewide,” Johnson-Stromberg said.

In November, the California State University system announced an agreement with the statewide SBDC network to focus on regional and statewide economic development by collaborating on grant and contract applications, establishing networking events with local businesses and promoting faculty research and student internships in business. Humboldt’s video project is an example of one of those initiatives.

The project not only exemplified the type of collaboration that can occur between alumni and students, but the tremendous impact that such programs have on the community and those involved.

“I hear a lot of political talk about how money spent on the government is wasted money and how the government can’t create jobs, only people can create jobs,” said project director Ben Bettenhausen, who majored in Physics and minored in Film. The experience provided a first-hand look at how the SBDC stimulates the local economy, he said.

“Small businesses are the engine of our economy and are more in touch with what people need than giant corporations,” said Bettenhausen, an independent filmmaker based in Arcata. “I was reassured knowing that our tax dollars were used efficiently. It was a great experience to see businesses that started with nothing but an idea and then through the SBDC’s assistance were able to get loans, draft business plans, start and keep their businesses and contribute to the world, which is all anyone can try to do.”

To view the videos, visit: