SBS Provides Equity, Access and Inclusion
By Daniel Offner
New York City Commissioner of Small Business Services Kevin Kim is all too familiar with the ins and outs of owning and operating a small mom-and-pop business.
Kim’s family immigrated to Sunnyside, Queens in 1975, when he was just five years old, and once situated in the community his parents opened up their own business—an artificial flower import and export company.
“My mother was an artificial flower designer and my father, would then take what she made and go door-to-door in the garment district until they built up a small business,” Kim said.
His family later moved to Bay Terrace, where he attended I.S. 25 on Francis Louis Boulevard, after which he attended Townsend Harris High School prior to its relocation to Queens College in 1995.
Kim went on to attend college at Stanford University in California, where he earned his master’s degree, and after spending some time studying abroad in Asia—both in Japan and at Beijing University in China—decided to head back to New York to earn his law degree from Columbia University.
Finding that this career path was not what it was cracked up to be, he decided to instead pursue a career in public service—going to work for his local congressman, former U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman.
“I had always been interested in public service,” Kim said. “Having worked for Ackerman, I learned so much. He was a great political mentor.”
After about three-and-a-half years as part of Ackerman’s administrative staff, he saw an opportunity to run for City Council, and in 2009, became the first Korean-American to ever win a primary in New York City. Unfortunately, he would lose the general election to the later disgraced City Councilman Dan Halloran, by about 800 votes.
During the campaign, he and his wife also had a newborn child, and in 2010 they decided to move closer to her job in Manhattan. There he started a couple of entrepreneurial ventures and eventually became a member of the Community Board in Midtown.
He was later appointed Commissioner of the State Liquor Authority from 2014 to 2016 and the following year was appointed to the CUNY Board of Trustees, where he helped select the president of Queens College.
Kim went back to practicing law for a brief time before being appointed Commissioner of Small Business Services by NYC Mayor Eric Adams on Jan. 19, 2022.
“One of the things I’ve already learned is how important it is to really go out and meet the small businesses where they are,” Kim said. “I’ve already had the opportunity to go on a number of corridor walks throughout the city.”
Kim said that one of his primary goals is to have corridor walks with every member of the City Council, and in his brief tenure thus far, has already toured the business districts in Jamaica, Flushing, and Astoria.
“Every time I visit a corridor, I see everything that’s good about the city. l see the challenges that we’re facing with storefront vacancies, but it’s been heartwarming and inspiring to see businesses and meet business owners that have actually launched their businesses during the pandemic,” Kim said. “For example in Jamaica, Queens, we ran into a Haitian bakery owner, Le Bon Pain. They launched during the pandemic and they’re a family-owned business. They are doing well and just the courage and resiliency to open and survive the pandemic was something that reminds me of my parents in many ways. Coming to this country, speaking very little English with very little and then working through no matter what the challenges were. A lot of immigrants just don’t have a choice, right? They have families to feed and they do whatever they need to. So that kind of fighting spirit is good to see it’s still alive and well in many areas of Queens.”
Kim said that while there is no quit in Queens, he also recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for a lot of businesses.
“Families have been experiencing tragedies and I see my role as SBS Commissioner to do everything I can to help out,” Kim replied. “I wake up every morning knowing that if I work hard and I continue to adhere to the mission of SBS we can really help so many people in need.”
In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic started, approximately 66,000 businesses in New York City have closed. This includes roughly 5,000 out of the 25,000 restaurants that were previously in operation.
During the pandemic, the department even went so far as to create a 24/7 hotline that handled over 80,000 calls for help. SBS also helped connect small businesses to a couple of hundred million dollars worth of grants and loans and formed a program called commercial lease assistance, which provided pro bono assistance for businesses to renegotiate their lease terms.
Within SBS there are four major divisions: The first, the Division of Business Services, is what people traditionally think about when they hear about SBS. This division is dedicated to helping launch, operate, and grow businesses.
The second is the Neighborhood Development Division which helps manage the 76 business improvement districts (BIDs) throughout the city.
The third is the Division of Economic and Financial Opportunity, which is in charge of all of the Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBE) certifications for New York City. Kim said that to date, there are approximately 11,000 M/WBE certified businesses.
During the pandemic over $1.2 billion in COVID-19 relief funds were awarded to MWBE businesses.
The fourth division is dedicated to managing 18 Workforce One Career Centers throughout the city, connecting job seekers with careers and job training programs.
“We are about trying to give access to capital, to give people the basic business services they need to support our neighborhoods by supporting the BIDs, and then connecting job seekers with training programs that lead to well-paid careers,” Kim said.
In addition to the department’s four main divisions, Kim said that they provide several programs and services, such as BENYC—a robust mentorship program connecting over 1500 current and aspiring Black entrepreneurs—and NYC Quick Start, which helps aspiring business owners launch their companies by providing a small business advocate to help get through the regulatory requirements.
However, it is important to note that SBS is not a regulatory agency. They only serve as an advocate, meaning that the department will do what they can to contact these agencies on the behalf of the business in order to help get through the process smoothly.
“I think what people don’t realize is that you have to think about SBS as your free business advocate,” Kim said. “We’re here, not as a regulatory agency, but to hold your hand if need be to get you through the opening and reopening process as soon as possible. That’s our sole goal.”
Compliance advisors on the other hand are trained individuals with the department who understand what the regulatory agencies are looking for when they make inspections and they provide businesses with a free preview of what is required in order to be up to code.
Back in January, Mayor Adams issued an executive order prioritizing the City’s economic recovery.
The executive order, better known as “Small Business Forward,” called for the creation of an interagency working group to closely examine the fines being issued on small businesses, with the goal of seeing which could be reduced, which warrant a warning, and which can be eliminated altogether.
“By mid-May, we will be making a recommendation to the mayor after our thorough analysis and discussions with the relevant regulatory agencies,” Kim said.
SBS is also involved in the Mayor’s economic recovery blueprint, specifically the revamping of the NYC business portal website, which will provide one-stop services for small businesses.
“We want to make it so that small business owners can really focus on what they do well, which is operating their business,” Kim said. “And it’s a challenge. It’s not easy, but we’re hoping to also look at various technology tools to coordinate this kind of schedule.”
He also understands that economic recovery actually promotes public safety.
“When commercial corridor has a lot of storefront vacancies and no foot traffic, quality of life issues arise,” Kim said. “So we do all that we can to help mom-and-pop stores reopen, grow, and thrive.”
One of the things that Kim said he hopes to accomplish as SBS commissioner is to improve the visibility of the agency.
“We have so many resources and tools to help business owners in various stages of their business life, but if people don’t know that we offer these services, all of our planning and effort goes to naught,” Kim said.
“If more people took advantage of our services, we feel that it’ll definitely speed up the reopening of businesses… it’ll definitely prompt the financial health of businesses.”
For more information on the Department of Small Business Services visit sbsconnect.nyc.gov or call (212) 513-6300.