When Kristi Whitfield, director of the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD), came to speak to the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization’s “First Friday” program on March 1, many expected her to speak in bureaucratic jargon about owning and operating a business or to serve as cheerleader for the Bowser administration.
Whitfield did those things but, more importantly, she reached out to the audience and encouraged them to “go for it” in terms of starting a business.
“You can do it,” she said. “No entrepreneur’s story is typical. I can empathize with entrepreneurs because I was one.”
In the District, there are 68,236 small businesses that constitutes 92 percent of all firms, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. In the District, 47 percent of all employees work for small businesses, according to Small Business Administration statistics.
The DSLBD seeks to help small businesses prosper in the District with startups, regulations, certifications such as Certified Business Enterprise, and technical assistance. In many ways, it serves as the local component of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Marshall Heights wants to increase the number of entrepreneurs in Ward 7 and offers various programs to help residents do that. The “First Fridays” program seeks to link budding and established Ward 7 entrepreneurs with District government officials such as Whitfield to network and learn about programs and opportunities.
Whitfield, who operated a Curbside Cupcakes food truck in the 2000s and once served as the executive director of the Food Truck Association, is an urban planner by trade, but set aside her executive wear and put on an apron to join the food service industry.
Whitfield said she faced some unusual challenges in getting off the ground.
“It isn’t easy going into business with your boyfriend,” she said. “I did this with an untested product and [at] the beginning of the Great Recession. Nevertheless, I persisted for six years and at one time I had three trucks with locations in Union Market and one briefly at Pentagon City.
“My boyfriend, who became my husband, and I decided to close it because the only life I knew had to do with the business in relation to my husband and my two boys,” Whitfield said. “While I had a great time, I dealt with such issues as employee theft and worrying whether supplies would come on time and [if] I make payroll.”
Whitfield said while co-owning her business, she heard of a proposal to shut down the food truck business and went over to the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest to investigate the matter. She talked about reaching out to her council member, who had oversight of the Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs, and the tense meeting that ensued.
“I told this council member that they needed to do this and the council member said that they were going to do that,” she said. “We went, politely, back and forth like that for a while and then I reminded the council member that if the right thing wasn’t done, I would immediately tweet what they had said to 40,000 people. Things went my way, eventually.”
In more ways than one: that terse meeting was with now-Mayor Muriel Bowser, who represented Ward 4 on the council at the time, and Whitfield said Bowser liked her tenacious nature so much that she appointed her to helm the DSLBD in March 2018.
Whitfield realizes that access to capital remains a challenge from Black entrepreneurs and said her agency doesn’t give out loans.
“However, we can work with you on getting grants and working on your business plan to get loans,” she said.
Whitfield admitted that much of her work, such as procurement procedures and vendor forms, does not seem sexy but said it is necessary.
“We are here to get where ever you are to where you think you want to go,” Whitfield said.
Babatunde Oloyede, president and CEO of Marshall Heights, agreed with Whitfield.
“I thought her comments were insightful and inspiring,” Oloyede said. “I think it is good that a former entrepreneur is leading the DSLBD. She knows what it’s like to have a small business and the dos and don’ts that can make a business a success.”