When Chef Jason Henry first decided to open Pop Art Bakeshop at 23rd and International, he had dreams of bringing good food to a place with few choices. But he quickly became overwhelmed with the amount of hoops he had to jump through to make his dream a reality.

“Zoning, the health department, the fire department,” he listed. “It was daunting.”

Chef Jason

Chef Jason Henry’s Pop Art Bakeshop got a boost of support from Oakland’s small business resources. Photo courtesy of Jason Henry

So instead of pulling his hair out, he paid a visit to the Alameda County Small Business Development Center [SBDC], which offers free seminars, low-cost technology training, and support with understanding permits and licensing. This is just what Henry got. He was carefully walked through all the steps to opening his business, was told who to talk to, what to do first, and how to do it, and was even given 10 free hours with a business consultant who helped Henry tighten up where he needed to and get things on track.

“It was a real boost for us,” Henry said, “and it didn’t cost me a dime.”

The SBDC is just one organization in Oakland that provides assistance and information for small local businesses that are just starting out or already established. Others include the Oakland Business Assistance Center [BAC], which also offers assistance with navigating the permits and licensing as well as legal help and resources for finance, and the Economic and Workforce Development Department [EWDD], which takes a big picture look at creating a vibrant economy in Oakland and acts as an information and referral portal, according to Aliza Gallo, the economic development manager of EWDD.

“Oakland’s uniqueness is in its small business community,” Gallo said, adding that up to 85% of businesses in Oakland are small businesses, employing 20 people or less. “That shows an entrepreneurial climate. We want to support that.”

According to Gallo, this mission is accomplished in a variety of ways. A large element of the EWDD is a listing of business development service providers that includes over 60 partners ranging from such big hitters as the IRS, the Federal Government and the Board of Education, to smaller organizations like microloan lenders, private banks, and the SBC and BAC.

“We work very close with a number of organizations, referring clients back and forth and making sure business owners get the assistance they need,” Gallo said.

But this assistance goes beyond the typical referral to a loan provider. Gallo is actually on the ground, checking out what’s happening in the city. That’s how she and her husband, District 5 Council Member Noel Gallo, stumbled upon Pop Art Bakeshop one year after Henry opened the doors.

“They were excited to find the bakery and the first thing they said was ‘What can we do to help?’ Henry said.

Turns out, Mrs. Gallo could do a lot. First, she got Henry a small loan through Kiva Zip, a crowdfunding microloan program that offers zero percent interest loans. Around 150 people from all over the world contributed to Pop Art Bakeshop and in two months, the funds were in Henry’s bank account.

“It was amazing,” he said. “Someone in China paid $5 for my little business in Oakland.”

After helping with the loan, Gallo continued to support Henry in other ways. She hired Pop Art Bakeshop for events, which in turn brought them more clients, and continues to promote them where she can, as she does with many of the businesses she works with.

One way she does this is through nominating Oakland businesses for various awards, including East Bay Economic Development Alliance Innovation Awards, which focuses on innovative startups. Most important, though, is the annual Inner City 100, an award program by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City [ICIC] that ranks the top 100 fastest growing companies in America’s inner cities.

“We aggressively participate in the ICIC awards,” Gallo said. And with good results: so far, a total of 53 businesses in Oakland have made it on the list over the years. For 2014, the city nominated 16 businesses. Seven made it onto the list, which is published in Fortune.

Beyond Gallo, more and more opportunities for business in Oakland continue to pop up. Most recently, the US Economic Development Administration awarded $2.5 million in grants to the HOPE Inside Small Business Empowerment Initiative [SBEI] to assist small business owners in 12 cities across the country, including Oakland.

According to Yolanda Butler, HOPE Oakland’s small business coordinator, these funds will go to continue their work providing beginning entrepreneurs with training programs, seminars, workshops and access to capital.

Other resources offered by the City of Oakland include matching grant programs for façade and tenant improvement, and retail business district grants, all of which are targeted for the downtown and East Oakland shopping districts.

But, if you ask Henry, the best resources of all for small businesses in Oakland are the organizations that helped him thrive.

“They totally saved me.”

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