INSPIRE: Joan Powers, Director of the Small Business Development Center

By Carol Radin


Joan Powers’ job description ought to be making dreams turn real. As director of the Small Business Development Center, Joan manages an organization that offers small business entrepreneurs practical, hands-on guidance at every stage of development, with individual business consultations, workshops and technical assistance. SBDC’s success is the community’s success: the center served over 1,100 in 2017-18, including 600 new clients, all of whose businesses helped create or save 300 new jobs, with an economic impact of $12 million. Under her management, Joan has led the expansion of workshop offerings, social media presence, and professional development and networking opportunities for staff.

It has been interesting for Joan on many levels. Assisting others to change and grow enabled her to re-channel her own business skills and to draw on her personal experience with change and growth. In fact, Joan’s own background demonstrates the persistence and hard work it takes to pursue a dream. A lifelong Syracuse resident, Joan completed her bachelor of science degree in accounting at Syracuse University after 13 years of night courses. Meanwhile, she worked 20 years for the largest Burger King franchise in the country, where she managed payroll for 5,000 employees, as well as sales and property taxes. The long years of study and full-time work didn’t stop her — she went on to get a master of science in accounting.

In 1996, Joan took a job as business advisor in the SBDC. It would be a change from working in the private sector. However, as Joan puts it, “It was time for a new challenge. I could still use my accounting degree but do other things.”

Interacting with small business entrepreneurs was as rewarding as she had hoped.

“It’s exciting to see them get off the ground,” she said.

She found herself working with clients like Stella Penizotto, the successful co-owner of Shining Stars Daycare Centers, who returned to Joan for consultation each time she was looking to expand and now has three locations.

Joan herself advanced, moving to the position of assistant director and then director in 2013.  Her many roles in the center put her at the vantage point to appreciate every aspect of the SBDC’s services to clients and to the community. Whether managing grants, participating in community events, or connecting with lenders who offer small business loans, “We’re always trying to be out there,” Joan said.

Housed in a suite of offices on the campus of Onondaga Community College, the SBDC serves six counties — Cayuga, Cortland, Madison, Onondaga, Oswego and Seneca. In addition to six business advisors and a supervising coordinator, the center provides frequent workshops facilitated by area professionals on all aspects of starting and running a small business — for instance, “Access to Capital,” “Food Product Bootcamp,” “Get Your Business On-Line” and even a workshop on succession planning for retiring baby boomers passing on their businesses to the next generation. According to Joan, the new trends in small businesses are microbreweries, medical transportation, online applications, and drone businesses.

The Small Business Development Center is funded partly by the State University of New York and partly by the U.S. Small Business Administration. While the SBDC’s offices, workshop space, and resource library are located on OCC’s campus, 75 percent of the clients come from outside the OCC student/staff population. The clients, Joan said, “run the gamut from home-based businesses, someone who’s starting all new, someone quitting and starting all over,  and established businesses” where the owners are looking to expand.

Britty O’Connor is one of those clients. Now co-owner with her husband of the Flour and Salt Bakery and Cafe in Hamilton, Britty started out with “a small satellite bakery at farmers’ markets.” She drafted a business plan with an SBDC advisor who “encouraged me to think about everything more than once.” Four months and 40 pages later, Britty knew where she was headed.

“They were integral in getting us started in a brick-and-mortar store,” she said.

For Erica Spencer, a Marine Corps veteran who has her own acupuncture practice, Natural Solutions Acupuncture Services in Waterloo, the SBDC gave her the chance “to be on my own.” A contractor in a chiropractor’s office, Erica found herself outgrowing her space. She arranged to meet with a business advisor who helped walk her through a business plan, a cash-flow plan, ideas for grants, and even real estate possibilities for office space.

“They basically launched me into an independent business,” Erica said. Now in her own office, Erica’s clients have doubled in the past year, and she has been recognized by the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce as a “Rising Star in Business.”

As for Stella Penizotto, she and her husband are celebrating 25 years in the day care business, which all started with the business plan and financial projections that the SBDC assisted her with way back when.  In 2010, Joan nominated Stella for NYS Small Business Person of the Year. It was a thrill for Stella when she was recognized in a White House ceremony with then-President Obama.

Joan herself loves to share these inspiring stories and to be part of them. After all, behind the center’s services and statistics, these are the dreams that become brick-and-mortar successes.