I’m Sonya Blake, and I’m President and CEO of the Valley Economic Alliance. As of April 30th, I will have been in this role at the Alliance for three years. I moved over from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office where I was heading up small business programs. When I started, we were in the midst of the pandemic, which was an unbelievable time but a meaningful and important time to take leadership of the organization. I had been involved with the Alliance before on behalf of Mayor Garcetti as a member of the Alliance’s Board of Governors.
My hubby and I have been living in the Valley for over 20 years now. During the pandemic, my children were distance learning, so it was very helpful to be able to work closer to home and to be available for the ups and downs as things changed during the pandemic. But everything worked out wonderfully well. It was a great opportunity for me to work to benefit the Valley where I’ve lived for so long and that I love so much.
Can you tell us about your connection to the Community Foundation of the Valleys and the Valley Economic Alliance?
The Alliance and the Community Foundation of the Valleys have been great partners for some time, sharing an office in Sherman Oaks. The Foundation was gracious enough to bestow the Alliance with a grant during COVID to do some of the small business assistance work that we were doing to keep companies afloat, resilient, and open through the trying times of the downturn. I’m also a member of the Community Foundation’s Advisory Board. So I’m able to help lead the way and help advise the board of directors on how the Foundation can advance the cause of our different social needs throughout the Valley. In particular, from the Alliance’s perspective, how we can collectively develop economic opportunities for our residents through philanthropy.
Tell us more about your interest in small business support. How do you hope to continue this work at the Economic Alliance and how did this interest start for you?
My mom is an entrepreneur and her dad, my granddad, and her mom, my grandmother, were entrepreneurs in Jamaica, where they’re from. Entrepreneurship is really in my blood, and I’ve been committed to helping entrepreneurs find financial self sufficiency and success, which can be somewhat elusive. There are so many variables and elements that go into whether or not a business can survive and the odds are very daunting. It’s really important for organizations like the Alliance to come alongside companies and help them put the pieces of the puzzle together so that they can start and grow and thrive here in the Valley, especially since this really impacts our regional economy. When we support those mom and pop businesses along Valley main streets, we’re able to help create jobs and create livelihoods for our new neighbors and their families. We’re also able to provide amenities and attractive, interesting, and compelling destinations for people to visit the Valley and to spend their hard-earned dollars here.
All that contributes to a better quality of life in our region. The taxes that result from our thriving businesses help to support our local parks, and our educational institutions, and it all comes together in this wonderful symbiotic relationship of great communities based on people thriving economically.
One of my passions is to help close the wealth gap. And in the Valley, we have a tale of two valleys. We have very wealthy areas, and then we have low income areas where people are really just trying to make a living. One of the important elements about the Valley Economic Alliance is that we’re able to pursue a prosperous San Fernando Valley in a way that’s inclusive and equitable and really honors diversity. Also, we’re pursuing sustainability so that we’re creating these opportunities and preserving our environment for the future, as well as enjoying a great quality of life ourselves today. The Alliance is at the hub of all this, convening various thought leaders and making sure that we are developing our five city region in a very smart, inclusive, intelligent and equitable way.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the logistics of how small businesses get in touch with the Alliance and how relationships form?
The alliance has a free Business Assistance Program, and people can get connected to it by going to the valley.net/assistance. There, they can complete a very short enrollment form. Then they’ll be connected with our business advisor, Brett Dickstein, who will do an in- depth assessment of their company. They will talk about the company’s current revenues and needs for cash flow, need for talent or staff or real estate locations. If they’re expanding, they then look at opportunities such as exporting and procurement and contracting, as well as saving money through utilities, rebates and other kinds of ideas.
We have a wonderful team of executives in residence who are pro bono consultants, specializing in areas that drill down into digital marketing or getting a loan or getting ready for a loan or repairing credit or whatever kinds of special help companies may need. We’ll continue to monitor this work with our VEA mentors, and then work with our businesses until they complete their priorities included in their business service plan. We have about 300 companies that are currently enrolled in the program, and they’re in different phases of actively working with the Alliance. We continue to do outreach so that we can connect with as many businesses as possible with this program.
What do you think the unique challenges of the Valleys are and what needs to be done for these challenges to be overcome?
There are several challenges. We have so many opportunities here in our Valley-when I’m talking about the Valley region, I’m talking about five cities, which include Burbank and Glendale to the east, Calabasas to the west, San Fernando to the north, and the San Fernando Valley region of the city of Los Angeles is the bulk of our region. So these five cities, like many desirable areas, have a very large and diverse economy with lots of industries like entertainment and healthcare, technology, and manufacturing. We have fantastic educational institutions like CSUN and our community colleges. We have a very strong workforce that’s available for employment. But like any area that’s very desirable, we also have challenges. For example, our housing costs are very high and are significant. And, just like many cities, we’re addressing the crisis of homelessness.
The Alliance has convened a housing think tank that includes various policy thinkers on housing to see what we should be doing here in the Valley, and what we can be advocating for with our community leaders to help address housing and homelessness. One area that really comes to the forefront is housing development permit reform. When there is too much regulation, the price of development can go way up. It puts upward pressure on housing costs. It also takes a lot of time–and time is money in construction development. It also slows down the process and really inhibits our ability to provide adequate housing for our populace. The Alliance is well positioned to work with different elected and appointed officials to pursue the streamlining of the development process, which should really help to bring the cost down and make more housing available.
Poverty is also a concern in any urban area, poverty is at about 12.9% in the Valley. What we need to work on to address this challenge is to promote financial literacy among our residents. April is Financial Literacy Month, so our organization is promoting various programs, resources, and tools that are available to help people understand finances, investments, savings, and budgeting, so that they can reach their financial goals. Financial literacy helps people empower themselves so that they can come up out of lower income areas or a lower income status.
Also, we’re working to connect people with job training so they can upskill in a short amount of time and become qualified and certified for higher paying positions. This is another way that we can move people out of lower income echelons and move them up in financial status. We also help renters to become homeowners by promoting homeownership programs. The Economic Alliance focuses on Financial Literacy Month in April, Small Business Month in May, and Homeownership Month in June.
And then another challenge for the Valley is the long commute times and the time that people spend in their cars traveling to and from work and school. At the Alliance, we’re promoting building walkable communities so people can live near where they work and near public transit and be able to move around inexpensively and conveniently. We’re advocating with Metro on the projects that they’re building along Van Nuys Boulevard like the San Fernando Valley light rail, and the Sepulveda transportation project. We advise and help bring the public into these various projects so they can give input as to how these projects can most benefit the community and mitigate any negative impact during construction. Hopefully all of us will benefit from more efficient mobility throughout our region, and more of a variety of housing options that are affordable, and wonderful amenities and small businesses to really help create a rich fabric of street life. That makes it a really enjoyable place to live. In summary I would say that housing and homelessness, poverty, and long commute times are the biggest challenges in the valley. And we can all work together to help to address these.
What collaboration do you hope to see with the Economic Alliance and other organizations going forward?
There’s so much potential for collaboration. One of the projects on the horizon is a workforce development program. We want to make sure that we have a very strong talent base here in the Valley, and that we support jobseekers and our employers to get what they need and connect the dots between the two. We’re going to be really looking to collaborate with a variety of organizations in developing our workforce pipeline,but we’ll start with our employers. And we’re going to be doing a needs assessment through an email and online survey, as well as interviews to drill down and tease out what employers are looking for in terms of their needs for skill sets, or the occupations that they’re wanting to hire for today and into the future. As the economy changes, the landscape changes and their needs change. We will also see who wants to participate as partners in terms of providing paid internships for our high school youth, as well as apprenticeships and full time paid employment for others who are looking for positions. Then we’re going to engage our training providers. There’ll be collaboration with our community colleges, universities, and other adult occupational centers to inventory and see what are the programs that are currently available to address those employer needs specifically. If there’s a need to develop additional programming, we’ll engage those training providers to create those programs so that we have what we need in close proximity to our employers. Finally, we’ll engage our social service providers and collaborate with them to identify their clientele, especially among low income youth and adults, so that we can do outreach and get all echelons of our residents engaged in the training that’s going to be available so as to move people into the paid positions after they have completed training programs. This is the big collaborative project that we’re working on right now.