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Ignite! expo helps Oakland business owners make connections

on June 27, 2011

Food, handicrafts and live performances are not exclusive to street fairs—on Friday afternoon, more than 70 Bay Area businesses convened at the Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland for the 2011 Ignite! New Business Expo, where participants could not only showcase their products but also get connected to various business service providers.

The annual expo, now in its sixth year, was sponsored by a number of organizations, including the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency and the national Small Business Administration. The actual organizer—who also named the expo—was an Oakland-based non-profit called Urban Fire, which provides business education to local start-ups.

“I called it Ignite! because it ignites your business out into the public,” said Boku Kodama, the founder of Urban Fire. Kodama, a veteran in the IT industry, said he has been running programs to teach wannabe entrepreneurs how to launch and survive running a business since 1998, after successfully creating a dozen profitable businesses of his own. However, Kodama said, he later realized that his students still lacked resources to publicize their businesses after graduating from his programs. “They sort of went into isolation, didn’t know what to do, ” he said.

Trying to create a platform to help his graduates and other new entrepreneurs showcase their products and service, Kodama launched the first Ignite! expo in 2006 with only 10 new businesses and 10 small business service providers.  “It kind of caught on, and this year we have 21 service providers and 56 new businesses,” Kodama said. “More and more people are becoming self-sustainable in this economy.”

Dionne Early, a specialist with an Oakland-based company called Mac Made Easy, was one of the new participants of this year’s expo. Mac Made Easy provides technology assistance to Apple computer users, including both individual and corporate users. “My focus is providing the technology that people really need, as opposed to just getting a computer because everybody else has one,” Early said, adding that he just moved his business from San Jose last August and the expo is a good opportunity to “get the word out” in Oakland.

In addition to Oakland-based companies, businesses from other Bay Area cities also made up a significant proportion of the participants. Jahannaz Afshar, who runs an online jewelry business at her home in San Jose, said she only sold a few of her necklaces at the expo but “it’s a place to give a lot of cards and let people touch and feel my jewelry.”

“I really enjoy talking with them and the feedback they gave,” Afshar said.

Darius Mahajer is a development associate with OBDC Small business Finance, a company providing loans as large as $240,000 to emerging or small businesses that don’t qualify for traditional financing from the banks. After walking back and forth through the exhibitors, Mahajer had passed out all his business cards. “Business owners from all walks of life should have access to the resources that are out there for them,” Mahajer said. He added that OBDC is now working with Oaklandish, an local clothing company, because he ran into the owners at last year’s expo.

“[It’s important] to create a business in your community and create a village, which becomes self-sustainable itself so you’re helping each other to grow,” Kodama said. He is now offering three training programs for new entrepreneurs, teaching them about marketing, sales and creating business plans.

Although the expo has been growing in the past five years, Kodama said, the attendance this year is only about half of last year’s event, which then attracted more than 3,000 visitors, many of whom came to get more business service information. Kodama said the decrease is probably due to the slow economic recovery. “Maybe people are more discouraged and not confident about starting a new business, ” he said.


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