If small businesses are the backbone of the state's economy, then Brenda Hopper and Deborah Smarth are the chiropractors — working out the kinks and growing pains experienced by the clients of New Jersey's Small Business Development Centers.
The pair provides the steam that powers NJSBDC, a nonprofit that helps aspiring entrepreneurs and established small-business owners create and expand their business enterprises with counseling, training, and strategic and financial planning.
A little more than 580,000 New Jersey businesses are sole proprietors, and roughly 199,000 have less than 500 employees, according to Smarth, chief operating officer and associate state director of the NJSBDC. And small businesses represent 98.4 percent of the state's employers and generate 51 percent of private-sector employment in New Jersey, she said.
In 2011, despite the slow economic recovery, the network's 11 New Jersey centers helped their clients create and save 10,303 jobs, start 677 new businesses and secure more than $42 million in financing.
"We give them the guidance to turn their ideas into potential realities," Smarth said. "Then you have the businesses who have been in business for several years, and they need to retool themselves continually. They tap into our expertise to find out what they need to restructure and how they can market themselves better; what they can do for greater visibility."
Initially one of the cadre of consultants NJSBDC dispatches to assist businesses with one-on-one counseling, Smarth — then a government affairs liaison — was recruited more than seven years ago to be the right-hand woman to Hopper, the NJSBDC's chief executive.
"It's like the yin and yang," the Hillside resident said of her relationship with Smarth. "I try to look at the big picture, and then Deb brings me down to Earth and says, 'Let's look at this strategically.'"
Now in her 21st year at the helm of NJSBDC, Hopper got her start championing small-business owners as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. There, while working toward her degree in economics and business, she took a class on entrepreneurship that solidified her future career path.
"It was during the time of the riots, and Newark was burning. Our professor took us into the streets to help small businesses regroup," she said. "It was hands on. We found small businesses that had lost everything, or they had their receipts in a shoebox. We went in and said, 'How can we help you get this business back on track?' That was my entry into small-business development."
Before joining NJSBDC, Hopper, who also earned her MBA from Rutgers, owned a skin, hair and nail salon in Passaic, worked in sales and marketing for IBM and in economic development for Jersey City. But she said she discovered her passion is being a part of the team choreographing business success stories, such as that of Newark's Brantley Brothers Moving & Storage Co.
"When I started out with NJSBDC, Malachia Brantley was starting with one truck. Now they have a fleet of trucks and he purchased the old Sears building on Elizabeth Avenue," said Hopper, who spoke at Brantley's funeral in March and has since decided to create an entrepreneurial award in his honor.
Smarth, a Manalapan resident who earned a bachelor's degree in political science from St. Peter's College and a master's degree in national politics and policy from Columbia University, brings a wealth of experience to
NJSBDC from her past tenures in the private and public sector.
For more than a dozen years, she served as director of policy and planning and senior policy adviser in the Legislature, focusing her efforts on commerce and economic development issues. Later, she worked as director of corporate affairs at a small solar engineering and water management company, and taught political science courses at Kean University and Brookdale Community College.
The sum of those prior positions groomed Smarth for her role at NJSBDC, where she directs strategic planning, government relations and communications. But she'll tell you her main focus is "reminding legislators of the importance of NJSBDC" by providing accountability reports to those holding the state's purse strings.
Had Smarth not put a bug in the ear of lawmakers on behalf of NJSBDC, she said they would have lost $250,000 in state funding during the first year of Gov. Chris Christie's administration.
In her fight to keep the organization afloat, Smarth recruited the owners of small businesses to appear before the budget committee and share how NJSBDC had been instrumental to their success. That budget hearing — while exhausting — was inspiring to Smarth.
"They sat with me — it had to be at least five or six hours. That was such a recognizable moment in terms of the passion that not only I had on behalf of this network but that they would be willing to give up their whole day away from their businesses to help us tell this story and our impact to the state legislators," she said of the move that won over the budget committee. "It was worth every hour I waited there."