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Helping the ‘overlooked’ businesses of Silicon Valley

Matt Kreutz got the baking bug early. As a teen, he went to a vocational school in Chantilly, Virginia, and encountered a teacher-chef who nurtured his “ragamuffin” students.

“I fell in love with working in kitchens, with food and with people who were passionate about food,” Kreutz said. He attended a culinary school in New York, then worked for several bakeries in California and decided that would be his home.

In Oakland, where he founded and co-owns Firebrand Artisan Breads with Colleen Orlando, he discovered a “diverse, vibrant community” filled with artists and music and people who supported each other.

“There are a lot of people who care about the city and are invested in its future,” he said.

One of the organizations investing in its growth is Inner City Advisors, or ICA, which recently merged with Fund Good Jobs and made its founder, Sean Murphy, the CEO.

In Silicon Valley, home to hundreds of start-up and global technology firms, “there’s a lot of energy and resources going into the tech arena. That is great, and there’s a lot to learn from it,” Murphy said. But “there are a lot of folks who are just overlooked” by banks and investors.

ICA, founded 20 years ago, focuses on those businesses. It offers education, mentorship and investment programs.

The education program for entrepreneurs is taught at Mills College in Oakland by Michael Bush, founder of The 8 Factors Business Framework. He teaches on a volunteer basis, and students pay a small fee to cover other costs.

The established businesspeople who act as advisers to the struggling companies also volunteer their time, because they want to give back to the community, said Murphy.

“Individuals that have been very successful in the entrepreneurship world … really roll up their sleeves and provide practical advice to ultimately help a business grow and create more good jobs.”

The funding arm of ICA provides direct investments from $250,000 to $1 million to businesses “that are unable to get the access they need, let alone what they want, from local small business banks and community banks,” Murphy said. “That’s where we’ve landed as our secret sauce of connecting those people and capital together.”

Kreutz and Orlando approached ICA twice. The first time, they didn’t have enough of a strategy to embark on the programs. They tried again the following year, this time with the kernel of a game plan and a little more clarity.

The Firebrand owners now are getting advice on anything from their finances to negotiating with contractors. “ICA has a huge pool of socially minded entrepreneurs,” which matches Firebrand’s mindset, Kreutz said.

The bread-maker has since moved from solely wholesale operations to opening a retail store at the end of 2015 and has doubled production, churning out 700 loaves of bread and 2,000 rolls a day. He’s gone from three employees in the beginning to a workforce of 51.

Kreutz said he still emulates his high school teacher by maintaining a diverse and respectful workplace. “Whether or not you’re gay, straight, whatever your race, religion, creed, that’s fine. We have people who were formerly incarcerated. You know what? No one cares. It’s about who you are right now, and about growth and pushing forward.”

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