Cambridge’s Small Business Challenge Program Keeps Growing

The Small Business Challenge (SBC) program has opened up opportunities for Cambridge businesses to expand their network and impact the community in a positive way.

Jason Alves, the Executive Director of the East Cambridge Business Association, shared how the SBC changed the outlook of his business association. “The Small Business Challenge helps the ECBA bring to fruition some ideas and projects that we may not typically have the funding to complete. Store front vacancies have been a citywide topic of discussion. This year, we used the SBC to address some local vacancies while at the same time highlighting the local art and maker scene that is growing in Inman Square.”

Alves also expressed that the SBC has invigorated the East Cambridge Business district, “It has enabled us to open dialogue with local landlords and real estate representatives to better understand the challenges of activating vacancies.”

ECBA Inman Square

Alves’ appreciation for the Small Business Challenge aligns with that of Christina DiLisio, Associate Economic Development Specialist for the City’s Community Development Department. The program has already made a great impact on a multitude of businesses in Cambridge and continues to grow each year.

Recently, we sat down with Christina to discuss in depth the Small Business Challenge Program.

Christina DiLisio

What is the origin of the Small Business Challenge?

The Community Development Department (CDD) is always looking for ways to support small businesses. The Small Business Challenge is modeled after a similar program in Chicago. What CDD staff in the Economic Development Division found so compelling about the Chicago model was that it emphasized projects that brought together both residents and businesses.

That same spirit of consensus and community building is evident in our Small Business Challenge model which awards businesses funding to bring projects to life that benefit the business’s community on a broader scale.

In 2016, CDD began accepting applications for the pilot year of the program. Businesses and business associations were invited to propose projects that would enhance and invigorate their commercial district. Project categories included but were not limited to: neighborhood tourism and event planning and technology and skill training (for example, a workshop series on how to use Quickbooks or a training on marketing through social media platforms like Instagram).

The program is entering its third year, and applications are currently being accepted for the 2019 Small Business Challenge:

Was it difficult to decide which applicant finished in the top three?

We receive many creative and exciting project proposals, and they are carefully evaluated by an Internal Review Committee comprised of representatives from many City departments and local organizations, including CDD, the City Manager’s Office, the Department of Public Works, the Cambridge Office of Tourism, and the Cambridge Arts Council. Members of the Internal Review Committee use an evaluation tool to help rank project proposals and ensure that they meet the program’s criteria. The variety of reviewers determines whether projects can be implemented safely and successfully.

What does the process entail?

Groups of local small businesses or business associations fill out an application that details their project proposal and describes how the project would enhance their business district. Following the application deadline, the Internal Review Committee reviews proposals and ensures that they can be safely and securely implemented within the required timeframe. Projects must be completed within a set amount of time. For example, winners of the 2019 Small Business Challenge must implement their projects by March 2019.

Has there been an influx of applications after last year?

As we enter the third year of the Small Business Challenge, interest in the Challenge has been steady from year to year. Our initial budget for the pilot year was $5,000, which doubled to $10,000 in the program’s second year. The 2019 Small Business Challenge will have $20,000 allocated for funding, which has the potential to support a larger number of exciting projects.

How would you describe the program’s value to the business and the city?

The Small Business Challenge empowers business associations and groups of businesses to fund projects that are important to them. The Small Business Challenge is a good example of how the City has been putting into practice the recommendations coming out of the Retail Strategic Plan, specifically the recommendation that municipalities help “drive experience” – meaning that cities and towns can help commercial districts be the kinds of places where a positive shopping experience is had.

This can be achieved a couple key ways: by helping to fund projects that improve the public realm (e.g. flower boxes or big, decorative banners) and by helping business associations fund the kinds of district-wide events and activities that brand a district and communicate to customers the uniqueness of a place.

If you have questions about the Small Business Challenge grant process, please visit the webpage or contact Christina DiLisio at or 617/349-4601.

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Published by

Jamie Martin

Public Information Office co-op.