How Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer champions small businesses

The commissioner appeared on the Filipino American talk show Makilala TV in September. Images are screen captures from the program.

The commissioner appeared on the Filipino American talk show Makilala TV in September. Images are screen captures from the program.

UPDATE: On June 29, 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was appointing Small Business Services Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer to head the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Torres-Springer, a former executive vice president and chief of staff at NYCEDC, will be the first woman to lead the semi-private organization, which facilitates development through loans, subsidies and technical assistance.

“Maria has a proven track-record opening doors for New Yorkers and working closely with businesses to grow our economy. We are proud to have her lead EDC,” De Blasio said in a statement. “Maria will focus on growing vital sectors in our economy, and preparing New Yorkers to seize those opportunities so they can be a part of our economic success story.”

By Cristina DC Pastor

Commissioner for Small Business Services (SBS) Maria Torres-Springer has a “personal connection” to entrepreneurship, and so she understands the mind and the heart of a small business owner.

One of her grandfathers owned a lumber garden in Guagua, Pampanga, and one grandmother was a seamstress. Her own parents started a number of businesses in California, where she was born. She knows how the small business owner is fearless enough to take risks and accepts failure as a necessary part of the culture of hits and misses.

“It’s their pathway to the middle class,” she said when she keynoted the seminar “Doing Business in NYC” organized by the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce (PACC). “They believe that owning a business is their first chance to economic self-determination.”

It’s been more than a year since she became SBS chief in January 2014 and hailed by Mayor Bill de Blasio as one of the “progressive, proven leaders who are committed to serving diverse communities across this city.”

During the PACC seminar, Torres-Springer reported on her first year in office, specifically what SBS has done to provide jobs to New Yorkers, create a strong business environment, and build the city’s economy. Her office has a particular focus on immigrant communities, considering, she said, that “six out of 10 New Yorkers are ether immigrants or children of immigrants.”

She provided a profile of small businesses which comprise 95 percent of the city’s overall businesses. They are “likely small (with less than 100 employees), likely located in an outer borough, likely immigrant-owned, and likely to be in an industry that is heavily regulated, like restaurants or health care.”

Keynoting the ‘Doing Business in NYC’ seminar hosted by the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce. The FilAm Photo

Keynoting the ‘Doing Business in NYC’ seminar hosted by the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce. The FilAm Photo

Torres-Springer said one of the first initiatives started during her term is to connect New Yorkers to jobs, “not just any job, but good jobs that offer good wages and opportunities for advancement.” She talked about SBS’s Tech Talent Pipeline program and the 300K available jobs in technology start-ups in the city. This number is expected to grow by another 100k in the years to come. A $500-million budget has been allocated for training New Yorkers for tech jobs, she said.

Another initiative is geared toward assisting business proprietors. A free recruitment service is being offered to those who are looking to staff their operations.

“We can help screen potential staff , help you access talent across the city,” said Torres-Springer, who graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Ethics, Politics and Economics, and a master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

SBS, she added, can also help with accessing financing and equipment service, free legal advice, and training employees.

Streamlining the regulatory environment is currently in the works. The idea behind SBS’s Small Business First program is to create an online site where business owners can manage all their transactions in one centralized location. They work with client managers who will help them navigate the “complex web of regulations” in the city government. The objective is to cut red tape and shorten the amount of time by which a business, say a restaurant, can open.

“We know that if you’re going to start a business, take for example a restaurant, you have to go through 10 different agencies. You have to get more than 20 different licenses. You have to get close to 30 different inspections. We are trying to change all that,” she said.

“We also want to make our enforcement of rules not so punitive,” said Torres-Springer. “We want to focus first on educating business owners, so they can avoid violations and avoid fines.”

Before joining SBS, Torres-Springer has a strong professional background in growing businesses and working with diverse communities. She was part of a team that was involved in revitalizing the surrounding area in Coney Island. Also, as Senior Policy Advisor and Chief Operating Officer of the nonprofit Friends of the High Line, she led private sector efforts in engaging the communities around the High Line Park, including fundraising to support its operations and stewardship.

Torres-Springer’s appointment as commissioner in January 2014 has both professional and personal significance. Her second daughter, Amalia Rose, was born shortly after the announcement was made official. She is one of three Filipina commissioners in the De Blasio Administration that also includes first-ever Chief Technology Officer Minerva Tantoco and Human Rights chief Carmelyn Malalis. She shared that they get together occasionally for “lumpia nights.”

She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Jamie Torres Springer, who is a partner in a real estate and economic development consulting firm, and their two daughters Amalia and Leah Elsa, who is 5 years old.

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