Social Impact Internship: Raj Mehta (’24)
My name is Raj Mehta, and I am currently a rising sophomore at MIT majoring in Business Analytics. Over this Summer, I had the opportunity to intern at a Boston-based nonprofit known as LEAF (Local Enterprise Assistance Fund) specializing in lending programs and financial assistance. During my time at LEAF, my work included creating financial projections through both sales data and market research as well as personally advising numerous entrepreneurs on specific business development strategies; these achievements encompassed my dual roles as a business analyst and consultant respectively.
Coming into my internship, I had some understanding of a small business environment ever since my youth as I watched my parents build their retail store from the ground up. However, over this past Summer with LEAF, I was introduced to the depth and variety of backgrounds that many entrepreneurs came from while beginning their business ventures. Some notable examples were a carpenter transitioning her industry skills to form a sustainable construction-waste repurposing company and a financial accountant following her lifelong dreams to run her own family-centered Hispanic deli. Through my time with LEAF, I was impressed by the dedication these entrepreneurs demonstrated towards their respective industries. It was truly inspiring to witness these business owners persevere despite many initial difficulties and uncertainties in starting their businesses, and I felt a natural instinct to support their efforts. This was a role where I truly felt connected to these business owners and where I really saw the ability to directly impact the communities we were involved in.
During my time at LEAF, I learned lots of valuable skills and lessons, including the fact that there were many difficulties within the entrepreneurial ecosystem that could not be amended. Thus, there existed moments of confusion and frustration throughout my internship, as I realized the complexity of problems that many small businesses had to tackle.
For example, one of the clients I worked with through LEAF was the MGC (Massachusetts Gaming Commission), with whom we were working to help casinos throughout Massachusetts diversify their spending practices. There was an emphasis on transitioning a greater portion of contracts away from larger, multinational corporations towards more locally-based small businesses especially from under-resourced MBE, VBE, and WBE backgrounds. As we analyzed the current contract data, we noted that there was a given percentage of contract funds allocated towards these types of small businesses. However, we realized the numbers said less than the contracts themselves, and we noted that most of these funds were given to a few businesses that were double-counted across these background categories. In other words, the breadth of small businesses that casinos were working with was extremely limited.
To address this discrepancy, I was adamant about reaching out to the casinos, but I was made aware that our position as an advisory nonprofit organization limited the authority we had to really affect the casinos’ spending habits. As disheartening as this was, I understood that even if we could not change the whole system, we still had the opportunity to support individual entrepreneurs and help form more one-on-one contracts. My outlook towards the situation became further optimistic as my supervisor explained the analogy that “breaking down a barrier wall” is an extensive process, yet always begins with removing individual bricks and stones.
On this note, supporting small business development is a field of work that highlights inherent disparities between different communities. Upon reading several data reports and speaking with other LEAF team members, it became apparent to me that access to capital and financial resources is not shared equally amongst entrepreneurs; racial and socioeconomic backgrounds play a clear role in projecting future success for business owners. For example, although 20% of entrepreneurs in Massachusetts are people of color, only 10% of all loan dollars is allocated towards diverse neighborhoods. Individuals that were women, veterans, and especially people of color faced further hardships because of their unconventional backgrounds. Therefore, one of the key issues I tackled at LEAF was promoting business equity from a social, economic, and racial standpoint.
This has been LEAF’s central goal since its founding, which is why the organization specializes in supporting disadvantaged small businesses with flexible loan agreements and pro-bono financial advisory services. As an intern on the Technical Assistance Team, my role centered on the latter financial advisory services and developing long-term infrastructures to improve the heavily decentralized small business ecosystem. Keeping in mind LEAF’s social impact goals and the rationale for its mission, I had the framework that I needed to understand why I was doing the work I was tasked with. Looking ahead, I have learned that the small business consulting field is an under-emphasized field that should receive more funding and visibility. Although LEAF is one of the few organizations of its kind, I am pleased that LEAF’s annual budget is increasing over time through government and private grants which proves that more people are beginning to see the value in supporting small enterprises.