VENDOR LAB STORY, Clauda Young and Sonya Morales

By Lorrie DeFrank

Having JSEB (Jacksonville Small and Emerging Businesses) Certification is quite beneficial, especially to businesses that seek contracts with the City of Jacksonville, Florida. Completing the complex, time-intensive and often intimidating process to apply for the certification recently became much easier because of Vendor Lab, a new program offered by JAX Chamber.

Administered by the City of Jacksonville’s Equal Business Opportunity Office, the JSEB program has residency and many other requirements, as well as personal and business financial qualifications.

Vendor Lab is a spinoff of JAX Bridges, a highly successful JAX Chamber program that has been helping entrepreneurs start and grow businesses since 2014. The value of JSEB certification is stressed in JAX Bridges. Dr. Carlton Robinson, chief innovation officer, Venture Services, took the initiative to start the ambitious, month-long program to assist small business owners in successfully securing the status.

“JSEB is a lengthy process with a lot of requirements. You have to prove you are a legitimate business and are ready to get bigger contracts,” said Anamaria Contreras, director, Venture Services. “In Vendor Lab, we go through the requirements checklist and do reviews of their applications so they have ready-to-present portfolios for the city. For a lot of corporations, 20 percent of their budget has to go to small businesses, and lot of them have to be JSEB certified.”

The JAX Bridges team, consisting of Robinson, Contreras and Evone Pina, manager, Venture Services, also facilitates the Vendor Lab sessions.

Participants meet in person weekly for four weeks and spend much of the rest of that time locating documents, talking to CPAs and getting various signatures. “There’s a lot of homework,” Contreras said. Vendor Lab started last July and has completed two cohorts so far.

The hard work was well worth it for Clauda Young, who completed the first cohort and has her JSEB certification, and Sonya Morales, a member of the second cohort last fall who submitted her application and is in the approval process. Both women praised the efficiency of Vendor Lab in saving small business owners an enormous amount of time and keeping them organized, focused and on track for their application submissions.

“The beauty of Vendor Lab is that it helped calm us to get us on the right track in terms of what we needed to provide, with goals to meet each week. At the end we had a complete package to present to the City of Jacksonville,” said Young, founder and principal, Trinity Research and Consulting.

“Vendor Lab is amazing,” agreed Morales, founder/owner, Pinnacle Communications Group LLC. “They go through each question in the application in a simplified way so everyone understands, whether your business is one day old or 10 years old.”

Another advantage of Vendor Lab is that participants can apply for other certifications while in the JSEB process, according to Contreras. Morales and Young each received Local Small Business Enterprise certification through the Jacksonville Transportation Authority. Morales became Disadvantaged Business Enterprise certified and Young’s DBE is pending. With the support of JAX Chamber, Young also got her Minority Business Enterprise certification. Morales also has Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, Small Business Enterprise and Minority and Women Business Owners certifications. (Anamaria, the copy in red is what Sonya asked to add. Her daughter provided acronyms, which I looked up. Please make sure they are accurate. Also, I’m not sure if all are certifications or organizations. Should it say she is a member of those? I did ask but have not heard back so I’m submitting this in the interest of time. ~ Lorrie)

“We’re already seeing some good back and forth in our business emails so I know that it does work,” Morales said. “To be able to successfully complete multiple applications through Vendor Lab is pretty significant.”

Both women had already started their businesses by the time they joined Cohort 17 of JAX Bridges in fall 2022—after Vendor Lab for Young and before Vendor Lab for Morales. In addition to developing capability and financial statements, and perfecting their business pitches, they strengthened their businesses in many more ways through the curriculum and by sharing successes with other participants.

Young started Trinity Research and Consulting in 2019, after retiring from Florida Blue where she had worked for more than 20 years and gained considerable experience. “My great love is data analysis and data collection,” she said. “Our primary purpose is to help other businesses develop data driven solutions to their problems and to the creation of goals.” Trinity partners with small- to medium-sized organizations to optimize growth and promote strategy development.

“For a couple years I was floundering about how to get doors to open and access to resources,” Young said. After a friend introduced her to Robinson and Pina and she connected with JAX Chamber, her confidence increased along with her successes.

“I had no idea what Vendor Lab would entail and the benefits it would afford me,” Young said. “The beauty was I wasn’t doing it solo. Other times it was just me trying to figure out certification requirements. With Vendor Lab, we were all there together collaborating and getting better understanding from facilitators and classmates on what to do and how to present it. It opened doors for me that probably would not be open if I did not have certification.”

“Dr. Robinson did a remarkable job with building the block chain and the application,” said Morales. “I was surrounded by other business owners who had the same hardships as I did navigating the JSEB program.” She said collectively learning in a group setting also made participants more aware of their individual businesses and served as a good checks and balances process. “It was very fluid and you didn’t want to miss a week. There was a lot of homework but four weeks was absolutely enough time to get your ducks in a row.”

A self-proclaimed “pandemic-preneur,” Morales took advantage of the COVID-19 shutdown to retire from the auto industry and return to communications, this time in security. “We are a full-service physical security and tech company,” she said of Pinnacle Communications Group. “We want to protect your biggest assets, which are your people.” The company serves numerous industries by offering two-way radios, security cameras, artificial intelligence, disaster recovery and more.

Morales and her two daughters, Marissa and Amara Marchisillo, were looking for a way to have a retail presence during the pandemic that allowed for prosperity and growth. The Jacksonville-based business was worth about $65,000 when they launched it in July 2020 and it was worth $1.62 million after its first full year in business, she said.

Their success story is to be a national commercial for First Citizens Bank and their Vistage peer group is using it in a commercial as its small business campaign for 2023, Morales said.

Young and Morales concur that the JAX Chamber is invaluable to small business owners.

“They are a true community partner,” Morales said. “They are tapping local businesses so that when they need vendors, they look at the pool of JAX Chamber members. There are huge opportunities for small businesses in Jacksonville. You just have to be able to align yourself with organizations such as JAX Chamber.”

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