When Simonida Cvejic came here from former Yugoslavia in 1996, she never thought she’d find herself wanting to start her own business. She had a job in the financial industry when, in 2004, she became a single parent. She realized she would have to make some changes in her life to accommodate her new situation. “I was looking for some way that I could be more available to my kids and have a flexible schedule and the ability to generate income,” she says. She was scared of the uncertainty until her mother said something that made her look at things from a new perspective. “Now you can do anything because you’re not tied to anything,” her mother said. So Simonida shook her fears and got to work.
When thinking about ideas for a new business, Simonida came up with two concepts. One would be a crochet business, where the items would be supplied by Bosnian refugee women. The other was a school to license phlebotomy technicians. In the end, it was the school that took off — but not without a few bumps in the road.
After licensing her school and getting the curriculum approved, Simonida needed a space to teach the classes. She had very little money, so she looked for a low-cost space she could rent. That’s when she found the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a business assistance organization that provides everything from training to technical assistance, to office space for aspiring entrepreneurs. Simonida was able to rent a small classroom to teach classes on weekends for only $200 a month. “The Renaissance Center was critical, I couldn’t have done it without them at all.”
The first year was rough. Her first class had only three students, and the second one had four — but two of them didn’t pay. “It was almost getting worse,” she remembers. But she pushed on, visiting clinics, labs, and hospitals to spread the word about her new school. From the Tenderloin to San Francisco General, slowly, more students came. By the end of the year, she was able to hire her first employee. She was an accountant who had stopped working to be a stay-at-home mom.
Simonida continued to rely on the Renaissance Center to grow her business. She rented a small office in the same building and entered their small business incubator program. Aside from a discount for the office space, she got access to a consultant once a week to help with the day-to-day business. She also took advantage of the Center’s workshops, where she learned useful skills like Quickbooks and analyzing her P&L.
Two-and-a-half years later, the Bay Area Medical Academy graduated from the incubator. They left the Renaissance Center to look for a space of their own. Simonida needed a large facility where they could have a classroom and some office space — which was not easy, or cheap, to find in downtown San Francisco. It was also 2008, exactly at the time when the market crashed. “I wasn’t able to get any loans, banks were really nervous.” She needed someone to believe in her business, and that someone was Opportunity Fund.
Opportunity Fund believed in Simonida when no bank would have given her a chance, and she realized how the traditional model for business loans is detrimental to people like her. “I was a single parent, they look at my taxes, and they know I’m the one that provides for everybody in the house. And I don’t have a house. They take out points for all of that. It’s not explicitly stated, but that’s what I realized.”
Now in its 14th year of business, BAMA has a campus in San Francisco and another in San Jose. “The biggest impact you can see is in how many students a year we train. We train about 700 students a year in total. We have 5 different programs now.” And Simonida firmly believes none of it would have been possible without the help of the Renaissance Center and Opportunity Fund. “It’s really important for an entrepreneur to be hardworking, resilient, to know how to analyze a business and self-reflect — but this access to capital is critical. It’s what makes and breaks a business.”
The impact that these business assistance organizations have had on Simonida goes far beyond her own success — they helped her realize how important it is to lift up your own community. And she wants BAMA to do just that. “We serve unemployed and low-income individuals, we train them for entry into the medical field and then they go out and get jobs. There’s such a huge ripple effect, and that philosophy is engrained in what I do now. I’ve been infected with the bug of being altruistic and helping the ones that come after me. Now we’re producing this army of well-trained medical professionals that are in the community and now they’re helping take care of people.”