For 39 years, Janice Donaldson has been helping the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida launch entrepreneurs.
The center worked with more than 1,800 clients in 2019.
“I still look forward to working every day and meeting great people who make a difference in our community,” Donaldson said Aug. 31.
She won’t be doing that after Feb. 28 because Donaldson, 61, is retiring as regional director of the center.
Established in 1976 with a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the center at UNF was one of two original sites for the program.
Forty-four years later, the program Donaldson leads provides management assistance and training for prospective or active small business owners in 18 counties in Northeast and North Central Florida.
With an annual budget of about $2 million – comprising financial support from the SBA and matching grants from UNF; the city of Jacksonville; the Clay County Chamber of Commerce; Marion, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns and Suwannee counties; and other public and private sector sources, the SBDC provides management assistance services at little or no charge to its clients.
After graduating in 1980 from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism, Donaldson focused her career on helping small businesses succeed.
Her first job was at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, now JAX Chamber, working in the small business development department.
It was there Donaldson met Lowell Salter, the first director of UNF’s SBDC.
Salter recruited her from the chamber in 1981 to join the center’s small staff and edit its newsletter.
“He hired me and mentored me,” Donaldson said.
By the time Salter decided it was time to retire in 2002, Donaldson was a 21-year veteran at the center with experience in all phases of the operation. She was trained to be Salter’s replacement, but he told her there was one issue that could get in the way of his succession strategy.
“My undergrad was in journalism. He told me I was groomed for the position, but I didn’t have an MBA,” Donaldson said.
So she enrolled in the graduate degree business program at UNF.
Instead of first learning the theory and fundamentals of business and then taking that knowledge to the real world, Donaldson did it in reverse.
She completed the course of study in 18 months, alongside classmates who were born about the time Donaldson graduated from UGA.
A friend told her she had a son in one of Donaldson’s classes.
“He said he was glad there was an older lady in the class who knew a lot about business,” Donaldson said.
She received her MBA in December 2001 and became the center’s new regional director a month later.
Donaldson credits her longevity at the SBDC to its steady growth and because it evolved over the years along with how small businesses are created and sustained.
Since 1976, the center’s service area has grown from one office at UNF serving five counties to seven offices in 18 counties. The staff has grown from four to 25.
Donaldson said the day she went to work, personal computers and the World Wide Web didn’t exist.
“When I was hired to do the newsletter, I did it on a typewriter and there was no internet,” Donaldson said.
In addition to the advances in business and education technology, Donaldson has witnessed how starting and maintaining a small business has changed.
When she began working at the SBDC, there was no concept of what “entrepreneur” meant.
“Now, it’s recognized as an alternative to working for a company, and colleges offer degrees in entrepreneurship. There was no such thing in 1981,” Donaldson said.
What the clients need also has changed.
“When I started at SBDC, we were the place to go if you wanted to start a business. Now, 65% of our consulting hours are for people who want help growing their small business,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson said the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how the center and the university operate. Like other businesses, small and large, it was a surprise followed by a rapid response.
“UNF told us on March 17th that we had to be remote on March 18th. Having my last year (at SBDC) in a pandemic has been interesting and challenging,” Donaldson said.
She and her staff began consulting with other SBDCs in the state and nation to explore ways to transition from the traditional in-person format while maintaining the same level of service to clients.
Helping small business owners learn how to adapt to the pandemic became the strategic focus at the center, as well as advising clients about the various financial assistance opportunities available for businesses.
Donaldson said she hired more staff to consult with clients who were applying for assistance through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the other state and local programs.
Demand for the center’s services is growing amid the shutdowns and slowdowns.
“The calls we’re getting now are five times what they were before the pandemic. Business owners are looking for help,” Donaldson said.
In previous calendar years, the SBDC staff conducted about 17,000 hours of consulting each year with its clients. With the pandemic, the staff has conducted about 20,000 consulting hours through August.
Access to capital facilitated by the center also has increased because of the pandemic, totaling about $50 million through the end of August, more than all of 2019, she said.
With the leadership transition at UNF’s SBDC about five months away, Donaldson said the center and its programs are in good hands.
“My biggest success is building an awesome team that’s ready for the next regional director. We have a stable staff and some new people who brought their own skill sets,” she said.
Karen Bowling, UNF vice president of jobs and director of the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, said Donaldson’s legacy will be the organization she led into the 21st century.
“Janice’s leadership created the ‘how can I help?’ culture at the SBDC,” Bowling said.
The evolution of the SBDC from the early days of helping small businesses get off the ground into offering more services to help small businesses grow and prosper is coming full circle.
Bowling said SBDC staff assists the center’s participants when they need guidance on subjects such as capital and social media.
“Janice and her consultants are always there when we need them,” Bowling said.
The staff soon will conduct a class at the center that will help entrepreneurs learn the lean business model concept that eliminates waste and inefficiency in product and processes while still meeting the customer’s needs, Bowling said.
The university posted the SBDC regional director position on unfjobs.org Aug. 24, with Jan. 25 listed as the anticipated start date.
“We’d like the new director to overlap with me for a month,” Donaldson said.
“It’s the end of an era and the start of a new era.”