Gregg Bishop

Commissioner, New York City Department of Small Business Services

What sector do you work in? Government
How long have you been working in this sector? 11 years
How long have you been with your current organization? 11 years

What has been the most significant development in your sector over the last 40 years?
In government, technology has forced us to be more transparent and accountable to the people. When you look at social media, for example, communicating with the public is much more immediate than it used to be. The fact that ordinary citizens can now literally “at” the mayor or “at” me on Twitter to raise an issue, and we have to be responsive, that has to be one of the most transformational things that impacts government.

What has been the greatest challenge during this same period?
It’s that we have to communicate in 280 characters or less. It cuts both ways because we now have constituents who are looking for quick responses, and in some cases there are things that are so nuanced that you can’t communicate it in a soundbite. It goes both ways in terms of technology and how were able to communicate.

Describe a key event (local, national, global) that has impacted your sector in the last 40 years?
Over the last 40 years in terms of politics, we have moved away from the center and we’ve become more polarized. Part of that is because of technology, social media to be exact; we’re following people we want to follow. We’re not communicating with the other side to understand where we are different, where do we have common ground, and that unfortunately has impacted not only our federal government but how you see Congress operates, and it’s seeping into local conversations.

How has communication—with staff, clients, and/or donors—changed over the course of the last 40 years?
We try to be as transparent as possible, so over the last 40 years we have increased our communication and we’ve tried to figure out more channels where we can communicate to our constituents, because we have more options now. In the past it was just print, television, and radio, and now we have multiple channels to communicate, so it’s been for the better because we’ve been able to get our message out.

How have your sector’s needs changed (or those of your clients) in the last 40 years?
The funny thing is some of the issues I hear small businesses discuss haven’t changed over the last 40 years. It’s access to capital. It’s affordable rents. It’s finding a workforce that’s dependable and reliable. If you look at the 50s and the 60s, a lot of small business were complaining about high rents, and we still have those challenges. For this particular area, in terms of businesses, there has not been a lot of change, but there are different dynamics. On the workforce side, we’re in a much better position because we have a lot more options in terms of sectors in New York City. We’ve done a good job first in diversifying our sectors. In the past, New York City was probably just finance. Now we’re finance, we’re media, we’re entertainment, we’re health and life sciences, we’re food and beverage services, we’re technology. So there are a lot more options on the workforce side for individuals to find opportunities.

How has the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion shaped your organization over the past 40 years (or since it was founded during this time until now)?
If you know the history of Small Business Services, one of the agencies that was ultimately merged into Small Business Services was the Office of Opportunity and Inclusion, and that office was chartered to create the Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) program. So Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has always been part of our narrative. We look at how we help our women entrepreneurs, how we help our immigrant entrepreneurs, how we help our veterans, our LGBTQ businesses. We have put a laser beam focus on creating opportunities through a lens of equity.

In what ways have nonprofits adapted business practices that more similarly reflect for-profits over the last four decades, and has that been a necessary shift?
I used to work at a nonprofit called NPower. Nonprofits have adapted in setting goals, in being accountable, similar to what you would see in the private sector. There is the feel-good side of nonprofits that is still there. But there is an understanding that in order to be successful you have to actually have data to show and quantify your success, and over the last 40 years we’ve seen a sharpening of pencils and an understanding that if a program is not performing as it should, there’s a will to tweak it and ensure that those programs are delivering what they’re supposed to do.

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
I would say voter apathy. You would think as the Commissioner of Small Business Services I would talk about rising rents and changing technology. Yes, those are all challenges, but the greatest challenge for government is the fact that we have people who have been disengaged in the process of electing officials that will speak for their community. Those officials are creating laws and making decisions on funding that will impact them, and we have to figure out ways to reengage our civic base, because it was just 50 years ago that different communities could not vote, and more for women. And people fought and died for that right. It concerns me that just a small percentage of our population remains engaged and a larger and a growing percentage have been just frustrated with government.

What opportunities exist now for nonprofits to break through into success that did not exist 40 years ago?
There is an understanding of how important the nonprofit community is in the private sector. Government and the private sector are working together in collaboration, so I think there is a lot more opportunity for the private sector to fund initiatives through nonprofits, for government to fund initiatives through nonprofits. Nonprofits have proven they can be effective, they can be transparent, and most importantly, they can be successful in delivering whatever goals are established.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
Building relationships. When I think about Jill Eisenhard, who is the Founder and Executive Director at Red Hook Initiative, that’s the nonprofit where I am the Board Chair, the reason why RHI is successful is because Jill not only understands, but she’s a strong leader. She’s willing to listen. She builds relationships. She is passionate about the work. If nonprofit leaders possess all of those qualities, they can be successful.

How do you see shifting views on race, gender, sexuality, age, immigration status, educational achievement, wealth, poverty, and health affecting your organization in the future?
I think it affects us because it challenges us to be part of that conversation and make sure that we are effective in delivering services that would address the challenges that those conversations have brought up. When we talk about underemployed immigrants in New York City, or how to help immigrant entrepreneurs, or about disadvantages that the LGBTQ community faces, one of the things we focus on through our strategic plan is equity of opportunity. We look at our services through an equitable lens and ask, in each of these categories, how are we helping these communities that may feel disenfranchised and disadvantaged? It will continue to challenge us to ensure that we remain connected to those communities, and that we provide services to help those communities advance.

What will nonprofits need to do to remain relevant and necessary to their clients over the next 40 years?
They need to adapt. It’s easy to stick with a formula, but simply looking at how technology has disrupted the retail sector, I think technology is going to disrupt many other sectors. We have to make sure nonprofits are in tune with industry, understand the challenges that industry faces and changes coming in the next 40 years – then adapt to meet those challenges.

Where would you like to see your sector in 40 years?
Government should continue to play a role in helping reduce institutional barriers that prevent individuals and different groups from connecting to opportunities, so that means we need to be more connected to the people. Government needs to be more responsive in ensuring we provide programs that actually work and needs to do some soul searching and address some barriers that government actually created.

What was your breakthrough moment in becoming a leader?
Being able to take a risk and not be afraid to fail. I read Winning, a book by Jack Welch, and he was talking about decisions he made as a leader, and he had a catastrophic incident based on one decision. Basically, a plant blew up. And in the book, he was like, don’t ever be afraid to take a chance, take a risk, I guarantee you will never, ever blow up a plant. That was my breakthrough. I will have moments of failure, but it’s not about the failure; it’s about how you pick yourself up and move forward.

What do you want your work culture to be like?
I want us to be accountable. I want us to be innovative. I want us to be transparent. I want us to be responsive in terms of the work that we do and the people we serve. And, most importantly, I want us to be impactful.

Name three qualities that are inherent in being a strong leader
Tough skin. Willingness to listen. And, most importantly, willingness to receive criticism.

Find out more
NYC Small Business Services

En Español »