Small businesses are big business for Ray Vargo and his staff. And they’ve become much bigger during the pandemic.
“Our mission is to be an economic development generator,” said the director of the University of Pittsburgh Small Business Development Center.
“We were consulting, one on one, with 600 to 700 businesses a year, but because of COVID-19, that number has basically doubled because of (the Paycheck Protection Program) and other things.”
SBDCs are funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and states, to help entrepreneurs navigate all phases of development. Vargo and his consulting staff of 10 are embracing that duty.
They welcome the intensive workload, assisting businesses throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania with training, consultation, applications, loan searches, business plans and more. This is a severe time of need for old clients and potential new ones, and he wants owners and would-be owners to be aware Pitt’s SBDC offers myriad ways to help.
It has been highly successful in that endeavor. In fact, at the moment, the center is at a level unmatched by its peers.
The SBA recently honored the Pitt center as its premier SBDC for 2020. The Oakland operation was selected from among nearly 1,000 centers across the country – the first Pennsylvania SBDC to be so designated.
Pitt received the 57th SBA award during National Small Business Week, making it No. 1 – a ranking well above its undefeated football team. The center is in charge of SBDC outreach offices in Washington and Greene counties, and shares that duty in Allegheny County with Duquesne University’s SBDC.
“We’re honored by this. It’s a great recognition of the work our entire team does,” said Vargo, an SBA employee for 25 years.
Dr. Kelly Hunt, Pittsburgh district director for the SBA, is thrilled as well.
“Pitt’s small business contracting endeavors have been either emulated by other institutions or used throughout the commonwealth’s 16 SBDC network,” said Hunt, a Centerville native whose district oversees 27 counties in this half of the state. “We’re not only proud they’re being recognized for their service, but also pleased they are an award-winning resource partner.”
SBDCs were first organized in 1980, and Pitt was among the first in the nation to join.
Pitt’s director, a Whitehall resident, did not begin his career with the agency, but segued into that after securing a master’s in business administration at California University of Pennsylvania.
He said he extended his Washington County roots in 1995, “when the university decided it needed a full-time (SBDC) presence” there. The Pitt center opened an outreach office at the Trust Building in downtown Washington, before relocating it down the hill, to the train station on South Main Street.
That outreach office is regarded as one of the most efficient in the state.
Vargo worked there for five or six years before moving to the university. In between, he set up the Greene outreach office on High Street, Waynesburg. Zach Patton is the management consultant of the Washington and Greene outreach offices, which share the telephone number 724-229-8078.
He said he and his consultants strive “to meet face to face with businesses owners, so some of them don’t have to come all the way to Oakland.” The center works with numerous organizations, including PA CareerLink, Southwest Training Services Inc. and area chambers of commerce.
Pitt’s center is currently involved with the Washington County chamber on a “Plugging into Profits” webinar series.
As if he weren’t active enough, Vargo also teaches accounting and small business management at Pitt and the University of Waynesburg.
Jason Capps is a local entrepreneur with a keen appreciation for Vargo and the Pitt center. He is owner and chef of Belle Sera restaurant in Cecil Township, and has worked with the center for many years.
“Ray has helped me every step of the way with business plans, profit-and-loss statements and obtaining financing for my restaurant,” Capps said in a statement. “We’re in our 15th year and I still bounce ideas off Ray.”
Asked about his success, Capps said, “Find your local SBDC because there are opportunities there for you to start a small business. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Ray.”
October, National Women’s Small Business Month, has arrived – and Ray Vargo and the top-ranked SBDC in America are still working fervently to assist small businesses at a troubled time. And he is not dissuading entrepreneurial newbies.
“We encourage any individual thinking of starting a business to reach out and take advantage of our resources and programs (by visiting sbdc.pitt.edu),” Vargo said.