San Jose’s Small Business Ally Program – Meet Xuan and Juan!

From left, Xuan Ha and Juan Borrelli, San Jose Small Business Allies

It’s a well-worn cliché that working with City Hall – in any city – can be a daunting experience. Like all cities, San Jose asks businesses to conform to regulations and ordinances designed to protect customers, ensure good business practices and align with the city’s design guidelines.  Additionally, many businesses also have to figure out separate requirements from the County and the State. Negotiating this web of regulations, inspections, permits and fees can be frustrating. The City of San Jose decided in 2013 to create a job function – Small Business Ally – designed to “Sherpa” businesses through this process. Today, two individuals carry the Small Business Ally title; they are funded by the Office of Economic Development and work out of the Planning Department, helping small businesses get up and running.

Meet Xuan Ha and Juan Borrelli, the City of San Jose Small Business Allies. From their office in the Permit Center on the first floor of City Hall, Xuan and Juan engage with clients seeking help and interface regularly with organizations such as the Downtown Association, ethnic chambers of commerce, Business Owner Space partners, and County and State officials. Their job is to help guide their clients through the process of permitting, construction, inspection and eventually, grand opening ribbon-cutting celebrations for their new business in San Jose. You can get a sense of their services and client orientation in our Permit Center‘s online video on starting a food-related video in San Jose.

Xuan began her involvement with the City as an intern in the office of former City Councilmember Madison Nguyen, and then worked for California Assemblymember Kansen Chu. As the bi-lingual daughter of small business owners who immigrated to this country, Xuan is personally and professionally superbly equipped to help prospective business owners navigate the process of finding a site and getting all the necessary permits and sign-offs for their new business.

“One of my roles is to help my clients take advantage of all the resources available to them,” says Xuan. “We can’t recommend specific architects or contractors or lawyers or accountants, but we can get the business-owner in touch with the community organizations like SCORE who can help get them the professional services they need, which will make their journey much smoother.”

Juan Borrelli was the first Small Business Ally for the City, appointed in 2013, after he had worked in Environmental Services, and in many neighborhood-based projects for the City, including the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative. A San Jose native, Juan is delighted to bring his fluency in Spanish to work.

“One of the most rewarding challenges over the past couple of years was being able to jump in as soon as the firefighters put out the fire at the Cahalan Shopping Center in South San Jose, to start helping the burned-out businesses,” Juan says. “We were able to help four of the stores, including the huge favorite, Sweet Retreat, find new locations and get set up again after the catastrophe.”

Programmatically, Juan and Xuan were part of San Jose’s very successful Streamlined Restaurant Program that was piloted in 2016 and implemented officially in 2017. The program helps qualified restaurants and cafes complete their permitting processes in record time. The program has reduced plan review time from a previous average of four to six months down to four weeks – or less. This makes an enormous difference to the small business owner, who has to pay rent during the permitting process, but can’t make any money. “The faster the permits are completed, the sooner cash flow can start,” says Juan.

Some of the recent successes for the Small Business Allies have been to work with the City’s zoning code to find ways to permit completely new kinds of business, including:

  • A residential development that replicates the custom in Chinese and other Asian cultures, to provide a completely self-contained, supportive, live-in experience for new mothers and their babies, for the first month or so after birth. Most immigrant new parents don’t have the extended family or the room in their homes to provide this kind of hands-on support, making this a valuable service.
  • A restaurant/bar that includes a video game arcade experience — existing City regulations specified pinball and slot machines, not envisioning video games.
  • Escape room – a whole new kind of entertainment experience, which Juan describes as “a live game of Clue” but which wasn’t covered until adjustments were made to the “commercial indoor recreation” description to lower the number of parking spaces required.

In Fiscal Year 2017-2018, Xuan and Juan helped 900 small businesses with general assistance in the City’s development process, and 300 entrepreneurs received more in-depth project permit and inspection assistance, in English, Spanish or Vietnamese.

For a complete description and information on contacting Xuan and Juan, visit the City’s Start Your Business page.