04.14.2011 – Mayor Proclaims City’s First ‘Foursquare Day’ – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Mayor proclaims city’s first ‘Foursquare Day’

Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially creates the Big Apple’s first social media holiday, named after local startup Foursquare; event will include parties, business discounts and charity events.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
April 14, 2011 3:43 p.m
Dennis Crowley

Buck Ennis [+] Enlarge
Dennis Crowley co-founded Foursquare in Manhattan.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday created the city’s first social media holiday, declaring Saturday, April 16, to be “Foursquare Day” in honor of one of the city’s most successful startups.

Mr. Bloomberg visited Foursquare’s office to announce the holiday, which will be celebrated with parties, business discounts and charity events. More than a dozen cities in the U.S. have officially proclaimed Foursquare Day for April 16—the fourth sixteenth of the year (the mathematically inclined get it: four, squared). Other participating cities include Miami, Atlanta and Austin, Texas.

Foursquare lets mobile phone users “check in” at their current location. A certain number of check-ins can make someone a virtual mayor, and different types of check-ins earn users virtual badges. Checking in also provides Foursquare users with tips and business discounts associated with their location. In return for the free advertising, businesses give discounts to users who recommend them. The social media service currently has 8 million users, more than $20 million in venture capital funding and more than 60 employees (up from five in January 2010). Co-founder Dennis Crowley was named a 40 Under 40 by Crain’s this year.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office said honoring companies like Foursquare showcases the city’s focus on promoting its cutting-edge home-grown tech industry.

“New York City has a lot of competitive advantages, most importantly a diverse and skilled workforce,” he said.

The city will also honor Foursquare at the sixth annual Made in New York Awards on June 6. It will be the first time a social media company is honored, said the spokesman.
Mr. Crowley said via email that he was “blown away” by the level of enthusiasm.
“The city has been extremely supportive of what we’re doing, and it’s amazing to get this level of recognition from Mayor Bloomberg,” he said. “Both me and [co-founder Naveen Selvadurai] are long-term New Yorkers, and we have always felt like this is the best place to build a startup.”

Foursquare Day started small last year, when a user in Tampa, Fla. invented it as a way to generate foot traffic to his own company. Meetups quickly multiplied, as did the level of organizer creativity.

This year, Mr. Crowley said, users from “over 500 communities” around the world are sponsoring anything from “scavenger hunts to food drives to actual games of [the schoolyard game] foursquare.”

Big Apple Foursquare users have planned several meetups on Saturday; listings are available on Foursquare. With more time to prepare this year, many businesses have been stepping up to sponsor special events.

One meetup on Saturday will take place at the SideBar. Participants can go online to score a free ride in a double-decker bus from Times Square to the venue, complete with a tour guide and free swag from Pretzel Crisps.

Another meetup will be held at the boutique Roger Smith hotel; festivities include a competitive bacon-eating contest sponsored by the League of Amateur Competitive Eaters.

The marketing potential of Foursquare Day is not lost on businesses, said Walter Elly, emerging technology director at Portsmouth, N.H.-based creative branding company MicroArts.

“All sorts of fun things start to happen when everyone in a town is using Foursquare at the same time,” he said. Last year, more than 30 businesses sponsored events for Portsmouth’s Foursquare Day.

03.07.2011 – City Aids Entrepreneurial Immigrants – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

City aids entrepreneurial immigrants

New York City to start offering its free small business courses in Chinese, Korean and Russian; Latino and Asian immigrants startups grew the fastest, one study shows.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
March 7, 2011 12:05 p.m.
Entrepreneurial immigrants will soon be able to take the city’s free small business courses in Chinese, Korean and Russian, thanks to a new city initiative unveiled last week.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the plan as part of three new programs aimed at aiding New York’s immigrant entrepreneurs. The Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, in conjunction with the city’s Economic Development Corp. and Department of Small Business Services, are funding the programs.

The language component will begin “immediately” with the creation of a pilot program to translate the city’s free small business courses into Chinese, Korean, and Russian, according to EDC spokesman Kyle Sklerov. Existing Spanish language courses will also be expanded.

The initiative represents a step forward for immigrant businesses, according to Yanki Tshering, executive director of the Business Center for New Americans, a New York City-based nonprofit that aids immigrant entrepreneurs.

“It’s definitely been a long time in coming,” said Ms. Tshering. Historically, she said, there has been “a lack of awareness of the need for support for immigrant business, especially considering how progressive New York City is and the high number of immigrants that are here.”

The mayor’s actions come at a time when the percentage of new immigrant entrepreneurs soared nationwide. The Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, which tracks monthly business creation, found that for 2010, an average of 620 out of 100,000 immigrants, or 0.6%, started a new business monthly, compared to only 280 out of 100,000, or 0.3%, for native-born citizens.

That gap is widening. While business creation by immigrants rose sharply from 2009 to 2010, the rate started native-born Americans dropped. The index culled data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to come up with the figures.

Latino and Asian immigrant business startups grew the fastest, according to the Kauffman Foundation.

“The mayor is committed to these groups,” Mr. Sklerov said. “They will be a huge part of New York’s future.” Mr. Sklerov cited a 2007 Center for an Urban Future study finding that even back in 2000, immigrants made up 49% of all self-employed workers in the city. 2010 U.S. Census statistics won’t be available until later this year.

Despite their role in the local small business community, immigrants in NYC face daunting barriers, such as access to credit, Mr. Sklerov said. The city and the Deutsche Bank foundation will split the costs for a competition that will award $25,000 each to five city nonprofits that create plans to aid immigrant entrepreneurs. The nonprofit deemed to have the best plan to promote immigrant startups at the end of a pilot period will be awarded an additional $100,000.

Mr. Sklerov said the city will begin accepting plan submissions from nonprofits sometime this summer and will pick the ultimate winner by next year. The main requirement of a good plan, he said, will be inclusiveness. “We live in a large city,” he said. “We’re looking for something that’s going to work for immigrants everywhere in New York.”

The Economic Development Corp. and Department of Small Business Services are working with Baruch College, the Pratt Center for Community Development and the South Brooklyn Industrial Development Corp. to plan a business expo for local immigrant-run food manufacturing businesses. Baruch College’s Newman Conference Center in Manhattan will host the expo on May 25.

Ms. Tshering said the Business Center for New Americans was “very excited” about the initiatives. “We will definitely participate in the competition,” she said, noting that Deutsche Bank representatives keen on funding immigrant business had already contacted her organization.

The biggest step forward in the initiatives will be to give immigrant business owners more access to information, Ms. Tschering said. “And I think the mayor sincerely means that.”

02.24.2011 – New York’s Asian Immigrants MIssing Social Services – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

NY’s Asian immigrants missing social services

The Asian-American communities in New York City have grown too quickly for social services to keep up, according to a new report released Thursday.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
Published: February 24, 2011 – 3:58 pm
A new report from a Chinatown nonprofit concludes that Asian-American communities in New York City have grown so fast over the past decade that their constituents no longer have adequate access to social services like health care and English-as-a-second-language programs.Asian Americans for Equality, a longtime booster of immigrant education and housing equality in the city, released the report Thursday. The research focused on nine neighborhoods throughout the city whose Asian-American populations totaled 25% or more. It found that although Asian-Americans represent over 12% of the metropolitan area’s population, Asian-American-led community groups receive only about 1% of the city’s social service contracts.“Asian-American communities have really grown beyond the traditional enclaves in New York”, said Douglas Nam Le, author of the report. “The question is, are they represented? Have the community boards kept up?”

Mr. Le said traditional Asian family structures favor economic cooperation among family members, and because of high rents and low wages, a large number of family members are often squeezed into the same house or apartment to cut costs. This distorts household income reports, he said. For his report, Mr. Le analyzed data from U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys, conducted monthly from 2005-2009.

“The way that these social service contracts are set up sometimes excludes certain ethnicities,” Mr. Le said. He added that in many of the city’s Asian-American families, “even though there’s relative parity in household income, per capita income is lower than the neighborhood average.”

Mr. Le said he hopes the results of the 2010 Census, to be released later this year, will help spur more affordable housing and better social service access for the emerging and rapidly shifting groups, who often must travel far from their own neighborhoods to Flushing, Queens, or Manhattan’s Chinatown to obtain needed services.

“We get a lot of calls from the outer boroughs, like Brooklyn,” said Vanessa Leung, deputy director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families. Long travel times mean that “people probably are not going to seek preventative care from health clinics,” she said. “It’s an additional barrier, especially if they have to take time off work.”

The report also found many smaller Asian-American groups lacked access to English language instruction in their neighborhoods.

Kelly Magee, a spokeswoman for City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who co-founded Asian Americans for Equality back in 1974 and represents the Chinatown district, issued a statement saying that, without basic ESL programs, immigrant “access to social services, jobs, and engagement with the wider political arena is limited.”

“Furthermore, as the makeup of traditional immigrant neighborhoods evolve, it is important for long-term residents to have the capacity and organization to influence such changes, not be victimized or further isolated by them,” the statement said.

Deep cuts in city social services due to the economic downturn have only worsened the isolation, said Linda Lee, an executive director of Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York.

As one of the largest Korean-American social service groups in the city, the nonprofit runs an adult daycare center, two senior centers, a meals-on-wheels program and an ESL center. But Ms. Lee said a more than 30% cut in city funding last year led to a 100-person wait list for English language instruction.

“We try our best to accommodate the needs,” Ms. Lee said. “But it’s kind of difficult.”

02.17.2011 – Walmart Foes Testify Before City Council – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Walmart foes testify before City Council

Anti-Walmart advocates and ex-employees seeking to block the entry of the world’s largest retailers into New York City air allegations of widespread labor abuses.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
February 17, 2011 3:49 p.m

Updated: February 17, 2011 6:15 p.m

Lawyers, advocates and former Walmart employees testified against the potential entry of the mega-retailer into the five boroughs before three committees of the City Council Thursday. As expected, their testimony was almost unanimously critical of the Bentonville, Ark.-based company’s conduct.

Several witnesses presented testimony, based on workers’ lawsuits, of what they charged were widespread labor abuses built into Walmart’s corporate structure. The allegations spanned the country and ranged from Walmart forcing employees to work extra hours with no pay, to repeated instances of management retribution against workers who tried to unionize.

The comments of Council members themselves on Walmart also skewed negative, with the exception of Queens Councilman Eric Ulrich, who said he supported the retailer’s entry into the city to combat rampant unemployment in his district.

“In this country, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” said Mr. Ulrich, referring to various civil action suits pending against Walmart, many of which allege labor, civil rights and human rights violations on a company-wide scale.

Former Walmart grocery manager Sandra Carpenter said when she attempted to educate “immigrant employees not familiar with the rights that we are supposed to have in this country,” the managers at her store engaged in retribution by forcing her to work off the clock for up to two hours a day. She estimates she lost more than $4,000 in overtime payments.

Attorney Claude Leblanc, who represents 190 Walmart workers in Jonquiere, Quebec, said that when his clients attempted to unionize, Walmart shut the store down and fired everyone.

“This kind of closure, within the law of the province of Quebec, is illegal,” said Mr. Leblanc, whose clients won damages from the retailer.

The comments of City Council members themselves on Walmart also skewed overwhelmingly negative.

“No one would argue with the desire to seek out lower prices,” said Deborah Rose, Council chair of the Committee on Civil Rights. “But often, a store’s low prices come with a high price for workers.”

“If you don’t adhere to the standards of this city, you will not reap its benefits,” added Julissa Fererras, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues for the Council.

But Mr. Ulrich asserted that it was “not the government’s job” to block private enterprise.

“People need jobs,” said Mr. Ulrich, adding that if Walmart were allowed into his district, people would be “lined up around the block” with applications.

For the second hearing in a row, Walmart refused to send representatives to address the Council. Instead they issued a statement while hearings were still underway, rebutting many of the allegations of the panels.

In a press statement titled “Setting the Record Straight on Today’s City Council Meeting,” the company specifically countered the claim made by Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, among others, that Walmart’s entry into New York would devastate the local economy by driving small business away and lowering the area’s wages and benefits.

The company cited a 2005 paper by economist Jason Furman, now an adviser to the Obama administration, that concluded “the company itself does not appear to pay lower wages or benefits than similar companies, or to cause substantially lower wages in the retail sector.”

The release also countered allegations of wage theft and other labor abuses.

Thursday’s hearing was the second City Council meeting in a month to deal with the controversy over Walmart’s interest in New York City locations such as Queens’ Jamaica Bay and Willet’s Point.

02.14.2011 – Children’s TV Show WordWorld Files for Bankruptcy – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Children’s TV show WordWorld files for bankruptcy

The Chapter 11 filing for the award-winning public television show is part of a corporate restructuring, according to the production company.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
February 14, 2011 3:51 p.m

WordWorld.com WordWorld is a three-time Emmy-winning children’s public television show that helps pre-schoolers learn to read.

WordWorld, the production company behind a three-time Emmy-winning children’s public television show that helps pre-schoolers learn to read, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Feb. 10.

The move is part of a larger corporate restructuring, according to a statement from the company.

“The company’s current capital structure, operating losses and liquidity restraints made it challenging to raise required capital outside of a Chapter 11 filing, and the upfront costs for building the intellectual property, television series and brand were substantial,” the statement reads.

Chief Executive Don Moody Jr. said that the company’s debt problems were a classic example of the rapid growth of a “great brand” outpacing its recognition among potential customers.

“The licensing side doesn’t start to grow until you have the exposure,” he said. “We grew very fast.”

Though Mr. Moody and his cousin, Jacqueline, only created the WordWorld program in 2007, they have already expanded the broadcast licensing to more than 90 countries and 11 languages, along with the requisite stable of toys, DVDs, software and sippy cups.

Mr. Moody attributes the show’s success among educators and parents to its unique proprietary “word-building” concept—the company boasts that partial funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education—plus high 3-D animated production values. But because of the chill in the industry over the past few years, the company struggled to keep pace with costs.

“We’ve already cut our overhead to the bone,” Mr. Moody said. Now, he said, it’s just a matter of “cleaning up the balance sheet.”

Kellie Specter, a spokeswoman for WNET/Thirteen television in New York, said that regardless of the bankruptcy filing, the show is “a big part of the kids’ block” on the PBS outlet and said the network planned to continue airing it.

According to WordWorld’s bankruptcy filing, the Manhattan-based company had liabilities totaling $10 million to $50 million and assets of $1 million to $10 million. Nearly $3.3 million is owed to PCEP II WW Holdings of Fort Lee, N.J., the company’s largest creditor. The next largest creditor is Crest Animation Studio in Mumbai, India, which is owed some $2.2 million.

02.14.2011 – Sprawling Pfizer Plant in Brooklyn Sold – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Sprawling Pfizer plant in Brooklyn sold

Surprise buyer plans to convert the 660,000-square-foot facility to light industrial and commercial use; sale leaves several large parcels unsold.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
February 14, 2011 2:11 p.m
 Two years after abandoning an attempt to redevelop its sprawling former manufacturing complex in Brooklyn, drug giant Pfizer announced Monday that it had reached a surprise agreement to sell a piece of that property to Acumen Capital Partners of Long Island City.

The 660,000-square-foot plant had been sitting vacant since 2008, when the Manhattan-based company ceased operations in the South Williamsburg neighborhood where it had begun operations in a small factory in 1849. At the time of the closing, 600 jobs were lost, a fraction of those employed at the plant in its heyday.

The buyer is Acumen Capital Partners, a Long Island City-based real estate investment firm specializing in buying empty buildings in the outer boroughs and converting them for light industrial and commercial use, as it now plans to do at the Pfizer site. The conversion should bring jobs back to the area.

“This is great news,” said Carl Hum, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “The track record that Acumen Capital has—it’s great at coming up with creative uses for buildings. It’s at the forefront of urban architecture.”

According to its website, Acumen emphasizes environmental sustainability when redeveloping properties, which could mean big changes for the aging plant. In Long Island City last spring, Acumen put a 40,000-square-foot vegetable farm on top of a six-story former auto plant on Northern Boulevard that it had bought a few years earlier.

In 2007, Pfizer sent out requests for proposals for its Brooklyn site, looking for construction of affordable housing, and job creation. Owing to the recession, the company was unable to identify any attractive proposals.

In a press statement Pfizer said: “We were subsequently approached by a party interested in acquiring only the existing manufacturing facility and adjacent parking lot,” a total of about eight acres. The statement went on to note that with the sale to Acumen it “would leave intact all of the vacant parcels north of the manufacturing building for future development.”

“We’re very excited about this project and the benefits it will bring to the neighborhood,” said Pfizer spokesman Christopher Loder.

Pfizer closed the 660,000 square-foot plant in 2008, resulting in the loss of 600 jobs in Brooklyn and setting off a debate over the future of former factory properties in the borough. Mr. Loder said Pfizer’s plans for the approximately five acres of remaining parcels, scattered north of the plant, still include the option of affordable housing.

“Although I wish Pfizer could have found a way to stay in its hometown of Brooklyn, I am thrilled that Acumen is helping to bring more light industry to our borough,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz in a statement. “This new facility will generate much-needed jobs, and attract the sort of innovative companies and artisans that redefine their craft every day.

02.11.2011 – NYC’s Egyptians Breathe Sigh of Relief – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

NYC’s Egyptians breathe sigh of relief

President Hosni Mubarak left office Friday, giving responsibility for the country to the military. Some Egyptian-Americans in the city feel suddenly hopeful.

By Benjamin J. Spencer

AP Images
Hosni Mubarak, a former air-force general who as president was commander of the largest military force in the Arab world, was the nation’s longest-serving ruler in more than 150 years.
Published:February 11, 2011 – 11:24 am
President Hosni Mubarak finally heeded the will of his people of Egypt Friday and stepped down from office after 18 days of protests wracked the country. Mr. Mubarak ended his 30 years of autocratic rule by handing over power to the military.

The resignation came after Egyptians streamed out of Friday prayers vowing to topple Mr. Mubarak after he defied calls Thursday for him to leave. Military helicopters buzzed outside the presidential palace at dusk and Arabiya television earlier reported that Mr. Mubarak had left Cairo for the Sinai resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

“Mr. Mubarak has decided to waive the office of the presidency,” said Vice President Omar Suleiman in a statement on state television Friday. “He has instructed the Supreme Council of the armed forced to take over the affairs of the country.”

The immediate reaction from New York’s Egyptian-Americans Friday was cautiously hopeful.

Mostafa Sayed, 39, runs a lunch cart on East 44th Street between Second and Third avenues in Manhattan. Born and raised in Cairo, he boasts a Masters degree in applied statistics. But he couldn’t find work in Egypt, and he chafed under the rule of Mr. Mubarak. Some 13 years ago, he left to become a U.S. citizen.

“If I get my chance there, maybe I’ll go back,” he said. “After 30 years, I feel hopeful.”

Even before Mr. Mubarak stepped down, though, debate ranged far and wide in the Egyptian Coffee Shop in Astoria, Queens, on the foreign country’s future. One topic: whether or not to trust the military that now controls the government.

“He’s like a snake. He’s leaving his head,” said businessman Samy El Sharkawy, referring to Mubarak’s hand-picked military elite, whom he called “the dogs of Mubarak.” He advocated a revolt among the younger members of the army. “One of the young officers will arrest the leaders and take over,” he predicted on Thursday.

Mohamed Soliman, a Queens-based activist who runs a Facebook page called “Civilization’s Bridge,” where opposers to Mr. Mubarak’s government have been meeting for the last 18 months, echoed the Mr. Sharkawy’s call for justice. “All these guys, all the regime, are supposed to be under arrest,” he said. He hopes to see elections in Egypt as early as September.

But Egyptian Coffee Shop owner Labib Salama had a more moderate stance. “We hate the Egyptian police,” he said. “But we trust the military.”

Change may come quickly, regardless of whether the Egyptian military wishes it.

Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google Inc. in the Middle East and North Africa and a figurehead of the protests, on Friday read out a list of demands that included abolishing all restrictions on forming political parties and giving voting rights to Egyptians living abroad.

If they came to pass, concessions like those could spell a radical shift in geopolitical power, said Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi, speaking at a Thursday evening panel “Egypt Arising.”

A well-known Palestinian-American historian and the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia, Mr. Khalidi said any number of U.S. and Israeli interests could be threatened by what he called “a thoroughly revitalized Arab world.”

“This will pose a problem for Washington,” he said.

But U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the Washington representative the “Little Egypt” neighborhood in Astoria, said in a statement that she fully supported the change.

“Today, the bravery of the Egyptian people made history. Those who gathered in Tahrir Square deserve the credit for changing their nation and making this huge step forward.” Ms. Maloney said.

The Columbia panel concluded that the future of Egypt after Mr. Mubarak’s departure is anyone’s guess. But Mona El Ghobashy, a political science professor at Barnard College who frequently comments on the country, sounded a note of caution.

“There’s a danger in parliamentary elections,” she said. “The way forward is fragmentation.”

Queens limousine driver Fathy Ahmed, who has two children still living in Egypt, can only hope the opposition stands against the endemic corruption he saw for the past 30 years.

“I hope we choose good people,” he said simply.

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.