Associate Director Mary Syslo, Director Brett Smith, Program Manager Rob Mineo, and Consultant Mary Kelly Cohick all work at the Lehigh Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC helps connect new businesses with funding opportunities and consulting resources. (Maeve Kelly/ B&W Staff)

Small Business Development Center leaves big impact


There are currently about 33.2 million small businesses in the United States, and almost 6 million of them will fail within their first year, according to the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Currently with about 18% of businesses failing, that number will increase to about half after five years and 65% after 10 years. 

To help business owners not fall victim to these statistics, America’s Small Business Development Center network was invented to provide resources and assistance to small business owners across the country, according to their website.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, Pennsylvania is home to 1.1 million small businesses. Today, the Pennsylvania SBDC network consists of 15 centers at various universities across the state. 

The Lehigh University branch was established in 1980 to help small businesses in Lehigh, Northampton, Bucks and Montgomery counties.

According to the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, almost 85% of businesses in the Lehigh Valley have fewer than 20 employees and around half of businesses have fewer than five employees. Like all SBDCs, Lehigh SBDC works to provide eligible small businesses with no-cost, confidential consulting.

Jasmita Saini, ‘16G, started working for Lehigh SBDC in 2015 as a graduate student in Lehigh’s MBA program. After graduation, Saini stayed on as a part-time business analyst and eventually became a full-time business consultant. 

In her role, Saini meets with small businesses to help create individual business plans, give professional advice and provide support for new business owners.

“What we’re trying to eliminate is lack of knowledge and lack of resources,” Saini said. “That’s where we step in.”

Between September 2022 and October 2023, Lehigh SBDC served 743 clients, resulting in the start of 56 new businesses, while supporting 3,147 jobs, according to the center’s annual report.

Soltech Solutions, Bonn Place Brewing Company and Steel City Bowls & Brews are a handful of small businesses in Bethlehem that have been supported by the center.


Soltech Solutions

Soltech Solutions produces indoor grow lights to make indoor farming possible. Grow lights mimic the sun and allow plants to grow anywhere indoors. 

Owner Paul Hodges decided to settle in Bethlehem after discovering it had been named the 58th best place to start a business by CNN. After discovering Lehigh SBDC online, Hodges reached out to ask for help with Soltech Solutions’ business plan.

“They sat down — didn’t ask for a dollar — and they gave me all the time and more than I needed and referred me to people,” Hodges said. “It was exactly what I had hoped for. It was incredible.”

Hodges said through working with Lehigh SBDC, Soltech Solutions became eligible for the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone, which offers financial assistance and resources to early-stage startup companies. 

While Soltech Solutions is no longer a startup, Lehigh SBDC continues to provide additional consulting services for no cost.

“There’s so many levels of these resources, but they’re all there for you at any existing level,” Hodges said. “The SBDC was there for us from the very beginning, and they’re still there for us now.”


Bonn Place Brewing Company

Similar to Hodges, Sam Masotto, an owner of Bonn Place Brewing Company, relocated to Bethlehem to open his small business.

After performing at ArtsQuest during their tour of the off-Broadway show “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding,” Masotto was inspired to return to Bethlehem with his partner, but this time as business partners.

Masotto became interested in learning how to brew beer at home while working part-time jobs at breweries in New York City. He decided he was going to open his own brewery when he stopped acting.

Bartender Dylan Fatzsingner pours a drink at Bonn Place Brewing Company. The Lehigh Small Business Development Center helped Bonn Brewing get their business started. (Maeve Kelly/ B&W Staff)

Bonn Place Brewing Company, a brewery and taproom, opened in South Bethlehem at the end of July 2016. 

When he reached out to the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Center to inquire about a loan, Masotto was referred to Lehigh SBDC. He was eligible for their revolving loan fund, which granted Bonn Place Brewing Company a $30,000 loan at a 4% interest rate.

Masotto said he was nervous about opening his own business since he didn’t attend business school and had never run a business before owning and operating one. But the center provided Masotto with the opportunity to pursue a business he never thought was possible.

“The SBDC Lehigh has been an incredible support, and there’s no question that they are a big part of the reason why we exist,” Masotto said.

When Masotto first relocated to Bethlehem, he said he was unaware of the resources Bethlehem provides for small businesses. Seven years later, Masotto said if he had to open a small business all over again, he would still choose to open it in Bethlehem. 

“To move here and find a resource that was just available to the community really shows you that there is a partnership between Lehigh and in the South Bethlehem area especially,” Masotto said. “The SBDC absolutely exemplifies good community and partnership.”


Steel City Bowl & Brews

Across the Minsi Trail Bridge, Lee Sandt, lifelong Lehigh Valley resident and bowler, purchased Town & Country Lanes in March 2022. The Bethlehem bowling alley has since transformed into Steel City Bowls & Brews.

Despite Sandt’s extensive bowling knowledge, he knew little about how to run a successful bowling alley.

After an unproductive run with Wells Fargo, Sandt worked with Fulton Bank, who recommended he reach out to Lehigh SBDC. Although he didn’t know where to start, Sandt said Lehigh SBDC was still able to make his business become a reality.

Sandt said Lehigh SBDC assisted him in helping to create his business plan, both by providing templates and one-on-one service. Additionally, Sandt received cash flow projections to learn how to better increase business.

While Sandt said the process of opening a small business can be stressful, it was helpful to know he always had professionals looking out for him. Sandt said he recommends incoming small business owners in the area reach out to Lehigh SBDC, especially if they have limited business knowledge.

“I was very happy with the relationship we had and what was done for us, and the fact that there were people there that were willing to help us that we didn’t even know,” Sandt said. “It was a great resource.”

For more information, or to get in touch with Lehigh SBDC, visit here.

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