If you have a favorite Detroit-area small business that made it through the last few tumultuous years, chances are you have Wafa Dinaro to thank. When COVID hit, Dinaro was the director of economic development for Wayne County and led a program that provided millions in support to small businesses, most of them minority and/or women-owned. These efforts did not go unnoticed. When Pamela Lewis, the highly regarded executive director of the New Economy Initiative, announced she was leaving the organization, she personally tapped Dinaro to replace her. NEI has been the leading advocate for metro Detroit’s small businesses since its founding in 2007, and in her new role, Dinaro oversees the organization’s program and grantmaking activities, as well as its policy work.
Given her stature in the small business community, it’s surprising that Dinaro entered this field by accident. When she joined Wayne County in 2018, her job was to sell the county’s excess real estate holdings. Prior to that, she worked in corporate marketing and as a trainer and Middle East specialist for the Department of Defense — a job the ’04 political science grad learned about through a campus job fair. Small business work became part of Dinaro’s portfolio when she was named the economic development department’s director, but it was the pandemic that really put it front and center. “Small businesses were struggling,” she recalls. “In a very short time, we did $70 million in grants to small businesses, just to give them cash flow, to be able to pay their rent, to be able to pay their employees.”
At that time, Dinaro began talking to Lewis about expanding NEI’s work countywide, and that’s when Lewis recommended Dinaro apply for her job. It took some convincing, but now, she says she’s not looking back. “The organization just does really incredible work, and I get to impact my own community. I get to do economic development, which I absolutely love, and I really get to see the impact of my work on a daily basis,” she says. This impact extends far beyond the businesses themselves. “More than half of employees are employed by small businesses,” Dinaro observes. “When we’re looking at incentives for large corporations, we always look at, ‘How do we bring 100 jobs? How do we bring 200 jobs?’ When you invest even a relatively small percentage of that funding into small businesses, you’re still creating those jobs. But you’re creating them in the neighborhoods. They’re hiring people. Once the money in communities gets spent in the communities, it really helps to build the individual communities.”
Which is not to say the difference she’s made in the lives of business owners hasn’t made a mark. “I literally would have business owners call me sobbing on the phone that I saved their business,” Dinaro says. “Being able to reduce that stress and being able to give people a little bit of optimism and hope was everything.”
Story by Kristin Palm