When the coronavirus pandemic hit eight months ago, many Latinx and Black business owners missed out on federal loans and other relief because they didn’t have relationships with local bankers or didn’t have financial statements in order.
Member-based nonprofit business organizations responded by reducing or waiving member fees, offering referrals and advocacy, and providing direct support for local businesses.
Initially, many Latinx business owners were leery of grants and other available assistance — or they didn’t have the financial documents needed to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program through their bank, said Ana Jose, program manager at the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“For some reason the Latinx community — when you say free, they don’t really believe you,” Jose said. “They have to know you are coming from a good place to take that help. If you’re not used to getting that assistance, you’re not going to believe it unless you hear it from someone you actually trust.”
Restrictions issued on Nov. 15 by the Whitmer administration have meant new challenges for some businesses, especially bars and restaurants. The goal now is to make sure these companies’ finances are in order if and when the federal government approves additional stimulus funding.
“We are working diligently and putting together an accounting program to allow businesses to revamp their (profit and loss) statement and balance sheet, so when they sit down with a banker, they have their information ready to go,” Jose said. “We want to make sure we eliminate those barriers for them.”
Both Jose and Local First of West Michigan President Hanna Schulze said business organizations have rallied to help local companies regardless of whether they are members.
The Hispanic Chamber has 750 member businesses and is offering a one-year free membership for those who join by Dec. 31.
Local First also launched a Pay What You Can scholarship as a way to help struggling business owners. The renewal drive runs until the end of the year. While most businesses are opting to pay a portion of the annual fee, full scholarships are also available.
“We all recognized right away in 2020 that support needed to be available to any business that needed it,” Schulze said. “We really are that sort of interconnected network that helps folks access the capital and connect to other resources.”
Sharing resources, employee concerns
Local First of West Michigan has focused on creating a support network for businesses to reach out and build relationships with one another. When businesses first faced closures, Schulze said the organization connected Latinx business owners with attorneys, financial advisers and CPAs willing to offer pro bono advice. Local First also referred them to the Hispanic Chamber for translation services and other assistance.
The region’s nonprofit business organizations — including the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, The Right Place Inc., the Hispanic Chamber and Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB) — have worked together to share resources and information. They also have offered support and referrals to businesses that are not members. Local First did not receive CARES Act funding to directly support businesses, but team members did sit on review committees that awarded grants, Schulze said.
For a planner like Gricelda Mata, owner of Lindo Mexico, living through the pandemic as a restaurant owner has been an emotional roller coaster. She received grants from The Right Place and the Grand Rapids Chamber to help with operational expenses, and belongs to both Local First and the Hispanic Chamber.
The latest state emergency order barring restaurants and bars from offering dine-in service until Dec. 8 has Mata most concerned about her employees.
“It’s just very tough emotionally because I have to lay off people,” she said. “The hardest part right now is there is no help for businesses or families. Or the unemployment benefits (aren’t) much. I am just very concerned and worried about the families I’ll be laying off. We’re going to do the best we can to help.”
Jose often hears similar concerns about employees having to miss work because of illness, shutdown or self-quarantine. After conversations with Schulze, Jose established the Unity Fund through the Hispanic Chamber to help business owners offer paid leave to their employees who have to stay home.
Schulze helped secure $7,500 for the fund, and Jose has applied for grants in hopes of raising $50,000 to open the program for applications. The fund would match a week of paid leave that an employer provides.
“I am hoping other people will be able to join us and make it where people can actually stay home and not have their utilities shut off or be able to feed their families,” Jose said.
Jose personally helped nearly 60 business owners with U.S. Small Business Administration and Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications, and the Hispanic Chamber’s partnership with The Right Place awarded $5,000 grants to the Latinx business community.
“The Right Place received CARES Act money, and we were one of the partners to ensure the community was receiving these funds,” Jose said.
Roughly 90 businesses received grants from The Right Place to help with cash flow or pay rent and utilities during a second round of funding. The increased participation was based in large part on the Hispanic Chamber’s awareness and outreach efforts.
“We had to really call. We were texting 400 businesses in the community, sending them information about the grants, the SBA loans, sending them information about the training,” Jose said. “We were very intentional about being out there. We told them, ‘If you don’t do something now, you may end up closing or losing your business.’”
The Hispanic Chamber also launched a training program for businesses to ensure they were following COVID-19 state mandates and guidelines for reopening, including providing signage and information on record-keeping.
“We still have training for businesses to participate in to learn exactly what MIOSHA is looking for,” Jose said.
The pandemic has brought to light other disparities for minority-owned businesses. Early on, as some restaurants and retail shifted to online sales, Schulze noticed an obvious “tech gap.”
Many minority-owned businesses lacked the technological know-how, infrastructure or resources to support online operations, as minority business advocates have previously told MiBiz.
Local First optimized its own website, improving search engine optimization (SEO) capabilities and its online business directory. In some cases, a company’s Local First listing comes up first in a Google search or serves as its primary online presence.
Business owners can update their own listing in real time, letting customers know if they have changed hours or temporarily closed. The listing also allows users to view photos, hours and click through to the business website.
Local First offers training and networking opportunities to members and disseminates information on COVID-19 mandates, policy changes and relief efforts. Schulze said the organization will continue to connect businesses with local, state and federal resources and facilitate relationship-based connections.
“Local small business owners are so buried in the logistics of running a business,” Schulze said. “It’s one thing to send an email or letter, but having that trusted relationship or to be able to sit and speak with a person who can help them navigate some of the particular hoops a business owner has to jump through is so important.”
With COVID-19 cases spiking and the latest temporary shutdowns, Schulze stressed the importance of a new stimulus package and having people in support roles helping business owners navigate available resources to survive the winter.
Jose said the Hispanic Chamber remains committed to serving its member and non-member businesses and encourages the community to do the same. Small businesses are critical to the local economy and vibrant neighborhoods.
“We need to make sure we support each other and that we are willing and able to do whatever it takes to help businesses stay afloat,” Jose said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but that is what we need to do.”
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