How to Ensure Small Businesses Survive the Pandemic and Flourish in the Future

Telegraph Avenue

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

Small businesses contribute significant economic and social value to California and the Bay Area. In 2020, they accounted for 99.8% of all of California’s businesses and employed 48.5% of the state’s employees. They also drive economic growth. A 2020 report from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development noted that small businesses create two-thirds of new jobs in the state. In Black communities and communities of color, small businesses have become the foundation of entire economies through place-based investment, employment opportunities and wealth creation.

Earlier this summer, we hosted a conversation for SPUR business members with Ahmed Ali Bob, community affairs lead at Square, Christina Bernardin, project manager at Boston Properties, and Elisse Douglass, co-founder of the Oakland Black Business Fund, on the vital role small businesses, particularly Black-owned and businesses of color, play in their communities. The panelists reflected on the events of the past year and provided a playbook for policies to ensure the resilience of small businesses of color.

Despite their economic value, Black businesses and businesses of color face extraordinary obstacles in starting up and staying open. Pre-COVID, the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce reported that eight out of 10 Black-owned businesses do not make it past their first 18 months. The COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic recession made it even more difficult for Black businesses to remain open. According to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report, Black-owned businesses have closed down at twice the rate of white-owned businesses throughout the pandemic. For those businesses who have remained open, 53% of surveyed Black-owned businesses saw their revenues drop by half in the first seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent H&R Block survey of almost 3,000 small businesses.

Regarding social value, small businesses are indispensable to the vibrancy of a place. Black-owned businesses and businesses of color are critical social infrastructure. These institutions serve as community gathering places and informal cultural centers. Often, they provide services and goods that are not offered elsewhere. As a result, these businesses provide visible representation for their clientele and their communities. In this way, investment in and support of small businesses of color can also serve as a tactic in community stabilization, or anti-gentrification, efforts.
 

Best Practices for Supporting Small Businesses

The panelists laid out a series of best practices for small business resilience based on their direct efforts from the past year. Their recommendations focus on the experience of Black-owned businesses, as these business owners encounter inordinate obstacles to opening and maintaining a business due to structural racism. The lessons learned in addressing challenges facing Black entrepreneurs can be applied to other marginalized and hard-to-reach communities. In fact, the strategies highlighted here can serve as a regional playbook for small business resilience across the Bay Area. Overall, the following practices identify the steps forward to ensure all businesses, especially Black-owned and businesses of color, survive and flourish into the future.

 

1. Help small businesses pivot to new technology and establish a web presence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way consumers shop, with many turning to buying online in order to avoid the potential risks of shopping indoors. While safe and convenient to the consumer, this shift has placed brick-and-mortar shops at a disadvantage. Ahmed Ali Bob of Square stressed the importance of helping small Black-owned businesses establish a web presence to enable online ordering, curbside pickup and local delivery. During the pandemic, Square partnered with the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, the Bay Area chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the Black Joy Parade to host virtual workshops for small Black-owned businesses on the basics of e-commerce. Square also provided in-kind donations of its point-of-sale hardware to Black entrepreneurs.

 

2. Provide small businesses access to culturally responsive grants and capital.

Panelists repeatedly noted that small business owners need access to capital and grants in order to start and maintain their businesses. But this can be difficult for small Black-owned businesses, as systematic racism has historically created barriers to accessing traditional bank loans. Studies have shown that Black business owners most often use personal credit cards as their primary source of initial funding. This provides less access to funding upfront at higher interest rates. Ahmed Ali Bob said in order to help reduce barriers to capital, Square, in partnership with the Oakland Black Business Fund, invested $100 million in making deposits to community development financial institutions and minority depository institutions with the goal of expanding access to credit for underserved Black entrepreneurs and other entrepreneurs of color.

Elisse Douglass of the Black Business Fund also noted the importance of access to capital during the COVID-19 pandemic as small businesses worked to keep their operations afloat. To help with this, the U.S. government offered Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to businesses, yet only 12% of Black- and Latinx-owned businesses received a PPP loan. This was mainly due to lack of awareness of the loans, lack of advantageous banking relationships and the fact that many had not filed their tax returns. To help Black entrepreneurs access these loans, the Black Business Fund partnered with the Community Bank of the Bay on an education series on PPP loans and also paid local Black accountants to help entrepreneurs with their tax returns.

 

3. Preserve and expand the availability of physical retail spaces.

Despite the convenience of online buying, with the world reopening, many consumers are ready to resume shopping in physical retail spaces. This has posed a problem for many small business owners, who have either struggled to maintain payments on existing retail spaces or lack the capital to open a new retail store. Christina Bernardin highlighted ways that Boston Properties has worked to foster and preserve the retail spaces of small businesses. In addition to altering existing leases and deferring rent payments for their small business retail clients, Boston Properties developed a program to provide Class A commercial space to businesses of color. Through this program, small businesses are provided with office and/or retail space at a significant discount from market price for two to three years. This serves as a way for entrepreneurs to use existing infrastructure to get their businesses off the ground, while contributing to their community’s recovery by solving problems such as high vacancy rates, lack of employment and displacement.

 

4. Increase awareness of shopping local and shopping at businesses of color.

Panelists stressed the power that campaigns can have in promoting consumers to shop local and to shop at businesses of color. Consumers want to support the local businesses and businesses in their communities but can sometimes lack the knowledge and or drive to step out of their normal major-chain shopping routine. Ahmed Ali Bob spoke of Square’s efforts to bring awareness of local resources to the Oakland community through their Shoppable Moments campaign. This campaign spotlighted local businesses by featuring their likeness on posters in high-traffic areas. Each poster had a QR code that could take onlookers to the spotlighted business owner’s e-commerce site. Square worked with local organizations such as the Unity Council and The Town Experience to feature many Black and Latinx sellers, which helped introduce new consumers to them.

 

5. Use policy levers thoughtfully and scale what works.

Government and policy can also play a role in bolstering the success of small businesses of color, especially as they adapt to a pandemic-influenced retail atmosphere. It is important for businesses to meet customers where they are — and in these times, customers are outside. Panelists urged cities to enable businesses to use public spaces in as many situations as possible to reach consumers, which includes streamlining the approval process for street closures and parklets. When cities enable businesses, especially restaurants, to conduct business outside and in public spaces, both customers and business owners can benefit and thrive. Even better, panelists encouraged the government to help small businesses of color compete with larger chains by prioritizing these entrepreneurs for credit, permitting and other resources.
 

Conclusion

The conversation offered a thoughtful and strategic playbook on how communities can help small businesses survive and thrive during hard times. Small businesses, especially Black-owned and businesses of color, are tremendous assets to a community’s economy and culture. When they become threatened, it’s essential that the community comes together to ensure their health and security for generations to come.

Please contact Amanda Fasenmyer, director of corporate philanthropy, at afasenmyer@spur.org for information on SPUR business member events.