Color of COVID, the impact of the pandemic

From left: Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins; Katrina Keyes, first vice chair of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce; Sipho Gumbo, CEO and president of Yangu Beauty; and Rick Ortiz, CEO and president of the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. – Photos courtesy of The LiftFund Women’s Business Center

 

By DIANE XAVIER

The Dallas Examiner

 

Sipho Gumbo launched Yangu Beauty, a skincare line for women of color, in 2016. She often visited churches and attended trade shows to market her products.

“I use ancient African oil and cutting-edge science to create products that help women of color have beautiful skin,” Gumbo said.

But like may small busienss owners, surviving during the COVID-19 pandemic has had its challenges and business declined.

“It came to a halt for us just after we had visited the beauty expo in Los Angeles,” she said. “We had met a lot of potential retailers nationally and internationally. So all that was impacted because of COVID. What happened was we had actually had so many retailers have a lot of interest in the business, but because we had to stop we didn’t know where it was going to go. Our international expansion had to come to a halt also.”

Gumbo decided to use the resources available at The LiftFund Women’s Business Center to help turn business around. After attending classes on how to handle and overcome the challenges faced by the pandemic, Gumbo said her business is doing good now. Her products are now available at Neiman Marcus and Amazon.com and she had her highest quarter sales in November 2020.

The LiftFund Women’s Business Center held a zoom conference April 27 called, The Color of COVID: How COVID has impacted businesses for our communities of color, to help more minority business owners who seek the same advice and resources. Hosted by Tarsha Hearns, director of the Liftfund Women’s Business Center, it featured a diverse group of leaders from the Dallas area that discussed the challenges and economic impact experienced by people of color as a result of the pandemic.

“We are a SBA resource partner that offers guidance and support to women and minorities in our community helping them to become successful business leaders,” Hearns said. “How we do that is by offering one on one coaching and business advice, so it doesn’t cost you anything. If you have been impacted by COVID or you haven’t even been impacted by COVID, but you need to sit down and get some sound business advice, you can come to our virtual center right now and receive guidance and support.”

Guests on the panel for the forum included Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins; Katrina Keyes, first vice chair of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce and the owner and CEO of Kay Strategies, a marketing and public relations firm; Rick Ortiz, CEO and president of the greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Speakers also included clients of the Women’s Business Center such as Gumbo; Maria Taylor, owner of AOK Promos; and Kenya Mobley, president of On Track Driving School. All shared stories on how they were able to survive the pandemic as small business leaders and thrive.

Jenkins then discussed the current economic impact that COVID has had for Dallas County and the current health conditions here.

“What you are doing is so important because you guys are heroes of the recovery from this pandemic.” Jenkins said. Two out of three of our jobs here in Dallas County and really throughout America are small businesses. Any new job that is created is created by a small business two or three times. Our small businesses have really hung in there and been strong through this whole COVID experience.”

Jenkins pointed out that Dallas was the number one market for commercial building last year according to a recent study.

“In the workforce area, unemployment hit about 13% and that was back in April 2020 when everything was shutting down around COVID,” he said. “Looking at the third quarter of last year, in August and September at that time, we actually were creating more jobs on the small business front and having more small business startups than we had in the previous year.

“The businesses that lost the most employees or the employees that suffered the most are businesses that had 240 to 400 employees. Small businesses did better than the midsize, and I think businesses did fairly well. The pain was not felt across all sectors of business to the same degree. For instance, businesses where the owner lost the business the most were oil and gas. We don’t have a lot of oil and gas here in Dallas County compared to other parts of the state so that really helped us.”

Jenkins said the biggest loss for Dallas County was employment.

“The number one place where we saw employee layoffs is what we call leisure and hospitality,” he continued. “That would be travel agents or mostly it was staff in a hotel… We saw long layoffs in restaurants.”

He explained how the loss impacted minority communities, as well as and the health disparities in minority communities that were revealed by the pandemic.

“Statistically, you are more likely to get COVID in the jobs you are at and if you’re working,” he said. “When you look at people of color who are in Dallas County they got COVID but at higher frequencies. They had worse outcomes with COVID. Small businesses and businesses that are owned by people who hire a lot of people of color had that impact on the business as you had that impact on health.”

Jenkins said the good news, however, was that the vaccine was now available to anyone over the age of 16. He advised small business owners to encourage their staff to get the vaccine.

He also information about resources for small businessess business.

“In Dallas County, we have had business grants you can apply at DallasCounty.org, and your business has to have 140 or less,” he said. “As long as you apply by May 20, you can apply for any number of assistance packages, any damage that was caused by the ice storm. Also, for your employees or anyone who needs it, we still have rental assistance grants. Business rental assistance grants. It can help them pay their landlord, their light and heating bill, phone bill. When the pandemic hit, many businesses of color didn’t have immediate access to that information and resources.”

Ortiz noted how the pandemic has impacted the local community.

“Pre-COVID, coming into COVID, what we knew is information that according to the previous survey that was done we know that there were approximately 123,556 Hispanic-owned businesses in Dallas County,” Ortiz said. “We also know that most Hispanic-owned small businesses start small and stay small compared to non-minority owned businesses and I think that kind of aligns with what Judge Jenkins was just talking about right now. The challenges with access to capital and other similar issues with reserves and such are challenges we have already had going into COVID and we also know that Hispanic-owned businesses receive less funding typically than non-minority owned businesses.”

Ortiz said the pandemic changed the dynamic for Hispanic-owned businesses.

“So you take some of these factors into a pandemic and the pandemic obviously impacted everybody’s lives and changed everything in all of our lives but especially for underserved communities,” he said.

He spoke on behalf of the Hispanic community, saying Hispanic-owned businesses were hit hard. Immediately, the Hispanic chamber had to become a virtual service. Like most businessess, the chamber staff and to transition into an unfamiliar business world, while still serving a community that was already experiencing hurdles disproportionate to non-minority communities.

“Our team was working with them to go through the process of applying for the SBA relief loan program efforts or connecting them with partners because many times we didn’t have the expertise to connect to people such as LiftFund or others that were available,” he said. Hispanic-owned businesses often tend to hire within the communities that they are located in so typically these are underserved communities, and these are underserved employees or community employees. So you are talking about people that are being disproportionately impacted all the way across so really we just continue to be a part of that. We continue to be a part of these initiatives. Whether it is to provide access to information from the county, the city and working with other partners such as Dallas College like the city of Dallas or others.

Without assistance, current data showed that communities of color only could survive for about three to four months, according to Hearns.

“We have people not knowing where to turn to and who to talk to,” Hearns said. “That is why I wanted to do this because we know about the chambers and the different resources partners but being able to communicate that to the community to let them know where they go and connecting them to resources. Because what I have experienced is part of the reason is not knowing how to get access to resources. Compared to some of the non-minority business owners who may have had experience with the loan process and many individual business owners who are people of color lacked that type of knowledge and experience and so they didn’t have anybody that they could pick up the phone and call and say hey walk me through this process, help me and so that was one of the disadvantages that we saw.”

Keyes discussed the challenges the pandemic has had on Black-owned businesses.

“For decades, Blacks and African Americans have been discriminated against in terms of access to capital, in getting loans, lines of credit and so maybe it was even harder when the pandemic hit,” she said. “That we are already at a deficit compared to other businesses, and we don’t have those businesses or bank relationships. So we became an information resource for our members because they were hearing stuff on the news, and they didn’t know things and asked questions like, ‘How do I apply for PPP loans?’ ‘How do I get the EIDL loans?’ ‘Can I really go to my bank?’ ‘Will my bank give me a loan?’ ‘What is the process?’

“So we really work hard with SBA and some of our bank members and sponsors to really get information out to how the process would go, who to apply with and we found that some banks had opened up the application process and some hadn’t. So we had members not understanding why my application at my bank was not available, and how come my friends were available. We found out that some banks wanted you to be a previous customer in order to apply. There were some banks that didn’t care if you ever did business with them and then you could apply.”

Keyes said her organization was trying to get information to their members where they could apply quickly to a bank that would work to get them funds quickly.

“Back in March and April of 2020 they needed funds so they could stay in business, so they could keep their employees on, keep their products coming in,” she said. “So we really worked hard with the SBA, with bankers we found two smaller banks that really wanted to work with our members and make them priority to walk them through the PPP loan process and that was a great relationship that we still have now. And we also work with the city to be an advocate in the grant fund that the city put together to help businesses that had a significant loss they could receive loans and grants from the city. So we were working with all the different organizations to find a lot of different resources we could present and provide to our members to help walk our members through that.”

Keyes said the Black Chamber also worked with various government officials to help small businesses. She said many of its members were small mom and pop businesses that needed help finding reliable resources and understanding and filling out the paper work to apply for a loan.

To help its members, the chamber offered training that offered step-by-step assistance – especially during the first three months to make sure businesses obtained the information and resources needed, as well as discuss any issues that would arise.

“We talked to our city council members,” she said. “We worked with some of our congresswomen and congressman about issues that our members were having so they could change some of the regulations. And that was one thing that was maybe wasn’t a good experience, but was also a great experience, because the SBA were making changes that were every week.”

Keyes said that communicating with local leaders is critical, because not every program, rule or law is going to work for every community. At the same time, businessowners need to keep updated on chages and new programs and regulations.

Hearns then emphasized that change is important not only from a public policy standpoint, but even in each community.

“As a community and people of color, we have to change our mindset and we have to expand our social capital,” Hearns said. “What that means is we want to have those circles in dollars within our communities but at the same time we have to look elsewhere outside of our own communities to expand our network so that we can grow our social capital or have relationships with business owners and individuals that don’t look like us.”

Hearns also talked about a report released by the Small Business Administration in January 2021.

“It is their PPP funding report, the ones that identified their race or gender and 65% of those PPP funds went to White owned firms and only 2% went to female owned firms,” Hearns said. “We are not joining or pulling numbers out of the air when we talk about the disparities that exist in communities of color but also even with women.”

Keyes had advice for minority-owned small business leaders during the pandemic.

“You are not alone, so don’t think you are the only business that is struggling trying to sustain,” Keyes said. “You are not. But you want to get a group of peers, be a part of the chamber of commerce, be part of the LiftFund program or it could be a trade association. You need some peers that you can talk over your concerns that could give you suggestions and guidance, so really find a group such as the chambers which are great organizations to get involved with. You want somebody that can help you and find those resources.”

“I do anything from t-shirts to promotional items,” Taylor said. “I started in March of 2019; 2019 was my startup year and 2020 has definitely impacted my business. But I  plan on surviving.”

Taylor discussed how the pandemic impacted her and what were some of the things she did to stay afloat.

“During the pandemic, I started networking with the chamber in Irving,” Taylor said. “Prior to the pandemic, I had orders for the schools, t-shirt orders for schools and some sports teams and due to the COVID, I had already invested some of it so I had to refund some money. I pivoted more to expand my services. … It was a year of pivot and a year of learning. The learning process involves anything from social media to business resources to quickbooks to all that. I am really grateful for the help with you guys because it has helped our business stay afloat. We are still learning.”

Mobley, who works in the educational sector, also had to figure out how to pivot.

“So I had the same issues as the school district did,” Mobley said. “We were all used to the in person learning so once that in person came to a halt, then our business came to a halt. So in turn, this increased the demand for truck drivers because we weren’t able to hold classes to produce them and then COVID put a more demand for bringing certain things to your doorstep… Then we ran into another obstacle, which was before you can start a class you have to have it approved through the Texas Workforce. But they were working from home. What would have normally taken them three weeks to approve, it took them about four months to approve.”

Mobley said once her company got their online course approved, things have gotten a lot better.

“Now that we have the online piece, we have students that have been moving to Texas. We are thriving now and thanks to LiftFund for giving us those nuggets and tools we needed to help us pivot and transition smoothly,” she said.

“I am having the time of my life contributing to decreasing the number of those that are unemployed because I am giving them a career to get them back rolling back on track.”

Gumbo said since she has utilized the resources of the Women’s Business Center, her company has grown stronger. Furthermore, she planed to continue using the internet to help drive sales for her company.

“Despite the pandemic and Neiman Marcus filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy, we were able to get our products in Neiman Marcus,” she said. “We were also invited to be an incubator with Amazon. So we are on the Neiman Marcus website and on Amazon so that is a big chunk of our business. Being in skincare, you can’t run away from people who want to try it and test the product and we will continue that once the vaccinations are done. We will continue to visit the churches and other trade shows.

“I would tell other business leaders to accept the new normal that you probably have to use online resources to sell your product. Being online is no longer a choice but now a business strategy that happens, and I would also advise to seek help.”

Mobley offered advise for others businesses during the pandemic.

“Just keep pushing forward, make sure you keep your mental health first, so if you are getting burned out take some time out for yourself and make those connections, get with people who can feed into you and who can uplift you,” Mobley said. “Who can give you the push for you to keep going. I just don’t want you to quit. If you have to, call me. We’ll push through it together.”

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