Helping small businesses navigate COVID-19
The nonprofit Interise and Wells Fargo are helping small businesses survive during the COVID-19 crisis.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Stewart Junge was determined not to feel broken again, as he had when the economic recession occurred more than 10 years before. He knew that, like the recession, COVID-19 would affect his and his wife Deanna’s custom residential and commercial cabinetry business, Landmark Finish, in Andover, Massachusetts.
“I expected that people weren’t going to be buying cabinets anytime soon,” he said. “They would want to save their money because something may happen again. They’re not going to want people in their houses. And I needed to use the resources that we had to figure out how to do something different.”
After watching the news one night, he was inspired to transition to producing protective barriers. Now, the small business is making and selling Safe-Guards, acrylic protective barriers that can be used in any commercial setting where people interact with each other.
“The INTERISE STRONG program made it real, because that gave us our first buyer,” Stewart Junge said. “That first sale just made things overwhelmingly real — that we can do this, and now we're selling everywhere.”
‘The immediacy of the need was real’
Deanna Junge, who is the director of business development for the company, participated in INTERISE STRONG Small Businesses, an online program provided by the nonprofit Interise, which supports established small businesses that are in low-income communities or are minority owned. The nonprofit provides companies with a training program and a network of other small businesses, typically in a classroom setting, so they are able to interact with their peers.
“Our belief is the wealth gap and economic disparity in America is one of the No. 1 problems, and COVID-19 is exacerbating it. There’s a real need that companies that are experiencing these gaps get the support they need.” — Deirdre Coyle, senior director for strategy and external relations for Interise
When the pandemic began, staff for Interise paused their normal sessions and realized they needed to find new ways to engage with their network of about 8,000 small business owners and provide resources for them, said Deirdre Coyle, senior director for strategy and external relations for Interise. The staff began developing curriculum for INTERISE STRONG to help its alumni navigate the uncertainty and survive the financial shock of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Our belief is the wealth gap and economic disparity in America is one of the No. 1 problems, and COVID-19 is exacerbating it,” Coyle said. “There’s a real need that companies that are experiencing these gaps get the support they need.”
Interise applied for a grant from Wells Fargo to support the program, and within about three weeks of applying, received $25,000. The grant was part of the local funding Wells Fargo announced in March it was redirecting to COVID-19 community relief efforts, streamlining grant-making to offer highly flexible funding to nonprofits like Interise, and part of the company’s ongoing support of diverse small businesses.
“Interise is recognized as a leader in fighting economic injustice,” said Briana Curran, Community Relations senior consultant for Wells Fargo in the New England area. “They’re really trying to close that income inequality gap that persists in America, particularly among people of color and small business leaders of color. They use research. They use collaboration. They use a lot of different levers to close that income inequality gap because they recognize that entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of many cities and towns in America. It was a group that immediately made sense for us to support as they are rolling out help to their network of entrepreneurs.”
The grant from Wells Fargo helped the INTERISE STRONG program get started, supporting the technology infrastructure and instructor segment, Coyle said. “Wells Fargo’s support was immediate,” she said. “Normally grant funding is a lengthy process, and it’s very competitive out there. I commend Wells Fargo for knowing that the immediacy of the need was real.”
‘They were going through the same problems I was going through’
Within 10 minutes of Interise making the program information available to its network, 150 companies had registered, Coyle said. In the first three weeks of the INTERISE STRONG program, which launched in mid-April, more than 100 companies completed it.
“Part of the solution is connecting business owners to each other so they realize they are not alone in thinking about the same issues. I think the bigger solution really comes to light when individuals are actually connecting with each other.” — Johnny Charles, managing director of the Ujima Fund
The online program has five one-hour sessions with guest experts facilitating and 20-25 alumni business owners participating. Each session during the weeklong program focuses on a different topic, such as supporting employees, analyzing company finances, assessing resources, and implementing survival strategies. During the sessions, business owners can ask questions and network with their peers.
Johnny Charles, managing director of the Ujima Fund, previously worked for Interise and is now a guest expert and facilitator for financial topics. He said some of the concerns he’s heard from small business owners in the program have had to do with reopening safely, making up for lost revenue, keeping employees, extending services online, and understanding Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“A lot of institutions are pivoting and trying to figure out solutions for this unscripted, unexpected pandemic,” Charles said. “Part of the solution is connecting business owners to each other so they realize they are not alone in thinking about the same issues. I think the bigger solution really comes to light when individuals are actually connecting with each other.”
That connection to other small business owners is what Lakisha Freeman, owner and CEO of Scrubs Cleaning Services, a commercial cleaning company in Brockton, Massachusetts, enjoyed about Interise’s StreetWise ‘MBA’ program in 2017. “Even though I was the smallest company there, they were going through the same problems I was going through,” Freeman said.
Despite her business being classified as essential and Freeman and her two employees still working during the pandemic, Freeman said she hasn’t brought in as much revenue, so she applied for and received a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
She took INTERISE STRONG to learn more about the PPP loan and meet other business owners. “It opened my eyes about pivoting your business to go with the times,” Freeman said. “So we are offering disinfecting and sanitation services, due to coronavirus, and I will put those in my portfolio. You have to wear different hats. I learned that from Interise.”
‘We have to continue. We have to work harder’
The Junges have also pivoted their business. When the pandemic and restrictions began, they couldn’t deliver some of their completed projects or consult face to face, so they started having online design consultations and have now created their own product line, something Stewart Junge had always wanted to do.
Once they began production on Safe-Guards, Deanna Junge participated in INTERISE STRONG. The program resulted in a fellow participant referring them for their first sale of Safe-Guards, and the Junges also took away some valuable lessons. Deanna Junge said she learned core finance principles and the importance of continuing to market.
“Now is the most important time to market,” she said. “I walked away from that with almost an aha! moment because, in this time where cash is tight, you think, ‘Where can I save money, and what should I cut back on?’ The instructor’s message was to spend your money on marketing. That advice of ‘go for it and market yourselves’ has paid off.”
They are now selling Safe-Guards around the country to banks, doctors’ offices, insurance agents, pizza shops, and other businesses, and they have hired a part-time employee for outside sales.
Stewart Junge said his biggest lesson from the program was to turn his fears into motivation. “I came to work every morning and said, ‘I have to get up and do what we do every day. We have to continue. We have to work harder,’” he said. “And that’s what I did.”
We’re taking action every day to support our employees, customers, and communities during this challenging time. Read about the actions we are taking, what our strategists are saying about market volatility, how to conduct banking from the safety of your home, and more. Explore the series >