Meaningful investments and support keep small business doors open
Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund is helping thousands of small business owners navigate the pandemic and plan for the future.
Editor’s note: This story originally published on Jan. 28 and has been updated to include a section about Los Angeles on Feb. 11, Houston on Feb. 24, and Miami on Feb. 25.
Over the last two years, many of us have discovered just how much we depend on small businesses to meet our needs. Whether it’s visiting a nearby diner for a chorizo omelet, calling up your friendly florist to create a bouquet of colorful blooms, or relying on the vital services of a trusted child care provider to nurture our little ones, small businesses are at the heart of our communities.
Across the country, 30 million small businesses serve as the backbone of America’s economy. To help keep their doors open, Wells Fargo is providing small business owners with access to capital and resources needed to navigate the ups and downs of the pandemic through its Open for Business Fund, a roughly $420 million national small business recovery effort.
“Helping small businesses persevere during the pandemic and plan for the future has been a major focus for Wells Fargo,” said Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf on Jan. 28 in Atlanta, where he presented the United Way of Greater Atlanta with a $20 million Open for Business Fund donation.
This grant comes on the heels of a $20 million donation to the Foundation For The Carolinas in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over the last few months, Scharf has continued to join small business owners, community leaders, and elected officials in additional cities to announce more Open for Business Fund donations.
Since the fund was created, Wells Fargo has given grants directly to community development financial institutions and provided more than $50 million to nonprofits to support entrepreneurs with technical assistance. In the program’s third and final phase, the focus is on providing funding to nonprofits to assist small businesses in growing equity in their business, with money going to strategies such as acquiring property and equipment as part of physical business improvements.
“There are very few nonessentials when starting up a business,” said Jenny Flores, head of Small Business Growth Philanthropy at Wells Fargo. “We see everything from technical assistance to acquiring assets and property as vital elements in the long-term success of small businesses, which is why the final phase of the Open for Business Fund is focusing on this additional area of support.”
Here’s a look at the impact the fund has on small business owners who’ve benefited from prior installments of the program, and a glimpse of promising new resources on the way.
In Miami, ready for an encore
Whether it’s a wedding, corporate event, or nonprofit fundraiser, the New Century Dance Company brings just the right moves for the occasion. The popular entertainment company travels the country and beyond delivering dynamic performances featuring everything from avant-garde pieces to Broadway-inspired shows.
But with the arrival of COVID-19 two years ago, the Miami-based company experienced something entirely new: an empty schedule.
Alexandra Sliva, New Century Dance Company’s owner and artistic director, decided during that time to turn her attention to the inner workings of the business she started 22 years ago. With enough old files and contracts to create a scrapbook, Sliva wanted to get organized and ensure that the artists represented by her company were completely protected along with her intellectual property. She began working with the counsel of Legal Services of Greater Miami, made possible by a Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund grant, to update contracts and other important documents.
Now, especially with the calendar filling back up, she’s more confident about the future.
“My company is my child,” Sliva said. “We taught it how to do everything and never missed a step. But we’re never done. We’re always thinking about new things to add, we’re always hiring more people, we’re always helping new people. I feel better as a human being that I’ve been able to help make a difference in so many artists’ lives. They’ve changed my life, too. It’s true — the more you give the more you get.”
Small businesses that support people are vital to any community, including those in Miami-Dade County. The $20 million Open for Business Fund grant going to The Miami Foundation will build on the organization’s commitment to racial equity by helping create generational wealth for minority-led small businesses in the community, said Rebecca Fishman Lipsey, president and CEO of The Miami Foundation.
“This is a transformational investment for our community — both in terms of its size and its focus,” Fishman Lipsey said. “What we saw during the pandemic is that many of the businesses in our community felt increased economic, social, and environmental strains that impeded their growth. What this grant enables is the acquiring of assets, the technology, the tools — the resources that help a business to have sticking power. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered because of the volume of small businesses here. Because of the pain that we just saw, it’s the perfect gift.”
In Houston, growing with confidence
Four years ago, Diana Rosas started Que Bonito Mexican and Fashion selling clothing online and at a neighborhood flea market in Houston. People were drawn to her dresses, blouses, and accessories adorned with vibrant embroidery.
Working with family members in the United States and her native Mexico, Rosas grew her business and opened a brick and mortar store in early 2020. The pandemic inspired her to add decorative facemasks to her offerings. They were a hit — she’s sold more than 20,000 in the last two years.
When she wanted to expand her business knowledge, Rosas joined the first Latina cohort to graduate from the Open for Business for Women Entrepreneurs program, which was led by the Houston Community College Office of Entrepreneurial Initiatives in partnership with the Houston Mexican Consulate, and funded by Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund.
“It was a blessing,” Rosas said about the financial knowledge she gained from the program. “For me, it’s not a new beginning, but having the confidence to go to the next level. Being a small business owner means freedom.”
With the news that the Houston Fund for Social Justice and Economic Equity has received a $20 million grant from the Open for Business Fund, now more small business owners in Houston will have an opportunity to elevate their businesses.
Focusing on businesses in underserved communities, Houston Fund for Social Justice and Economic Equity will help owners upgrade their businesses, add to their assets, and take advantage of educational opportunities.
Dr. Gena L. Jerkins, executive director of the Houston Fund for Social Justice and Economic Equity, said they’ll work with the Greater Houston Community Foundation to administer and manage grants.
Jerkins called the Open for Business Fund grants a “game changer.”
“Many of the businesses and organizations we’ll be working with don’t have an opportunity to apply for certain loans or grants,” Jerkins said. “We’re hoping to be the portal that gives people of color a chance to manifest their dreams. We are looking for long-term impact that will transform the face of the community.”
In Los Angeles, building a lasting legacy
Opening the Hot + Cool Café in spring of 2018, Tony Jolly and Tina Amin wanted to provide healthy food options in a part of South Los Angeles that Jolly said has historically been a food desert.
What the husband and wife team created is not only a menu of specialty coffees and plant-based eats, but a space for Black-centered arts, culture, and community building. During the pandemic, the café continued to fight food inequity through various initiatives including operating a community fridge and making thousands of fresh meals for older adults.
But as a first-time business owner, Jolly knew he needed to sharpen his business skills to keep Hot + Cool Café going strong. In the fall, he participated in the Digital Accelerator Program offered by Local Initiatives Support Corporation Los Angeles, or LISC LA, that was funded through a previous grant from the Open for Business Fund. The experience inspired him to make several strategic improvements including adding a rewards program and QR codes to engage customers.
“We were able to start looking at how we could make the Hot + Cool Cafe better by recognizing the good things and the flaws,” Jolly said. “The program helped us feel hopeful about the future — that we have a promising business that we can move forward.”
Jolly is now working on a mobile coffee cart program that will give formerly incarcerated people a chance to learn coffee making and run their own cart.
“Small businesses are a representation of the community,” Jolly said. “Within spaces like ours, connections lead to community action.”
With Los Angeles County being the focus of a $20 million grant from the Open for Business Fund, many more businesses owners like Jolly will benefit. LISC LA will collaborate with Inclusive Action for the City to distribute funds to small businesses through a mix of grants and loans.
“What we’re doing with these resources is focusing on asset acquisition so these businesses will have something tangible from the funds,” said Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, LISC LA’s executive director. “It gives the business owner another piece of equity that they can grow with that new asset. It’s the gift that continues to give.”
In Atlanta, a cup of possibilities
Rahel TafarI runs the Grant Park Coffeehouse in Atlanta, where patrons are drawn to freshly baked cinnamon rolls, homemade chicken salad, and a variety of coffees — including two types from her native Ethiopia. For 12 years, she’s provided a warm, inviting environment where community members gather to enjoy good food and make meaningful connections.
TafarI benefited from an earlier round of the Open for Business Fund working with nonprofit Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs and will soon be closing on a loan for a second Grant Park Coffeehouse location, where she’ll have a bigger space for baking and cooking. She said she’s grateful for the opportunities brought on by the Open for Business Fund.
“For me to have coffee here and goods from my bakery, I’m sharing part of my culture,” TafarI said. “I’m living my dream to own my own restaurant and building.”
Like TafarI, many entrepreneurs have poured their hopes and dreams into their small business. As the latest recipient of a $20 million Open for Business Fund donation, the United Way of Greater Atlanta is collaborating with Invest Atlanta to focus on four initiatives: a small business loan fund, asset building assistance, façade improvement grants, and commercial real estate ownership.
Milton J. Little Jr., president and CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta, said he’s excited to see businesses in Atlanta neighborhoods that have “not historically been the target of significant investments” benefit from the fund. “Atlanta is still the capital of income inequality in the United States,” Milton said. “If we’re able to help on a permanent basis stabilize these businesses, stabilize the people who they employ, and the neighborhoods in which those businesses are located, the small business loan fund is going to have a positive, multifactor impact as it unfolds.”
“For Wells Fargo to step up as it has and to make these investments available, it speaks to the culture and the values of the company,” Milton continued. “And that extends to the health and well-being of the communities where investments are being made.”
In Charlotte, achieving a dream one cut at a time
When people walk into one of the No Grease luxury barbershops in Charlotte owned by Tracey Greene-Washington and her husband Edmund Washington, they know they’ll get premium service, whether it’s a stylish new cut or a beard trim.
The couple have been meeting their customers’ grooming needs with a staff of talented barbers during the pandemic, even opening a second location last year after benefiting from a previous round of the Open for Business Fund through Partner Community Capital.
Greene-Washington spoke at the Open for Business Fund donation event in Charlotte on Nov. 19, where a $20 million donation to the Foundations For The Carolinas was announced, stating that small business owners “play such a critical role in driving innovation and building a thriving economy through creating family wage jobs, building a robust tax base, and spurring asset building in local communities.”
The Foundations For The Carolinas is distributing the funds over the next three years to an anticipated 1,000 small businesses in the Charlotte area with a focus on three main areas: starting new businesses, stabilizing businesses, and accelerating business expansion. Funding will be in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid.
Michael Marsicano, the foundation’s president and CEO, said at the event that the Open for Business Fund donation brings the city “closer to realizing our vision that Charlotte sets the standard as an American city for achieving racial equity and social justice.”