John Howell is an artist who works in oils, clays and crisis.
“This is essentially the second pandemic I’ve been through,” said Howell, owner of Cordovan Art School & Pottery Parlor’s six locations which dot the landscape around Austin, Texas. “There are so many lessons learned from both of them.”
Cordovan, named after Howell’s favorite pastel color, is the second art school he’s run. After earning a graphic illustration degree from Brigham Young University, he launched the first in his native California before moving to Central Texas to pursue a commercial real estate career.
The 2008 economic recession prompted Howell and his business partner to dissolve their real estate company. The challenge provided valuable insights and a blank canvas.
“I knew I wanted to open an art school in Texas,” said Howell. “I think I’m just an entrepreneur at heart.”
In 2009, Cordovan served its first students, steadily adding employees and locations in the 10 years that followed. Then came 2020.
“When things hit last March, we had to immediately shut down for one-and-a-half months,” said Howell. “I knew I needed help.”
That help came from PeopleFund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) serving small businesses throughout Texas. The Regions Foundation, a nonprofit primarily funded by Regions Bank that supports community investments, has awarded COVID-19 grant funding to PeopleFund as part of its commitment to advancing small businesses. The latest grant was $50,000, provided in May 2021.
“We realize so many small-business owners are facing lasting effects from the pandemic,” said Marta Self, executive director of the Regions Foundation. “PeopleFund has worked with entrepreneurs during the past year-plus to provide financial relief, access to training and additional resources to help them take each step toward economic recovery.”
While 2021 is just over halfway complete, it’s already been PeopleFund’s most impactful year to date.
“By the end of June, we had disbursed $33 million and almost 1,500 loans, and we’re on track to deploy at least $6 million in grants this year,” said Gustavo Lasala, PeopleFund’s president and CEO. “That compares to $24 million and 1,500 loans and grants for all of 2020. We’re proud to have made a positive difference for thousands of underserved small-business owners during this pandemic, and we’re profoundly grateful to our staff, supporters and community partners like the Regions Foundation.”
One of those staff members is Sheyenne Alvarez, a senior loan officer who works with Howell. She credits his sense of urgency and adaptability with helping Cordovan withstand 2020’s financial gut punch.
“John had a good understanding of what his challenges would be in the near future given the circumstances of the pandemic,” said Alvarez. “He had his documentation ready, asked questions and took direction easily.”
Howell was equally grateful for Alvarez’s sense of urgency.
“Nobody really understood what was going on at the beginning of this; it was such a moving target,” said Howell. “Sheyenne was fast and responsive; she was the first relief we got.”
In addition to pulling together paperwork to secure a PeopleFund bridge loan, Howell’s days were filled with his usual top priority of taking care of clients.
“Initially, we thought, ‘Let’s make the most of a bad situation,’” said Howell. “We gave away art supplies and did a video teaching project. We have students who have depression and anxiety. The worst thing for them is sitting in a house and going nowhere. Art offers them an outlet.”
Alvarez appreciates the lengths Howell goes to in serving Cordovan’s artists ranging in age from 5 to 94.
“John has always kept his clients top of mind,” she said. “He refunded them for camps he couldn’t produce and quickly pivoted to offer virtual instruction. John reshaped his business to continue paying the bills, but, more importantly, to keep serving his clients whom he genuinely cares about.”
Slowly, safely, Cordovan resumed art classes last May.
“We said, ‘If there’s one or two people in a class, then we’re having a class,’” said Howell. “We were so grateful for every student who came in.”
One year later, Cordovan’s classes and camps are bursting at the seams.
“We are the perfect feel-good story today,” said Howell. “We thought we would be out of business, but we’re in a better position than ever.”
Like Howell, Alvarez is thrilled by the dramatic change.
“We knew the pandemic wouldn’t continue forever,” said Alvarez. “Businesses like Cordovan provide value and benefit to the communities they serve. They may not be deemed ‘essential’ to human life, but they are essential in providing quality of life.”
Howell is grateful Alvarez and PeopleFund appreciate Cordovan’s commitment to unleashing artists of all abilities.
“I love being with these people,” Howell says of his students. “It’s like a club where we hang out with each other. Last year, there were days we asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to survive as a small business?’ but when the bills kept coming in, Sheyenne provided the peace of mind that we’d last.”
An example of collaboration and resourcefulness – clearly illustrated.
About Regions Foundation
Regions Foundation supports community investments that positively impact the communities served by Regions Bank. The Foundation engages in a grantmaking program focused on priorities including economic and community development; education and workforce readiness; and financial wellness. The Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation funded primarily through contributions from Regions Bank.