Location, location, location.
It’s been a critical factor for a virus that hasn’t fought fairly from the start. Particularly among people of color and the small businesses they own.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, two-thirds of counties with high levels of Black business activity pre-coronavirus are also in the top 50 COVID-19-affected areas. But geography is just the pandemic’s right jab. Its left hook? Many Black entrepreneurs also own businesses in industries hit first, harder and longer due to greater in-person contact – health care, retail and hospitality, among others. For Black business owners, the result has meant fewer customers and longer shutdowns in business while facing a heightened health risk of virus exposure.
“Economic empowerment is a key component of the movement toward racial equity,” said Steve Grossman, chief executive officer of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), a nonprofit that works alongside small-business owners in under-resourced and under-represented communities. “We have always believed that healthy small businesses lead the way in the revitalization of neighborhoods, cities and regions. When small businesses thrive, so do their communities.”
Since 2014, Regions Bank has collaborated with ICIC to bring Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC), a high-impact, tuition-free training program, to small-business owners in several cities. The trainers have serious credentials; some are even Harvard Business School professors. The Regions-ICIC collaboration has already impacted Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis, Tampa, Birmingham, and Memphis. And more training events are coming.
ICCC’s format includes no-cost, high-energy seminars, one-on-one coaching, networking, long-term follow-up guidance, and more. Of the more than 1,200 companies ICCC served in 2020, 76% were small businesses owned by people who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC), and 61% of those companies were women-owned businesses.
“We believe in providing financial wellness opportunities not only to individual consumers, but also to entrepreneurs,” said Leroy Abrahams, head of Community Affairs for Regions Bank. “Financial wellness leads to financial inclusion, and a healthy small-business community fuels a stronger surrounding community. Our ICCC investment extends far beyond what people learn during their training. It’s about providing small-business owners with resources, strategies and contacts they’re able to call on for years to come.”
ICCC alumni have always considered the program’s content valuable; but they’ve never needed it more than in 2020 and 2021.
“Our focus has been on enabling entrepreneurs to deal with the pandemic’s challenges and reinforce their business strategies to not just survive, but to thrive in today’s uncertain environment,” said Grossman.
To gain deeper insights into those challenges, Grossman’s team surveyed 600 ICCC participants and alumni in August 2020. Among their findings:
- 66% of Black-owned businesses reported the health crisis had a negative impact on their business.
- 73% of Black-owned businesses indicated they’ve lost revenue because of the pandemic.
- 72% of Black-owned businesses applied for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding.
- 54% of Black-owned businesses have had to borrow money or finance their businesses since March 2020.
ICCC presenters have continually adapted course content during the past year-plus to ensure topics are addressing entrepreneurs’ most pressing needs. And ICIC launched its Small Business Resource Center, a website providing consistently updated articles, podcasts, and more – all for free.
“COVID-19 has presented immediate and long-term effects for small-business owners,” said Abrahams. “At the beginning of the crisis, entrepreneurs faced the challenge of quickly finding new ways to serve their customers; 18 months later, they’re still innovating and refining their approach. It has required persistence and resilience.”
Those qualities were on full display during an ICCC session attended virtually by more than 100 Southeast Texas entrepreneurs in March. Presented by ICIC, Regions and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, the program was rescheduled twice due to COVID and a rare Texas ice storm. But that didn’t faze participants, who were actively engaged in the online networking and educational sessions to learn from instructors and fellow entrepreneurs.
“With the difficulties so many small-business owners have faced, we were absolutely determined to host this program to provide greatly-needed resources and support – even if it meant we had to do so virtually,” said John Stacy, Houston market executive for Regions Bank. “Houstonians find a way to overcome whatever challenges are placed in our path, just as entrepreneurs have always done.”
Response was so favorable that Regions is supporting ICCC’s return to Houston again next fall.
The bank and ICCC are also bringing the program to Indianapolis for the first time in 2022.
“We’ve seen the incredible impact ICCC has made in moving the needle for small businesses in other cities,” said Erik Miner, market executive for Regions Bank in Indianapolis. “This is a program that’s empowered entrepreneurs to raise more than $2 billion in capital and create 22,000-plus jobs since 2005. It’s a program we can’t wait to introduce to Central Indiana small-business owners to help them emerge stronger.”