This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
While the Ypsilanti-based Association of Businesses of Color (ABC) was established this summer to help its members, the help is flowing both ways.
"It's more like all the members are helping the group, and that's one of the cool things about it," says co-founder Brian Jones-Chance.
He says members are coming up with innovative new apps, programs, and initiatives and sharing them with the group.
"Now that our membership has grown, [members] are improving the amount of influence we have, and we're getting first crack at a lot of these things that folks in our group are coming up with. It's been interesting to see the changing of the dynamic," he says.
The business league, open to all Washtenaw County business owners of color, was started by Patton Doyle, owner of escape room Decode Ypsilanti; Jones-Chance, a local real estate broker and co-founder of 734 Brewing; and Ylondia Portis, local advertising professional and founder of the marketing firm Brandhrt. All three business owners also sit on the boards of the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority (YDDA) and the Downtown Association of Ypsilanti.
Jones-Chance and his co-founders noticed that local business owners of color weren't getting connected to opportunities such as grant funding and networking.
Jones-Chance uses the example of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding as an example of how businesses of color missed out on opportunities.
"A lot of PPP funding came down to people who had [existing] relationships with bankers offering it. It didn't always help, but it was a factor," he says. "A lot of our membership doesn't have those relationships, and one thing we thought might be helpful is for ABC to be the holder of those relationships, whether it's banking, funding, or otherwise, a place where members could come and have access to this entire network through the group."
The group started with a weekly online mixer where local business owners of color can connect with others like themselves. An early goal of the group was having those ABC members then go out and get onto other boards, commissions, and civic groups.
Over the summer, the mixer hosted groups as small as four people but occasionally as many as a dozen. Since then, attendance has remained "pretty regularly" at 12 to 15 attendees, with 20 attending at least one meeting, Jones-Chance says.
"It's very nice and allows us to keep to our 45-minute meeting time to get through the agenda and still have time afterward for networking," Jones-Chance says.
For the last 10 weeks, the group has been focused on organizational items, including its mission statement and bylaws. The group also recently elected a board and established committees focused on strategy, education, data collection, advocacy, and communication.
The group has also been building relationships with Ann Arbor SPARK and the Entrepreneurship Center at Washtenaw Community College to provide educational programming to members. While programming decisions are still being made, an educational video series in the vein of Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program may be offered to ABC members via SPARK, Jones-Chance says. In turn, ABC members will help SPARK "shed the tech-company-only reputation," he says.
Jones-Chance says small businesses face a variety of barriers, like the fact that a lot of funding is only available to certain types of industries, like technology.
"Those challenges aren't necessarily unique to people of color or our membership, but we can leverage a solution by holding those relationships and chipping away at that barrier," he says. "We're doing some of that through education."
Jones-Chance says his business and those of other ABC members will have to be creative in order to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is a time when customers can't come to our local businesses as much, so we're all figuring out ways to get to them," he says. "Business survival always comes down to two things: funding and revenue. For businesses of color or anyone else, it's about driving revenue and getting enough money in the door so you can survive."
The group meets from 7:15-8 p.m. each Thursday. Those who would like to be added to ABC's mailing list and get the link to the weekly Zoom meeting may email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
Photo by Rickey Portis.