From offering virtual "retreats" to creating videos that engage young students, a program called Renew Your Business is inspiring participants to reimagine their Ypsilanti-based businesses for success during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program is offered by the Entrepreneurship Center (EC) at Washtenaw Community College. Participants receive a 10-week virtual Rebuild course from entrepreneurial education company CO.STARTERS, a $2,500 small business grant, mentorship, peer support, and more.
After a competitive application process that garnered over 70 entries, 15 participants who identify as minority-owned, woman-owned, or veteran-owned business owners, and who are established in the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes, were chosen for the program in late 2020. They began the virtual course in January.
EC Director Kristin Gapske says EC staff envisioned "more of a micro-loan program" when they first started looking for grants to fund the initiative. But as they finalized a grant proposal to Ann Arbor SPARK, the program's focus shifted to include education and mentorship for businesses that were well-established but struggling with the challenges of the pandemic.
"The business owners who needed this now were maybe not going for big loans like the Paycheck Protection Program or state loans, and they actually could use more of a training program that came with a small grant," Gapske says.
Gapske notes that Renew Your Business is a logical extension of the work the EC has already been doing since the center was established in 2014.
"We've focused for years on micro-enterprise owners, the eastern side of the county, and under-represented groups who own small businesses," Gapske says. "In a way, it seemed like destiny, because during the pandemic, it allowed us to do even more with help from the county's Office of Community Economic and Development, and SPARK graciously gave us a bit more to expand."
Concepts explored in the 10-week course include customer discovery, how to refocus one's business after being hurt by the pandemic, and how to reconnect with customers.
Participants are now about halfway through the virtual course. After that, they will spend eight weeks meeting with small peer groups that can advise each other and cheer each other on to reach their goals. Gapske hopes the peer groups will foster an environment in the greater Ypsilanti area that is "even stronger and more connected" than it is now.
One of the 15 participants is Julie Palmer of Ypsilanti Township. She started JEM Events, an event planning business, in 2016 after being downsized from a corporate job. She grew the business for several years, expecting 2020 to be her best year ever. Julie Palmer.
Then, starting in March, client after client began cancelling. Later in the year, she found out that the Cross Street Cider Festival she'd loved and helped plan wasn't going to be possible in 2020. It was a tough year in many ways, yet it also provided time for her to get creative, research grants and loans, and think about how to pivot her business.
Her Renew Your Business grant will help her with day-to-day necessities like keeping her website going and paying for liability insurance, while also helping her imagine new ways to serve customers.
"This program is so different. They're not just handing you a grant," she says. "I love the intention around this program."
Palmer says she feels "blessed" to be connecting with other local small business owners, learning from each other, and refreshing herself on basics like conceptualizing your target customer. She says the course also gives participants tangible, useful advice around topics like procrastination or anxiety about simply getting started with the day's work.
"They introduced a great method to help someone in the midst of that stop and understand the root of what's going on and choose to take an action that supports getting out of that," Palmer says. "These are skills that are going to be beneficial forever."
Palmer was initially hesitant about moving into the area of virtual events, "partly out of my comfort level with the technology, and partly because I was grieving the loss of the in-person experience."
That has changed though, and Palmer is embracing the virtual option. She is currently organizing her first "virtual retreat" for mothers and teen daughters, "Rising Mothers Raising Daughters," to be held sometime this spring.
Another participant, Celeste Green, has been offering Spanish lessons to elementary-school children for about 20 years through her business, Spanish for Kids, and has been contracted to provide those services at the Ypsilanti International Elementary School since 2016. Celeste Green.
She says the pandemic hit the consulting part of her business hard, but the most difficult aspect was feeling like she couldn't deliver the same experience in a virtual setting.
"Before, when students were coming to class in person, we would make it exciting and full of energy, and we'd do all kinds of movement. We can't do that physically with them now," Green says.
Kids have been looking at screens a lot during remote learning, and she knew she had to do something to keep them engaged. So she began making videos starring local students in their own local parks and playgrounds.
"When they see material with people they know, even their friends, they feel connected," Green says. "Nothing makes kids stop looking around and focus on the screen more than seeing their friends on a video."
When students were meeting in person, Green would cook something from a Spanish-speaking country every three weeks, and found it was a "huge hit" with students, so she has begun to turn those food lessons into videos as well. Green hopes to find funding so she can drop off packets with supplies families can use to cook along with the videos.
"Food is a huge connector for learning," she says.
Both Green and Palmer say they are looking forward to the small peer group sessions that will start after the 10 weeks of virtual programming is completed, but some of those connections are already forming organically. Green says the class facilitators encourage participants to reach out to each other between sessions and learn more about each other and each others' businesses.
Palmer notes that participants share their weekly ups and downs during the class, including broken bones and family emergencies. One week, a group member shared that they had taken in another family on an emergency basis.
"In the chat, people were asking, 'What do you need?'" Palmer says. "Even those of us who had lost revenue, in the spirit of camaraderie, were offering to do whatever we could – a box of clothes, money, or food for that family."
Gapske says it was "heartbreaking" not to be able to accept all who applied for this round of the program. She says the EC hopes to apply for future grants and make Renew Your Business an ongoing program, even after the pandemic passes.
"We're so excited," Gapske says. "This is something to grab onto, something that gives business owners a feeling that there's some movement and help."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe except photo of Kristin Gapske courtesy of Kristin Gapske.