Small businesses cite awareness and availability as hurdles to finding financial resources

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone hard. And the small business owners and entrepreneurs of St. Clair County are no exception.

There are, however, organizations within the region that are working to provide opportunities for our small businesses. For example, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County is the largest grantmaking foundation in Michigan's Thumb region. Located in Port Huron, the Community Foundation provides local residents with resources through the assistance of various donors, volunteers, and partners to help grow and sustain the community.

A branch of the Community Foundation called the Equity & Inclusion Committee addresses the challenges faced by local minorities and women with small businesses.

It is no small task to pull together such a vast amount of information and resources without the teamwork and efforts of multiple agencies and individuals. Enter Kanchan Wankhede. The Founder and CEO of Great Workplace, Wankhede is also a Human Resource and Organization Development and Inclusion Consultant. Contracted by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, Kanchan has been tasked with helping local minority and women business owners maneuver their way through the complex and sometimes daunting task of locating and applying for funding.

Wankhede, a resident of St. Clair County, has been an invaluable asset to not only business owners, but to the Community Foundation team as a whole. Her skills include designing simple and friendly HR processes and policies; providing leadership coaching to top level management and entrepreneurs; and promoting diversity and inclusion. The last of said skills is particularly useful when interacting and building relationships with Black business owners within the community.

Awareness and availability are two of the biggest challenges when it comes to obtaining resources. Whether through federal grants and loans or charitable donations, Kanchan has been instrumental in connecting the community with vital information in these times of uncertainty.

Kanchan WankhedeAwareness & Availability

Awareness. Many small business owners are just not properly informed of the options and resources available to them.

“There just isn't much of any advertising on larger platforms where people can find the resources,” Wankhede says.

She offers solutions to combat and assist in this challenge, including social media posts, providing links to federal grants and loans, and word of mouth; the latter of which she says is “one of the most important things for a small business owner.”

Availability. The second challenge often encountered once obtaining the knowledge of where to locate the proper resources is how often they are available. Many grants are time sensitive or funding-based; meaning that availability can be discontinued by deadline or by the amount of financial resources available to applicants.

One financial relief source issued by the Economic Development Alliance (EDA) of St. Clair County, the City of Port Huron Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program, was designed to address the hardships faced by entrepreneurs and small business owners in the area. Though that deadline has since passed, aditional resources are available on the EDA COVID-19 Resources page.

Another key member in the community assisting local Black business owners is Jazmyn Thomas. Thomas, a native resident of St. Clair County for 25 years, is the Associate Planner for Macomb County's Community Development, but works closely with the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. Some of her duties include administering grants for federally funded projects such as non-profit organizations and homeless shelters.

Thomas has been in her current position for four years assisting the residents in both counties whenever and however she can. When she's not working, Thomas can usually be found afterwards in her hometown of Port Huron assisting the Community Foundation or its aforementioned branch the Equity & Inclusion Committee, formed in late 2019.

The Equity & Inclusion Committee, which consists of a diverse group of members from the local community, is focused on providing underserved residents with information and financial resources. Not only does it benefit Black and women residents, but also Native-American, Hispanic, Veterans, and the disabled populations.

“The Equity & Inclusion Committee through the Community Foundation has sponsored reduced rate memberships for minority and women owned businesses. This initiative is encouraging minority and women business owners to get more involved in the community, establish relationships, and hopefully learn about resources that could help their business,” says Thomas.

When asked why it is that they're targeting minority-owned bussinesses with more efforts during the pandemic, Thomas had this to say. "Minority and women owned businesses are already at a disadvantage when they open ... and historically they dont have access to generational wealth as often as their white counterparts."

Naesa Richardson, owner of Flourish Hair GalleryConnecting entrepreneurs with resources

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the already difficult task of running and maintaining a small business but due to the efforts of local organizations such as the Community Foundation and the EDA, many were and still are able to obtain relief through federal grants as well as other sources.

One of the beneficiaries is Naesa Richardson. Richardson, a Port Huron native and resident of 32 years, is the owner of Flourish Hair Gallery. The hair and nail salon opened in March 2019 and is located in the same city in which she grew up. Early in the pandemic-related shutdowns, hair salons were not deemed as “essential” so many were left in the dark on how to move forward with generating income for their businesses.

Flourish has found a way to do just that: Flourish. In spite of the many challenges she's faced, Richardson has managed to continue serving the community and is thankful for the resources introduced to her through the efforts of Kanchan Wankhede and others.

“There isn't a lot of mainstream advertising to inform the public of grants and resources available for business owners,” says Richardson. “More advertising in bigger or more visible platforms would help.”

Arytel Music Group, a recording studio and entertainment hub, is owned by Clifton Morgan, a lifelong resident of Port Huron and St. Clair County. Opening his doors to the public in September, Morgan was hit with the task of trying to figure out how to make things work. So, after a little rebranding and renovations to the newly acquired building, Morgan found his stride.

“The COVID-19 business loan helped me out with putting things together,” Morgan says. Prior to obtaining the knowledge about the resources available, he funded everything to get the business up and running using finances from his 9-to-5.

As the City of Port Huron tackles the newly faced challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on ways to empower minority and women business owners has been a top priority of the Equity & Inclusion Committee.

Brigitte Haller, owner of Aristotte Learning Child Care Center located in Port Huron, says, “Without the grants, loans, and support from Kanchan, it would be even more difficult than it is now.”

Without the knowledge and awareness of resources, it can really take a toll on a small business. Fortunately, however, there are those working to connect small business owners with the resources that are available.

Harold D. Powell is Community Correspondent for The Keel. Email him at hdevonp1978@gmail.com for tips and stories.
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