Houston expert: Corporations can help level the playing field for BIPOC-owned businesses
There were times when I wasn't sure what to do next.
When I started Connect the Dots PR in 2012, I wrote out detailed business plans, saved startup dollars, and leaned heavily on people in the PR industry to guide me in terms of pricing and feedback. Of course, we had contingency plans for unexpected hardships, but you hope not to use them.
My contingency plans went out the window when we saw we were looking at more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns. I didn't have time to wait it out or say let's see what happens. It was time to move strategically.
Like most businesses, we hit a snag. A big chunk of our client base was reeling with corporate layoffs, shutdowns and revamped budgets. We've held on, but at times, it was overwhelming. I remember when the pandemic initially shut everything down, my fear was what is going to happen to my business and those that depend on me, such as employees, vendors, clients and contractors? At the onset of the pandemic, an employee came to me and said if I needed to let them go they understood. It hurt to do so, but it was a mutual decision and he landed on his feet and relocated to another state.
For a business owner of color, the hurdles are higher. When building Connect the Dots PR, the most important driver was access to startup capital. But studies have shown that white entrepreneurs are able to contribute considerably more personal equity to their new businesses than entrepreneurs of color, because white American families have nearly 10 times as much wealth as Hispanic or Black American families.
While inequities existed before the pandemic, over the last year, they've gotten worse. Beyond the physical toll of COVID-19, which affected BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, which includes Hispanic and Asian American communities among others, more severely than white ones, BIPOC-owned businesses have had less of a safety net to fall back on, have been more likely to close, and have had a harder time getting Paycheck Protection Program loans. Studies last summer showed that the pandemic shuttered Black-owned businesses at more than double the rate of white-owned businesses. It all leads to the deeply unequal recovery that we're just now embarking upon.
The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing.
First and foremost, there needs to be an investment in people of color-owned businesses from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Six months ago, I applied to the Comcast RISE program which, since late last year, has invested in 2,500 BIPOC-owned businesses nationwide with monetary grants, technology makeovers and marketing services. I received the Comcast RISE Investment Fund for Connect the Dots PR, which provided relief when it was most needed. With this grant, I have been able to focus on the business and invest in my brand.
We're not the only ones. Comcast RISE plans to name 13,000 recipients by 2022. Houston was also one of five cities selected to award a $10,000 grant to 100 local businesses from the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which is the grant I received. We need similar commitments from other corporations to level the playing field for people of color business owners.
Federal, state and local recovery programs need to target minority entrepreneurs. Too many of the existing relief efforts have had limited application windows or been first-come-first-served, which disadvantages businesses that are already starting from behind. Local organizations like the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce can be useful allies in reaching businesses owned by historically disadvantaged groups.
Finally, financial institutions need better guardrails to ensure that they don't discriminate against nonwhite business owners. When accessing startup capital, barriers still exist for minority entrepreneurs, and keeping checks and balances on those with the balance sheets is the only way to make sure all businesses are starting on equal footing.
That way, when the next crisis hits, you'll have fewer businesses starting from behind, and we'll all find our way to recovery much faster. For all of us, that's a business plan worth holding onto.
Vanessa Wade, is the founder and owner of Houston-based PR firm Connect the Dots.