Humanity has a beautiful way of banding together in times of turmoil – the more fortunate helping the needy, the overworked, the disadvantaged. While it’s easy to get lost in the daily COVID-19 headlines and statistics, it’s important to recognize that there’s a lot of good going on in the world.
I’m proud to present Insperity’s new blog series, Good Business, showcasing companies that have adapted to meet the needs of this uncertain time and to give back to their communities. Let these stories be a beacon of compassion, hope and optimism that together we will persevere and work toward a brighter tomorrow. – Larry Shaffer, senior vice president of marketing and business development
Stella Victor’s small business was suddenly in trouble.
For five years, the Haitian American entrepreneur’s home repair service, Fix My Repairs, has served Atlanta-area customers who need plumbing, flooring and electrical work done on their homes and rental properties.
Deemed an “essential” business at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fix My Repairs continued operating as the stay-at-home order shuttered much of the city.
Then Victor’s company truck broke down.
It needed costly repairs, leaving her with no way to answer service calls. Without an immediate infusion of cash, the shut-in senior citizens Victor services might be without A/C or plumbing, and her business would be hampered.
Victor, like more than 50,000 small businesses nationwide, turned to Hello Alice’s COVID-19 Business for All Emergency Grant program. With the country shut down and her truck broken, she submitted a request for $10,000.
Hello Alice is a social enterprise and virtual community that helps business owners find networking, support and funding. Offering financial assistance to companies struggling amid the pandemic is a natural extension of their mission to foster small businesses – particularly people of color, veterans, the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.
Connecting business owners to opportunities
At Hello Alice, the plan was always to support small businesses by connecting the owners with the resources they need.
When Peace Corps and U.N. veteran Elizabeth Gore first met entrepreneur Carolyn Rodz 11 years ago, they bonded over their concern that women were being shut out of business opportunities.
“I kept seeing women’s lack of access, whether in other countries where maybe they couldn’t own land or back home where women are only getting 2% of venture capital,” said Gore.
Rodz experienced firsthand the difference access to funding and support can make. “Her first company failed and her second was very successful, and it was really about access,” Gore said. “Same person, same knowledge. We both saw the opportunity if more women got access to capital, loans, networks and mentorship.”
In 2016, Gore and Rodz launched an all-virtual business accelerator for women business owners around the world. Since its inception, the accelerator has raised more than $65 million for participating startups.
Over time, Gore and Rodz expanded the accelerator into what Hello Alice is today: a social enterprise that, with the assistance of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, provides resources and funding tailored to the specific needs of the small business owners in their community.
Their Business for All grant initiative was the centerpiece of Hello Alice’s campaign to fund and support these small businesses.
Grand plans and a global disruption
Business for All was ready to roll out in early March 2020 with $250,000 in grant money for business owners who didn’t have other access to capital. Celebrities Gwyneth Paltrow, Kristen Bell and Pitbull – all known for their respective entrepreneurial pursuits – joined other business luminaries to mentor grant recipients.
For the launch, Hello Alice was prepared to make a splash in Austin, at one of the world’s foremost networking events. “We put the largest marketing investment we’ve ever done into South by Southwest (SXSW) … It was a big bet for us,” Gore recalled
And then came COVID-19 and the unprecedented global response.
“The same thing happened to us that happened to every business in America,” said Gore. Concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus prompted officials to shut things down.
Meanwhile, the city of Austin’s decision to cancel SXSW was a wake-up call for the business community.
“I watched our $280,000 build [for SXSW] get shredded. At the same time, Hello Alice started getting inundated, not just by our existing community of business owners, but hundreds of thousands of other business owners asking, ‘What does this mean?’”
Amid the pandemic, Hello Alice, like many U.S. businesses, faced layoffs and cutbacks.
“We lost quite a bit of cash in that first month, and we know that cash is going to be tight the second half of the year.
Despite the setbacks, they focused on how Hello Alice could be of service to their community.
A fast pivot to supporting small businesses in crisis
Gore and Rodz huddled with their board and investors to decide how Hello Alice could help. “We already had the machine learning and the code in place to match owners with resources. We would just have to make it very COVID-specific.”
Within days, they built Hello Alice’s COVID-19 Business Resource Center to provide information on local rules, SBA loans and other financial aid. With special sections dedicated to Hispanic and Latino business owners and military-connected entrepreneurs, the online center is also a forum for Hello Alice’s online community to share tips with others by location and industry.
Gore and Rodz started hosting multiple daily webinars to help owners navigate the federal Paycheck Protection Program application process. What they heard, over and over, was that the process was filled with roadblocks for the smallest businesses.
“There’s just not enough funding out there for people right now,” Gore said. Some of the people who need help “have great finances and they need such a small amount of capital to keep going.”
So, Hello Alice leveraged its Business for All grant program and started raising more funds to get cash to struggling businesses.
The COVID-19 Business for All Emergency Grant program launched with support from eBay, Verizon and Silicon Valley Bank. Within a few weeks, they’d received more than 50,000 vetted applications for $10,000 grants – including the one from Stella Victor.
Yes, Victor received funds to repair the Fix My Repairs truck. It’s back on the job now, helping seniors and other clients in Atlanta stay safe at home.
In addition to helping Victor, other grants have helped:
- A sleepwear business in Los Angeles that’s pivoted to produce PPE for health care workers
- A string instrument shop in El Paso that serves orchestra students and teachers
- A New York-based restaurant that’s selling bento box takeout meals while its dining room is closed
To date, two rounds of grants have been awarded. The program is still accepting applications, and Hello Alice is “fundraising like crazy” to award more grants.
In it together
While crisis management and emergency funding wasn’t Hello Alice’s intended mission, the organization and its founders are uniquely positioned to have an outsized impact on the small business community. By providing funding and advice, Hello Alice is helping struggling businesses navigate this particularly turbulent period.
“I want to acknowledge that it’s not all inspiration, and people are making tough decisions right now,” Gore said.
Many businesses have been forced to create, in short-order, a whole new business plan.
“Where are your customers?” she asked, riddling off a progression of thought many business owners must explore. “How are they going to shop in the future? Where is there opportunity?”
All companies, large and small, have had to pivot to some degree. The good news for small firms, Gore said, is that they can be nimble, move faster and pick up new customers.
As business owners make these difficult choices, Gore wants Hello Alice to serve as guide and liaison to a more prosperous tomorrow.
“This is an incredibly isolating time for business owners. You’re making the hardest decisions of your life stuck in your living room, possibly with your kids crawling all over you. We’re here to connect you with other business owners and to help as much as we can.”
To read more stories about Insperity clients making a difference in their communities – like Hello Alice’s mission of supporting small businesses – please visit our Community Heroes page.