By this point in 2020, I think we can all agree that times are tough.
Across the United States and around the world, small businesses have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — with even greater impacts on Black, Latinx, immigrant, and female business owners.
But even in the midst of crisis, there is opportunity. A chance for us to come together as communities, to innovate, and to collaborate on finding solutions to the most challenging problems facing our world.
That’s why we reached out to some of our favorite rural ecosystem builders and get their take on what’s going on across rural areas in the United States. Today’s wisdom comes to us from our friends at First Southwest Community Fund.
We asked two questions:
- What is the biggest opportunity or challenge your organization sees, in this particular moment in time?
- What advice would you give to our communities to help them either take advantage of this opportunity or thrive despite the challenge?
So without further ado, take it away Cass!
Cass Walker, Executive Director at First Southwest Community Fund
Listening to your stakeholders has always been the most important thing any organization can do, but in these unprecedented times listening to what small businesses need is crucial for their survival.
Needs are changing daily, and the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our communities and businesses in ways we did not foresee.
Understanding the challenges – and then acting to help mitigate the effects – is vital for organizations like ours to have an impact in these difficult times.
Challenges are everywhere at the moment – helping businesses survive shutdowns, building online platforms for communications, remote teams, keeping employees healthy and well in this new “normal”…
However, at First Southwest Community Fund we’ve also seen a number of opportunities during this unique moment in history. Together with our partner, First Southwest Bank (a CDFI), we’ve worked tirelessly to get assistance to rural Colorado businesses.
In times of crisis, people can be incredibly resourceful and innovative, and re-focusing on who and what is important for our economies to thrive is paramount. We’ve chosen to focus on supporting innovation, creativity, and supporting those who keep our economy alive.
Solving New Problems: Innovation and Creativity
Many people have ideas about how to pivot or change their business models to survive COVID – however, most of these innovations need capital to implement.
Hearing the needs in our community to create new online platforms, find ways to deliver educational and health content safely, and change business models to provide new needed services, we created the Innovation Assistance Awards Program.
Through partnerships with The Colorado Trust’s COVID-19 Response Fund, Startup Colorado, and the San Luis Valley and Southwest Colorado SBDCs, we have been able to provide small grants up to $2000 alongside technical assistance to bring these ideas to reality.
To help make technology ideas easier to implement, we partnered with local media companies to provide discounted and tailored services.
We partnered awards with workshops to increase knowledge and skills. To date, we’ve awarded 30+ Innovation Awards to small businesses and nonprofits in rural Colorado, and are scaling our program to serve more areas.
We’ve helped a rural bookshop create an online marketplace for their products, a theatre take their educational programming virtual, and a restaurant launch a grocery delivery service for at-risk residents.
This initiative has brought hope and optimism, as our rural small businesses continue to show their resilience to thrive during this crisis.
Keeping Our Rural Economies Alive: Early Childhood Care & Education
As an industry, early childhood care and education has historically been underfunded and underappreciated.
In our rural areas, there was already a lack of access to early care and education, with nowhere near enough capacity to deal with the demand.
In times of COVID-19, we have seen a huge impact on this ecosystem and a deeper understanding of how access to early childhood care and education is an economic development issue
Through support from The Colorado Trust’s COVID-19 Response Fund and working with the Early Childhood Council of the San Luis Valley, we were able to create a program to assist 14 women-owned licensed family child care providers across the San Luis Valley in Colorado with operating capital who collectively serve 141 children.
It is vital to the economic recovery of our rural region that these providers stay operational. We do not traditionally do many grants as an organization, as we are typically focused on small business loans.
However, in these times, new tools such as these micro-grants are needed to support the key organizations which enable our communities to keep their business alive – especially women-led businesses, BIPOC-led businesses, and for entities who were not eligible or able to receive PPP or EIDL.
Shifting Our Focus: Rethinking Entrepreneurship
In today’s ever-shifting economy it is vital for small businesses and nonprofits to rethink and redefine what entrepreneurship means to them.
Whether that means simply working from home, shifting product delivery options, shifting products or services offered, or completely restructuring a business model, anyone can be an entrepreneur and can make a difference in their local economy and for their family during these times.
Many of our programs at FSWCF have been developed to help businesses and nonprofits make these shifts, including our Rapid Response & Recovery Fund, Technology Innovation Awards, Food Truck Loan Program, Rural Women-Led Business Fund, and Creative Arts Loan Fund.
Getting creative, working together, and finding ways to maintain your business and livelihood in your rural community is what will propel small businesses and organizations through this pandemic and make our rural communities stronger on the other side.
What’s Next for Rural Small Business?
It’s easy to feel like 2020 has us stuck in between a rock and a hard place. But as Cass and her colleagues at FSWCF show us, there’s a lot we can do to support our communities, small businesses, and entrepreneurs right now.
We may not know what the next 12 months will bring, but together we can begin to reimagine a brighter 2021.
This is the third in a series of interviews — stay tuned for the next installment! You can also catch up on the first and second interviews.