Hennepin County Reaches Out to Help Small Businesses During COVID-19 Pandemic
Vanessa Drews was a paralegal at a large Minneapolis law firm who dabbled in baking cheesecakes on the side. She made dessert for her colleagues during the holidays, sold cakes at an Irish pub, and even treated musicians and the royal himself at Prince’s Paisley Park when she sold merchandise there.
In August 2019, she left the legal profession and decided to focus on her cheesecake business – just months before COVID-19 throws an unexpected curve for small businesses. Thousands of people have folded or closed for months, laid off workers and scrambled to find new ways to deliver their services in times of pandemic and civil unrest.
Hennepin County officials quickly recognized the importance of helping small businesses stay afloat and used more than $ 70 million in federal and state stimulus funds for small grants to 6,500 businesses, including nearly half were from people of color.
Next, the county launched Elevate Business Hennepin County, a million-dollar program that gives business owners up to 25 hours of free consulting services to help them rebuild and revive after the end of the year. pandemic and in the long term.
To date, more than 700 companies, including Drews’, have taken advantage of the assistance offered on accounting, legal, finance, marketing, social media and web development issues.
“In trying to maintain my health, the health of my family, and to safely provide desserts to several restaurants and markets in the Twin Cities, the sole responsibility of making this business successful has at times been mentally and physically exhausting,” Drews said. , who owns Cheesecake Funk, which she named after Prince.
âFor the days when I celebrate milestones, I will forever remember the long days and nights of dessert making which, in turn, brought people so much joy during this pandemic. “
Elevate Business started in fall 2020 in partnership with the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. The program provided 3,344 hours of consultation and instructional webinars. Although no statistics are available showing the results of the companies, the county will conduct a survey of the 6,500 companies that received grants.
Before COVID broke out, Hennepin County had a few partners offering entrepreneurial support. After convening a business advisory council, county officials quickly realized that a disproportionate number of businesses owned by people of color were suffering financially, said Patricia Fitzgerald, the county’s director of community and economic development.
âSmall businesses needed technical help on how to pivot online sales in no time,â she said. “Companies did not have the time or the money to access consultants to solve these problems.”
Elevate Business now contracts with more than 20 nonprofit and business advisers, including the African Development Center, Latin Economic Development Center, Springboard for the Arts and Women Venture. The program is a one-stop-shop model for business development, Fitzgerald said.
Stay on track
The struggles for small businesses in Hennepin County mirror national surveys, which indicate that nearly 70% of small businesses have not seen sales rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
In October, Hennepin County Council allocated $ 9 million to fund Elevate Business for the next three years. The board of directors has also allocated $ 10 million in grants to provide long-term, affordable commercial rental space for small businesses.
âIt’s really hard to overestimate the importance of small, local businesses to a community,â Fitzgerald said. âStorefronts are part of what makes our communities livable.
Poh Lin Khoo is the owner of Khoo Consulting, one of the companies chosen to work with Elevate Business. An immigrant who speaks four languages, Khoo has worked with a home health care business, a Liberian woman starting a handbag store, a farmer planning to market avocado oil in Minnesota, and a non- shelter trying to start a sewing business.
Khoo has witnessed race riots in Malaysia and said she can relate to the disruption caused in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd.
âI love working with these clients because the barriers for people of color sometimes make it difficult to be successful,â she said.
Victor Jones has owned a consulting company since 2014 specializing in the restaurant industry. He has advised companies in Hopkins, Brooklyn Center and Eat Street in Minneapolis on financing options, business plans, and how to better care for employees. His first client in the Elevate Business program was Drews, who slowly built his business through word of mouth and social media.
Cheesecake Funk is pretty much one woman’s business. She prepares and delivers her product while enlisting the help of her mother to look after her children aged 7 and 5. Its cheesecakes can be ordered on its website or purchased at a dozen restaurants, markets, a country club, and a vineyard in the metro area. Although sales were constant during the pandemic, she went eight months without health insurance.
Drews needed Jones’ help to track and calculate food costs. He also worked with her to find a financial institution willing to give her a line of credit to start her business – she was turned down for a small business loan when she started – and allow her to apply for larger financing. , did he declare.
Drews rents a space to cook in the kitchen of the Marriott Southwest’s restaurant in Minnetonka, but Jones knows she wants to eventually open her own restaurant. They even discussed having another business to make him cheesecakes.
âI had a client who was considering exploring a cooperative route for his restaurant, which was very interesting to me,â Jones said. “So many struggling businesses are not asking the right questions. I assure them success is on the road.”
Drews said Jones has been a great resource for bouncing his ideas. âHe makes sure you stay on track,â she said.