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With a new wave of shutdowns blanketing the country in an attempt to rein in the third wave of the pandemic, small businesses — which are vital to the health of the U.S. economy — are struggling to hold on. Many are closed for good: 60 percent, according to a Yelp survey in September — up 20 percent from April. The number is even higher today. Unable to support their employees, who have now run out of unemployment insurance, the effect is far-reaching and heartbreaking. Small businesses employ about 50% of the workforce and are more than just a job, a brick-and-mortar shop, a pin on Google maps — they are a vital part of the community, often becoming a surrogate family to employees, a meeting place for neighborhood folk, and the face of the neighborhood. As customers stay “safer at home,” bills continue to mount; with the lack of federal support, many business owners watch their dreams turn into an unimaginable nightmare. Entrepreneurs and small business owners understand and expect the challenges of running and scaling a business, but the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 is well beyond what most of us can plan for.
Like many, I see businesses struggle in my own community. These are my neighbors — people I know and places I frequent — the coffee shop, the yoga studio, and the dry cleaners. The need for help is palpable. I knew I had to do something.
I have spent years helping start-ups, business owners, and corporations launch and scale new products, ventures, and ultimately, dreams. As the founder of Afara Global and the creator of the coaching program Take Back Your Time, my experience has shown that with the proper tools and support, businesses can surmount almost any challenge, and those challenges can even be turned into potential opportunities.
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Last summer, I worked with a few individual businesses and helped them redefine their “business as usual” by building strategies that would allow them to adapt, endure, and even thrive during these special circumstances. As the need in my community continued to grow, I knew I had to come up with a way to reach more people. One more “going-out-of-business” sign was too many.
I built the Small Business Accelerator program to give small business owners and entrepreneurs the chance to turn this nightmare back into the dream they had envisioned when they started — a dream not only for them, but for their communities.
After building the curriculum, I reached out to Jason Young, a good friend of mine and the founder and CEO of the MindBlown Labs, a financial wellness innovation lab. He had spent a decade helping people gain financial and economic empowerment — and as Black entrepreneurs and small business owners, we were particularly aware of how COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting not only the physical health of Black communities but the economic health as well. Jason agreed that the Small Business Accelerator could help our communities and others in this time of need.
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Seizing the opportunity to affect meaningful and lasting impact, Jason and I reached out to our networks and identified those who would benefit most. We began the first cohort, which consisted of 4 Black-owned businesses. Erika Pierson was among the first group. Erika made homemade ice cream for family and friends — in what was then her way of turning a passion for desserts into a side-hustle. It is her way, as she puts it, to bring people joy. I had first met Erika through a mutual friend who recommended for her to try my Take Back Your Time Coaching Program. Erika’s vision was inspiring and joyful. She wanted to build a community around her ice cream company. After an in-depth conversation and survey of her commitment and goals, we accepted Erika into our first cohort. Within two weeks, she was accomplishing goals that she had only envisioned. It’s not about doing it someday; it’s about doing it today. During and after her participation in the Small Business Accelerator, Erika’s business grew rapidly, despite the challenges of the pandemic.
In choosing participants, Jason and I look for a few common traits — all of which Erika possessed. The key trait is a growth mindset: people committed to digging in and doing the work. Having an existing business with existing revenue is helpful — but the mindset is non-negotiable. You have to be ready to fully leverage entrepreneurship to live the kind of life that you want. Our goal is to help you do that.
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Jason and I are deeply committed and involved with the members of the Small Business Accelerator. We meet weekly with each cohort to lead exercises and discussions and explorations of real-world case studies. We provide the group with strategies, tools, and coaching to help them get focused purely on the things that matter, setting boundaries to identify what to prioritize and letting go of things that do not contribute to achieving their goals.
We support this learning by providing weekly one-on-ones to dive deep into individual action and accountability plans and then use regular follow-ups several times a week to see how it’s going. This is not therapy. This is an accelerated business coaching program that says, “Here is the outcome you said you wanted; let’s take action to get you there.”
We know that small businesses need this type of support, and our goal is to help as many small businesses as possible. To do this, we are branching out and expanding into corporate, governmental, and organizational partnerships that can benefit from a focused and tailor-made accelerator program—because in times of economic uncertainty, large organizations can also benefit from strengthening the backbone of our economy: small businesses. As Erika put it, “Now I have the infrastructure to expand.” Her expansion — and all expansion for small businesses — allows for our communities to prosper and thrive. This is our ultimate goal.
Every business has a story. Economic uncertainty doesn’t have to write yours. There is help out there. There are res, support, and new opportunities for you to explore. It is an exciting time to be a business owner. The landscape is yours should you choose to inhabit it.