How Using Creative Outreach Tools and Methods are Fueling Entrepreneurial Recovery in Chicago

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‘Meet Them Where They Are’

ChiBizHub is fueling entrepreneurial recovery in Chicago using creative outreach tools and methods.

In Chicago, the business community has been contending with the health and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kendra Thomas and Jazmin Garcia are both business resource managers at ChiBizHub, a SourceLink community of entrepreneurial service organizations (ESOs) that launched in April 2019 to help Chicago-area businesses and entrepreneurs. It is an initiative of World Business Chicago.

The duo has been on the front line of efforts to fuel entrepreneurial recovery in the metro area’s 77 neighborhoods.

“We have to meet small business owners where they’re at,” Garcia said, describing ChiBizHub’s outreach strategy. Garcia added that, “Where they’re at,” refers both to method of delivery as well as to the assistance an individual business owner may need at a particular moment.

Rethinking Delivery and Outreach

Prior to COVID-19, Thomas and Garcia regularly attended 20 or so events every month that ChiBizHub’s resource providers hosted throughout the metro. When the virus hit and triggered statewide business shutdowns, the duo had to get creative, leveraging technology, community resources and relationships, and new ways to market.

Thomas said that she and Garcia asked themselves: “How can we think of different ways to challenge ourselves to ensure everyone is getting the information?”

Like most entrepreneurial ecosystem builders across the country, Thomas and Garcia shifted to virtual programming, developing their own programs as well as being guests on webinars hosted by other resource providers in the ChiBizHub network.

But webinars were just the start of ChiBizHub’s outreach. To touch as many of Chicago’s business owners as possible, Thomas and Garcia embraced multiple platforms, including a monthly newsletter, a weekly eblast, Facebook and Instagram posts and an online COVID-19 resource page they created with the communications team at World Business Chicago.

“The resource page is updated daily with real-time information so business owners can go in and look at what is available for grant and loan opportunities,” Thomas said.

Garcia said ChiBizHub saw a 54% increase across all their social media channels after the resource page launched because, “That’s where people were getting their information—through social media.”

ChiBizHub also relied on existing partnerships and forged new ones. They’ve worked directly with the City of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, workforce development agencies and others to coordinate specific assistance related to layoffs and unemployment questions, rent deferrals and property damage, among other requests for assistance.

They’ve also turned to business owners who can help. For example, ChiBizHub tapped Terrand Smith, founder of 37 Oaks Consulting, a firm that focuses on strengthening communities through local commerce, to help create a master list of small businesses that are open during the pandemic. The list not only generated business for the companies listed, it also helped other businesses and consumers who needed the products and services the listed businesses provide.

Thomas said the list is a work in progress, with new businesses added to it regularly. Resource provider organizations circulate it to their clients so they can be included.

Although virtual meetings, social media platforms and online resource pages were effective for getting information to most Chicago-area businesses, many—especially on the city’s south and west sides—were not getting the information they needed.

“There’s still the digital divide,” said Garcia. “I can’t stress that enough.”

To serve those business owners, some of the service providers relied on foot canvassing, going door-to-door to talk with the owners.

“They were actually out there canvassing with personal protective equipment (PPE) on and making sure their small businesses on 26th Street corridor received important information,” Garcia said.

When it became unsafe to canvass, some service providers continued their efforts by making calls, Garcia added. “The business owners welcomed the calls. They [the service providers] were getting people answering the phone.”

Staying Nimble with Programming and Assistance

Both Thomas and Garcia said that ChiBizHub’s resource partners not only had to modify their outreach and delivery efforts, they’ve had to reassess the information and programs they were delivering—sometimes on a daily basis.

“Kendra and I had these difficult conversations around what that would look like,” Garcia said. “Needs differed.”

For example, although some business owners were ready to begin applying for Paycheck Protection Program loans as soon as they were announced, others did not have the required documentation necessary to participate in the program, she said. Still other business owners had issues with their insurance policies, questions about unemployment benefits, how to manage employees working from home, and rental assistance. Knowing which resource provider organizations or government agencies to refer them to was critical.

“That was the core purpose of launching ChiBizHub,” Thomas said.

Garcia said they were able to use data that was right in front of them to direct some of their decisions about what kind of assistance to offer.

“We noticed that when we sent out our monthly newsletter that about 60% of people were clicking on links to funding resources,” Garcia said. “So, we pivoted and started a weekly eblast that specifically focuses on funding information like deadlines for loans or grants.”

Reopening ushered in a new set of questions and concerns from business owners.

Garcia said the City of Chicago offered solutions such as closing off corridors so smaller restaurants with limited indoor space could test outdoor seating. Resource providers worked with the business owners in these neighborhoods to help them understand the new regulations.

Safe distancing and PPE requirements prompted additional questions for companies that had to modify office or retail space in order to reopen safely.

A larger issue that Garcia thinks will transcend all the assistance that’s been provided so far is the shift in culture taking place with business reopenings. Businesses, she said, need to be able to let customers know their business is a safe establishment. Further, owners must be able to convey to employees who are transitioning back to the office that they have nothing to worry about in terms of their health and well-being.

“These changes speak to a shift in culture,” Garcia said, “and that doesn’t happen overnight. It requires marketing.” She said a series of webinars are planned to address the issue.

Looting from the civil unrest dealt a second blow to businesses in some neighborhoods, unleashing another level of assistance that was required.

“Just when Chicago was about to reopen, about three days later, we had looting happen,” Garcia said. “The small business owners were excited to open their businesses, but then became victims of the looting and couldn’t open.”

Thomas said that ChiBizHub worked closely with the city’s department of business affairs and consumer protection to assist businesses that had physical damage. They also helped to locate companies that could board up broken windows and repair damaged storefronts.

“We immediately worked to get that information out because people needed to board their businesses up to cover the damage,” she said. “And then there were a lot of businesses that, even though they hadn’t been destroyed by the looting, still wanted to make sure their businesses were protected.”

As much as the resource providers in the ChiBizHub network have had to pivot, Thomas commented that traditional services can’t be overlooked. “During this time of crisis,” she said, “entrepreneurs who see opportunity are launching new businesses.”

“Many of them are prospering,” she said, “and hiring individuals from the community. Some are even looking to expand. So, through COVID-19, even though there were some businesses that did suffer horrific financial losses, we have some people that have been able to start businesses—and they are thriving.”