It's been four months now since North Carolina shut down for the coronavirus. And though a lot of businesses have reopened, many are struggling, trying to get by with fewer customers and sales. Shanté Williams represents many small business owners as chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce. We spoke with her in late April, just after Gov. Roy Cooper extended the stay-at-home order. And we're checking in with her now.
Lisa Worf: Good morning, Dr. Williams.
Shanté Williams: Good morning, Lisa.
Worf: So, already in April, you were hearing from a bunch of business owners that they weren't going to make it. What's it looking like now?
Williams: Well, I'll tell you that those anecdotal stories have now come to fruition. And, you know, almost 60% of the contacts now are from businesses that have already closed and are unsure of whether or not they're going to be able to open up again at all. Our membership base is somewhere around the 30-40% closure.
Worf: For those business owners who aren't sure that they can, but are trying to reopen, what's it going to take?
Williams: There's a lot of capital needs that were needed beforehand to kind of stabilize businesses that came in slower than expected. And then we're at a point where those funds were really not enough. And while $10,000 may sound like a lot for a one- or two-person business to some government officials, it's not very much when we think about operating a business. Ten thousand dollars is maybe a month's worth of overhead depending on the type of business you're in.
Worf: You pointed out before that Black-owned businesses are generally under-invested in and came in to this with less savings. And what we've seen with the PPP loans is that a lot fewer of them also received those loans. How did that play out, that you're seeing?
Williams: Well, you know, that was honestly to be expected. The categories on which a lot of Black businesses operated -- solo-preneurs, professional services, maybe not having more than five employees -- so they really were more micro-businesses instead of being considered small businesses. A lot of the companies that went through the PPP process just didn't have a good enough relationship with their bank or maybe the loan requests they were making were smaller. And so banks like to make bigger loans. They enjoy customers that are taking those large loans, but that have had this really long, established relationship.
So early on, we saw a lot of businesses who had a very loose banking relationship, maybe just a bank account, weren't able to get in the door fast enough. And in a first-come, first-served type of system, those businesses that don't have the really good relationships always end up at the back of the line. So the PPP process, I just don't think it was really designed for true small businesses -- not the micro-businesses that a lot of our constituents and members own.
Worf: I know you've been speaking with local leaders to try to get help as businesses try to reopen. Have you had any luck there?
Williams: I will say special thanks have to go to Mecklenburg County commissioners, Dena Diorio, as well as the Charlotte City Council for really hearing our concerns and saying, "OK, how can we get capital into the hands of businesses the quickest?" So they were really good about listening to documentation requirements. They made funds available as they were coming in. We were very fortunate as the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce to also get a $200,000 business support grant so that we could help those businesses reopen that have had to close in the Mecklenburg County area, and being able to offer that technical assistance, along with some capital and funding to help them reopen.
Worf: After the killing of George Floyd and the protests that sprung up, there was more of a push to support Black-owned businesses. Did any of your members see that?
Williams: I think some of our members saw some increased revenue generation in spots. So one of the things that we challenged a lot of people saying "I want to support Black businesses" is: don't just buy a sandwich at lunch one day and say, "I supported a Black business." But we wanted to challenge people to do something that was more sustainable. Do a subscription service. You know, if it's a place that offers coffee and sandwiches, do all of your business meetings for a month or two or permanently there.
Some of our members did see a slight uptick when things were really in the media, but a lot of that seems to have fallen away. So we are renewing that push because supporting Black businesses is supporting the entire Charlotte community, because that's our tax base. That's the vibrancy of our community.
Worf: From your perspective, how do you see the face of Charlotte changing?
Williams: Unfortunately, you know, we talk about economic mobility a lot in Charlotte and I feel like we were 50 out of 50 four or five years ago. We've dropped below that now because entrepreneurship and business ownership are key factors in helping a business move out of poverty and move into a different situation.
So, for me, the face of Charlotte is becoming a story that we really may not want to embrace. It may be that more minority businesses are just not open, meaning they don't have brick and mortars. They've been forced online. So it's much harder to patronize a Black business if you wanted to walk in the front doors, because if they've gotten evicted from a building, they may not be able to get another lease that's advantageous for them. And so we just may lose out on a segment of entrepreneurs of color because of COVID-19. And that's going to mean that the face of Charlotte, the picture of Charlotte, the colors of Charlotte, are just much less rich because they just couldn't make it. And they're going to go back into the workforce. And we're gonna miss out on that creativity, that vibrancy that comes from business ownership and entrepreneurship.
Shanté Williams has been a member of WFAE's Community Advisory Board since 2019.
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