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“Light at the End of the Tunnel”: LISC & Verizon Announce First Recipients of Small Business Grants

To help small businesses—especially minority- and women-run enterprises in places bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact—LISC and Verizon are pleased to announce the first round of grantees of the Verizon Covid Small Business Relief Fund, now totaling $7.5 million. Some 225 entrepreneurs, stalwarts in their communities who have had limited access to mainstream capital sources, will put their $10K grants to use to keep their businesses, families and local economies afloat and strong.

Hear from our grantees, in their own words.

This week, 225 small business owners struggling to stay afloat in underinvested communities across America will be receiving $10,000 grants, thanks to a partnership between LISC and Verizon. These critical funds will work to keep enterprises up and running in the face of devastating economic pressure caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, helping business owners pay wages, rent and other immediate operational costs.

The grants were made possible by an unprecedented commitment from Verizon, which today announced another $2.5 million in grant funds, bringing their total gift to $7.5 million—$2.5 million for each of three application rounds. This means that some 750 small businesses will benefit from the Verizon Small Business Recovery Fund—and they, in turn, will be able to continue supporting their families, their staff and their communities.

“Nobody is prepared for a prolonged pandemic. I know I wasn’t. This grant means we’ll be able to pay essential bills for at least the next four months, and shift some of our business into online sales.”
— Orlando Burns, The Barber Suite

“This means the world to me,” says Orlando Burns, owner and head barber at the Barber Suite in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and a grant recipient. Burns has been honing his hairdressing skills since he was in middle school, but as a businessman, he explains, he wasn’t financially equipped to weather an indefinite closure of his shop. “Nobody is prepared for a prolonged pandemic. I know I wasn’t. This grant means we’ll be able to pay essential bills for at least the next four months, and shift some of our business into online sales.”

Within days of posting the application for the first round of grant funding, LISC received 55,000 responses—an overwhelming testament to the profound need among small business owners in every corner of America. A survey just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 40 percent of small businesses have had to lay off staff and most are financially fragile, with barely enough reserves to cover a month’s expenses or less.

In this first round of grantees, 96 percent are minority business owners, 62 percent are women, and 12 percent are veterans. Ninety percent of all the entrepreneurs are under stay-at-home orders in their communities, and a full 87 percent live and do businesse in places that are designated economically distressed. These are entrepreneurs who have had few avenues to capital from mainstream markets.

The fund has gotten an extra push from Verizon’s twice weekly Pay It Forward Live entertainment streams, which will continue through May. The series has welcomed viewers into the living rooms of the likes of Alicia Keys, Billy Eilish and Dave Matthews for intimate performances, and of the titans of online gaming. For every viewer who tweets #payitforwardlive and shouts out a favorite small business, Verizon kicks in an extra $10 to the fund.

For April Teixeira, who founded her Dorchester, MA-based business, the Corny Bread Company at a turning point in her life—she was divorcing and had lost a job in education—the pandemic hit just as her company was beginning to show robust profits.

“The beginning of March was my best month ever. This was going to be my year.” But the community commercial kitchen where she bakes has closed, and the farmers markets and other outlets, like weekly breakfasts at WeWork spaces, where she sold her breads, are all on hiatus, too. “This has hit minority businesses very hard,” she says. “We often don’t have much to fall back on. This grant gives me hope that I can get through this.”

Like Burns and Teixeira, all the grant recipients run enterprises that are beloved in their communities and contribute in important ways to their local economies. Some felt the pinch as early as January, when international supply chains were first disrupted by the virus. Nikia Londy runs Intriguing Hair in Boston, MA, creating wigs and extensions, including for people with medical hair loss who travel from far and wide to visit her shop. Shortly after the new year, supplies shipping from China stopped coming.

On top of that, “many of my clients have compromised immune systems, so they weren’t coming to the store on the advice of their doctors. That led to a 75 percent drop in revenue.” Londy had applied to multiple sources for support, including federal stimulus programs, with no luck and had to lay off one of her employees, whom she describes as “like family.” The grant, she says, “is the light at the end of the tunnel.”

In the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, many grantees have adapted their businesses to help with the surrounding community’s needs. The owners of Honduras Kitchen, a family-run Central American restaurant with locations in Huntington Park and Long Beach, CA, give away free meals to all takers every day from 10 to 11 a.m. DeShanta Black of Humble Beginnings Boutique in Pennington, AL has transferred the sewing skills that got her started in the fashion business to making face masks she sells and donates to residents in her small, rural town.

The Barber Suite in Chicago, in pre-pandemic days. The Verizon LISC grant will help owner Orlando Burns pay business expenses for the next four months.
The Barber Suite in Chicago, in pre-pandemic days. The Verizon LISC grant will help owner Orlando Burns pay business expenses for the next four months.

To a person, the Verizon-LISC grantees have their eyes on surviving in the present, and building stability for the future. Jodi Slick, the founder and executive director of Ecolibrium3, a non-profit that promotes equitable economic development and energy efficiency in Duluth, MN, is not only focusing on those goals for her own company, but for the many small manufacturing and other businesses Ecolibrium3 supports in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, a reviving industrial district.

Ecolibrium3 went into high gear when the pandemic set in to help provide food for families in need, to help entrepreneurs under duress apply for government stimulus money, and much more—in spite of the fact that the nonprofit’s main income stream, conducting energy efficiency assessments, is currently shut off.

The grant, says Slick, is enabling Ecolibrium3 to live up to its mission in the era of Covid-19. “It’s helping us make sure that our neighborhood is fed, that the health and wellbeing of our children is paramount, and that our residents and our businesses are connected to the type of resources that they need not only to survive during this crisis, but to hopefully emerge stronger.”


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Hear from some of the Grantees