Business organizations see N.J.’s small firms fighting tooth-and-nail to survive pandemic — and they’re eager to assist

    In terms of situations you never pictured yourself in, hosting a Zoom call with 60 New Jersey beauty salon owners makes the list for Carlos Medina.

    Medina admits that, until this pandemic, he never realized how large a number of beauty salons were in the 120,000-member Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, of which he’s CEO and president.

    These businesses, as well as ones like barbershops and restaurants, compose a significant percentage of minority-owned businesses in the state. They have also been some of the most heavily affected businesses as health guidelines and changing customer preferences during COVID-19’s spread have given Main Street businesses a makeover.

    But something to know about these businesses — as the Garden State continues to venture down a tenuous economic timeline from now until the pandemic’s end — is that they’re also, Medina said, led by some of the most resilient and resourceful business owners you’ll meet.

    “That Zoom call I did with the beauty salons was to help them with an (Economic Development Authority) grant,” he said. “Then, they’d immediately take information from that call and get on other calls and help their colleagues. It was really rewarding to see them paying it forward to others in the same industry.”

    Using the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and other organizations, minority-owned small businesses in the state are accessing what resources they can to both comply with health guidelines and keep revenues intact.

    Everyone’s aware of how difficult that can be right now. But what Medina said is particularly admirable about what he’s heard from members is how rarely these business owners are complaining about it. They’ve got families to feed, Medina said, so they’re spending their energy asking about how they can reach mayor’s offices, get funding and get up and running.

    “Our members are somewhat more battle-tested, because they come from an upbringing in the business world that required more of a fight — sometimes, they were first-generation immigrants with absolutely no Rolodex,” he said. “Their approach is no-nonsense, ‘Let’s get this done.’ It’s great for us, because we can come up with an action plan without being their therapist.”

    Medina said his organization is tremendously busy getting Paycheck Protection Program applications through the doors of banks before the application process is sealed off. That work involves connecting businesses with accountants — bilingual ones, as well as bilingual bankers, if need be — to sort through financial statements that are not always in the greatest condition.

    But it’s well worth it, he said. He’s seeing capital infusions for Hispanic-owned businesses that have long struggled to access capital, including one business owner who secured $1 million for his three local restaurants.

    The challenge is that there are a number of businesses that still haven’t gotten the memo.

    “At the end of July I was texting businesses to put them in contact with our project manager because they saw the governor’s announcement of the $50 million expansion of the Small Business Emergency Assistance Grant Program and they wanted to know if it was applicable to them — but that’s a highly specific program,” he said. “Yet, when I asked about the PPP, they hadn’t done that yet. What I’ve found is that’s a much easier process and a larger sum of money.”

    Christina Fuentes of the NJEDA.

    Christina Fuentes, the NJEDA’s director of small business services, said she encountered a lot of that as well. Her economic development group has been rounding up businesses and sometimes referring them to the state’s Hispanic or African American chambers of commerce.

    “A lot of times, small business owners are busy running their own business,” she said. “So, what happens is, you get so distracted with daily functions you don’t notice what you’re missing.”

    Fuentes added that it’s not always that small business owners aren’t aware of their options, but that they’re hesitating for other reasons.

    “I still see some overarching themes: Some businesses see that the government is involved, and don’t want to get associated with it because of that, or they feel that there’s some kind of bad connotation to the money or they just don’t understand English too well,” she said.

    Even with available funding such as PPP loans and other grants, Fuentes said some businesses have struggled to attract customers online — mostly because they had almost no presence there prior to the pandemic.

    Salons, barbershops, restaurants and some retailers that relied on foot traffic and in-person transactions didn’t have a strong incentive to do so. And these business owners are often their own chief marketing officers.

    “There were times when I asked about the social media platform (of a small business) and I’d hear, ‘I don’t even know how to use my email sometimes,’” Fuentes said. “Google, Facebook, Instagram — a lot of small businesses still aren’t using them.”

    But, as Gov. Phil Murphy’s Restart and Recovery Commission established back in May, in regards to the state’s economic recovery, one of the keys will be successfully transitioning small businesses onto the web.

    That’s why Fuentes finds a lot of promise in the NJEDA’s new E-Commerce Technical Assistance Program, a pilot initiative that offers the services of online marketing professionals to small businesses that relied on foot traffic.

    “Within just two days of having the intake form for this program live, we had about 200 leads on it,” she said. “So, it’s gotta be doing something right.”

    New Jersey is a small state packed with a variety of diverse small businesses, Fuentes added. With a little help … it’ll stay that way.

    What follows PPP?

    With the Paycheck Protection Program reaching its terminus Aug. 8 … What’s next?

    Early indications are that PPP loans did get money into the hands of small businesses that might otherwise have had to shutter. The National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonpartisan think tank, reported that landing a PPP loan led to an increase in the expected survival of a business of between 14-30%.

    Stark & Stark
    Rachel Lilienthal Stark.

    Rachel Lilienthal Stark, shareholder at Stark & Stark, said what she’s seen locally — with her law firm maintaining a presence in Lawrenceville and Princeton, among other towns — is that there hasn’t yet been a landslide of businesses closing their doors permanently.

    As tides start to change, and as some of the early efforts to buoy businesses such as PPP loans drift away, she’s suspecting those closures will start to happen.

    “The question is, what can we do to sustain those businesses to keep their payroll and business alive now?” she said. “I think that’s where some local funds have the potential to give some breathing space to businesses that would otherwise be suffering in coming months.”

    Stark & Stark was one of the first organizations to support such a fund in Princeton. The Princeton Resiliency Fund, spearheaded by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation, is now starting to accept applications for grants of up to $5,000 for Princeton-based small businesses.

    Stark, who serves on the fund’s advisory board, believes these emergency funds — while not nearly as high-dollar as the PPP loans — do have the potential to fill some gaps. She’s hoping to see this early initiative replicated at the municipal level.

    “Hopefully, it’ll be something that other towns roll out, as well,” she said. “And it’s important that it’s not a first-come, first-served opportunity. The Princeton Resiliency Fund allowed small businesses that might be too busy to hear about these opportunities on Day One to not miss out on an initial rush. I think that’s crucial the businesses having the cushion they need.”