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Help for women-owned businesses facing unprecedented sustainability challenges

An empty parking lot has been much more common for Allegra since the pandemic began.

Many business owners are relieved to be talking about reopening, after two months of PAUSE due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the doors are unlocked again, entrepreneurs will have to safeguard public safety as well as their bottom line -- and that "new normal" could be especially costly to small businesses, many of which are women-owned. But there is help.

"I honestly don't see getting back to normal for at least a year -- and then it's gonna be slow to come back," said Joyce DeLong.

DeLong co-owns the Cheektowaga location of the marketing and print communications company Allegra.  For almost four decades, DeLong, her husband Dick and a half-dozen staffers have been providing creative solutions to mostly small and mid-size businesses and nonprofits across Western New York.

"We've seen a lot, let me tell ya, in those years," she said, "from disasters to our store, when it collapsed in the October Storm. But never to this extent, because when the rest of the businesses around you are failing, that's scarey. That's hard."

When WBFO talked with DeLong, she had been self-quarantined at home for two weeks due to a debilitating case of COVID-19. She did recover. The state considers Allegra an essential business, but DeLong said sales have dropped "dramatically" since the pandemic began.

"Mainly to the fact that we do a lot of printing for events and, as you know, all of them have been called off. There's no such thing as an event now because of social distancing," she said. "So that has been a huge drop for that alone, and then you add all the other businesses that are not working or just working from home."

The latest U.S. Census data counts more than 61,000 firms in Erie County. About 19,000 are women-owned, compared to 37,000 that are men-owned and 8,000 that are minority-owned.

Sheri Scavone, executive director of the Western New York Women's Foundation, said WBEs face unique sustainability challenges during a crisis.

Credit WNY Women's Foundation
The WNY Women's Foundation has created a crowdsourced online directory for women-owned businesses.

"We know that it is extraordinarily difficult for women to get venture capital, but we also know that women start businesses for very different reasons than men," Scavone said. "We know 60%-80% of childrearing typically falls to women, so they're starting businesses that allow them to juggle their family life and their professional life, as well as contributing to the community."

Because of that, Scavone said many WBEs are smaller and very often the owner is the only employee. So in times of crisis, these businesses are more likely to fail.

"So the burden of juggling owning a small business, sustaining that small business, innovating to reimagine that small business in a time of an unprecedented pandemic, as well as tending to the children -- and not only caring for the children, but in many cases becoming the homeschooler and becoming the entertainment and, I know in my case, probably cooking many more meals than I ever would have at home -- is really putting a significant stress on women in particular," Schiavone said, "and we're hearing that across the board."

Scavone said all this highlights the importance of child care. She said child care was in crisis before the pandemic and there is a lot of conversation around the state about improving that before businesses fully reopen.

"Western New York is a child care desert and we actually, as a region, have the highest rate of temporary child care closures in the state outside of New York City and Westchester," she said. "But the real challenge is going to come when we start to open businesses, and schools are not open and potentially summer camps are not open, and individuals are required to go back to work and there isn't enough child care for those children."

When New York State first PAUSED, Allegra laid off its workers. They were able to return with federal assistance.

Credit U.S. Congress

"We applied for the federal (Payroll) Protection Program, were accepted in that first round and the funds were deposited in our account," DeLong said. "It's awesome. We're very excited to have that, because that will be critical for helping us stay open for the next few months."

DeLong said the program was "a little confusing" because the rules came out after it started, but they did not change how Allegra planned to use the funds. When that assistance expires, she is going to apply to New York State's long-running Shared Work Program, which allows employees to receive partial unemployment benefits while working reduced hours.

"What it is is, you determine each week how much work you have for your employees. It might only be three days, however, the Shared Work Program picks up the remainder of," she said. "Part unemployment, part paid for by the employer. It's a great tool to wean everybody back, hopefully, to full time."

"It's the new normal and it's going to continue to be the new normal," said Sue McCartney, director of the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College, which walks through available options for small businesses at no charge to the entrepreneur. McCartney is also a member of Erie County's Business Task Force, formed to assist businesses struggling from COVID-19.

McCartney said the first lesson the pandemic should teach small business entrepreneurs is the need for advanced technology systems at work.

"We all have had to become adept at doing meetings, seeing clients, talking to individuals with visuals, not just email," she said. "People just, 'Well, you know I've got some emails.' Small organizations, they probably weren't keeping track of those vital pieces of information and I think everyone got the wakeup call that they need to have systems."

McCartney said one of the first systems should be for taking secure credit card information. An entrepreneur's bank can best advise on a system. The next system to take advantage of is New York State certification as a woman-owned business. That will better position a business to secure city, county, state and federal contracts and work with contractors who need to work with a woman-owned business.

Credit Buffalo State College
The Small Business Development Center is located in Cleveland Hall on the campus of Buffalo State College.

"In terms of the general government procurement, they buy everything. The biggest buyer of art in various forms is, in fact, the government," McCartney said. "There are many contracts that go unfulfilled. And because we're in such a transiton, some of that target market a woman business owner relied on previously, maybe that's not gonna be as strong as pre-COVID."

In additon to the federal assistance Allegra received, McCartney said women should be prepared to borrow more than usual now, even though that may sound scary. Anything under $25,000 is considered small in this COVID era and lenders are symphathetic now.

Lacking funds or child care? McCartney recommended hiring the children.

"There's some really interesting research out there that these famous, big successful entrepreneurs that you read about had a mother or father who had a very, very small business affecting the whole family life," she said, "and they got the children involved in some way, even a small way, but the child could see this is what it takes to make money. So I think women are in a good situation to affect these future entrepreneurs."

McCartney said her center has about 1,000 business owners registered as clients, but COVID-19 has tripled that. She said women are more likely to ask for help than men.

When Western New York unPAUSES, all businesses must follow the state's reopening metrics.

DeLong said there already is the regular disinfecting of her workplace and gloves for those employees working on site instead of from home, contactless pickup of print orders and mail, while customer interaction is only by email, telephone and videoconference.

Soon, her business plans to focus on the different types of post-pandemic opportunities available and help customers strategize how to leverage them.

"That's what we've been dealt and you have to do what you can to survive," DeLong said. "Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to do that, but those who do will be stronger for it, that's for sure."

"Women-owned businesses play a really important role in this community and the very underpinning of many of our services," said Scavone. "I think Elmwood Avenue. I think Hertel Avenue. I think significant women-owned businesses in East Aurora and all around our community. And where would we be if they didn't exist?"

On the WNY Women's Foundation website is a crowd-sourced directory of WBEs in the area. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce provides a reopening playbook for small businesses on its website.

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