By DAVID KRECHEVSKY
Jacque Williams, owner of Jacque Williams Entertainment in Torrington, has seen his share of economic disasters.
“Right when things were starting to take off around the turn of the century, we were hit by 9/11,” he recalls. “We finally got things up and cooking again, and then we got hit by the Great Recession.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has now produced the third epic economic downturn in the past 20 years, but Williams remains upbeat, saying he still strives to “build economic development opportunities.”
That hasn’t been easy. As the Wall Street Journal reported in December, the economic shutdown imposed in March 2020 resulted in the closure of about one-third of Connecticut’s small businesses by the end of the year. In addition, various federal and private reports have said the pandemic has hit minority-owned businesses nationwide especially hard.
A year after the pandemic first came to Connecticut, business owners remain hopeful that the economy will improve as more people are vaccinated.
By the numbers
Approximately 15 percent of businesses in Connecticut, or about 64,000, are considered minority-owned by race or ethnicity – including Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Native American, according to Glendowlyn Thames, deputy commissioner, CEO, and CFO of the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).
Thames says one thing Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration addressed when it took office was the lack of demographic data for businesses in the state. She says DECD worked with the Office of the Secretary of the State, which records business starts and stops, to begin tracking demographic data in early 2020 “so we could target our resources,” particularly to minority-owned businesses.
That is necessary because of the unbalanced impact of the pandemic. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland released a report in October stating that minority-owned small businesses have faced “higher rates of closures and sharper declines in cash balances” compared to white-owned small businesses.
The Fed report says research showed Black-owned businesses closed at “more than twice the rate of white-owned firms,” and their cash balances fell nine times as fast. Latino- and Asian-owned businesses also saw higher closure rates and faster cash-balance declines than white-owned small businesses.
Even beyond the pandemic, targeting resources to minority-owned businesses is critical due to their lack of access to capital, according to Peter F. Hurst Jr., president and CEO of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council, which has an office in Bridgeport.
“The issue of access to capital becomes front and center during the time of a pandemic,” Hurst says, adding that this includes not just government and bank loans, but private equity and venture capital. The council has a certified private equity fund based in Stamford, “but we need a lot more,” he says.
Even before the pandemic hit, the state had created the Minority Revolving Loan Fund program and the Minority Business Initiative program to support minority- and women-owned businesses. Since it launched in 2017, the fund, administered by Hartford-based HEDCO Inc., has provided 78 loans totaling more than $5.3 million, the DECD says.
During the pandemic, the state also provided the Connecticut Recovery Bridge Loan, offering qualified businesses the lesser of up to $75,000 or three months of operating expenses – but quickly shut it down due to overwhelming demand and a $5 million limit.
Jennifer Little-Greer, executive director of the Minority Construction Council in Hartford, says even with state and federal assistance, minority-owned firms face an unlevel playing field.
“It’s known that a lot of work happens when you know someone,” Little-Greer says, noting that white-owned businesses often have connections that minority-owned businesses don’t. The construction council helps minority-owned businesses build those relationships, she says.
Jacque Williams, an Ohio native who arrived in Connecticut more than 25 years ago, built his business on his own. A musician, DJ, and music producer, he first moved to Manhattan, then New Haven, and finally to Torrington.
His entertainment business provides music for weddings and private events, while he also collaborates with other artists. The pandemic, though, drove him back into the recording studio.
“There are no gigs,” he says.
He recorded an EP entitled “2020,” which he describes as a “social-commentary piece in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On.’ I just felt compelled to state a point of view that might help us all to kind of deal with [the pandemic].”
He’s surviving in part on royalties from past musical recordings, as well as on a $10,000 grant he was awarded in October by Staples as part of its collaboration with Black Lives Matter to support Black-owned businesses. The grant also allows him to continue managing Culture for a Cause (culture4acause.com), a nonprofit he founded with Stephanie Barksdale that raises money for local food banks.
As for his entertainment business, Williams is cautiously optimistic. “In this day and age, where innovation is key to survival – especially if you’re an entrepreneur – you have to put a plan together that is really going to be sustainable for the long run,” he says.
“Cut me at the knees”
Niasia Williams had what she thought was a sustainable plan. In the spring of 2019, Williams – no relation to Jacque – formed Glastonbury-based Legacy Development Services (legacydevelopmentservices.co), a for-profit, fee-based consulting business offering to help minority and impoverished youth and young adults realize their potential.
A Rutgers University graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, Williams had a successful engineering career before deciding to complete a second master’s in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.
She then spent a year and all of her savings preparing to launch Legacy Development, creating a five-year business plan, a website, a marketing plan, and a standard program with about 20 hours of content. She was off and running, she says, until “Wham! The pandemic cut me at the knees.”
“My goal was to have partners and even young adults helping with mentoring, but with the pandemic, a lot of those things did slow down,” she says.
Williams did not apply for unemployment insurance or any state or federal financial aid, such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or a state Bridge Loan, saying she didn’t know she was eligible. She kept her business alive by working remotely, and by doing business consulting. She recently met with a potential new client, a high school student “going through the COVID blues” who wants help with the transition to higher education.
“Young people not being able to be with friends and have that human interaction seems to really affect them,” she says.
“How fortunate we have it”
Stevie McCray also craves human interaction, especially while traveling. That’s why, after retiring three years ago following 22 years as a probation officer, he formed Sankofa Premier Travel in his home in Branford in 2018.
McCray says he always had a business on the side, and he and his wife, Angela, love to travel. He previously worked as an agent with a network travel business but wanted to “cater to a different clientele” and not have to share the proceeds. So, he formed Sankofa, specializing in international trips for groups. He led a trip to Cuba in September 2019 and led regular excursions to Dubai and the Dominican Republic.
The pandemic halted most of that. Last year, he says, “was supposed to be my best year; I had five trips planned.” The first, to the Dominican Republican in May, was rescheduled to October, though some customers sought refunds. He later also refunded trips to Paris and Dubai.
“A lot of the hotels and vendors were shut down,” he says.
He was forced to cancel a trip to Cuba, and to reschedule the Dominican trip again to this May.
Due to the lack of revenue, he shut down his website and now relies on social media for marketing. He’s arranged smaller excursions, including an all-guy fishing trip to the Outer Banks and an all-gal getaway to the Hamptons, and has not sought any of the pandemic financial aid.
“I know a lot of people who have businesses with a lot of employees and, ethically, it didn’t feel right. I wanted them to get the money first,” McCray says.
With the arrival of vaccinations, he’s busy preparing trips for this year and next, including a health-and-wellness retreat. He also now raises money for an orphanage in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.
“One of the things this pandemic did was make you see how fortunate we have it here and how we can do better by folks,” he says.
“I couldn’t get loans”
Tiffany Nguyen, owner of Pho 135, a Vietnamese restaurant in West Hartford, and her staff also went out of their way to help during the pandemic.
Nguyen, who opened the restaurant in August 2018, was forced to close temporarily last April and May. She had tried to remain open amid the restrictions, but it was difficult because she hadn’t signed up with any delivery services. “Restaurant sales fell 80 to 90 percent within two weeks,” she recalls.
She quickly signed up with Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub, but then her supply chain faltered. “Everything came from New York or Boston, and they all started to shut down,” she says. “My vendors stopped delivering. All the supermarkets here that we go to were running out of supplies. I cannot sell pho to my customers with no veggie that is supposed to come with it.”
Forced to close, she furloughed her staff of 14 mostly part-time workers, all of whom received at least partial unemployment benefits. Yet, during the shutdown, her employees came in to help, she says.
“We gave out food,” Nguyen says. “We were bored at home, so we packed up to-go food; we were only able to cook what was available to purchase at Restaurant Depot, but we came up with dishes with whatever was available and served it to frontline healthcare workers. We did that for two months.”
Nguyen says she missed the first round of PPP loans, but received an SBA COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan. She says the applications are difficult for those who speak English as a second language. “That’s a big challenge,” she says. “The process for the SBA loan is so involved and has so many questions.”
She reopened in June, and business finally picked up again in November, but Pho 135 is operating at 50 percent capacity and her gross sales are down 40 percent compared to a year earlier. The advent of vaccinations has her optimistic, and she’s determined to succeed.
“I couldn’t get loans because I had no credit or established business,” she says of her efforts in 2018 to initially open the restaurant, which were hindered by the skyrocketing cost of renovations to meet safety and code requirements. Her parents finally refinanced their home to help her.
“I was fortunate to have my parents do that for me,” Nguyen says. “There’s no turning back. I’ve got to make sure this is not a failure, so I have money to pay them back.”
An opportunity to innovate
Melaka and Ide Ehigiato relied on their own savings and credit cards to acquire Bridal Trousseau in Branford in 2015 and relocate it to New Haven.
The Ehigiatos had previously owned Inspired Turkey, selling pressure-fried turkeys to supermarkets as an alternative to rotisserie chicken. Their decision to switch to selling bridal gowns and related items evolved from catering bridal showers and small weddings, but was still an interesting choice for Ide, who has a full-time job as an aerospace engineer, and his wife, who is a cellular biologist.
“Mel really likes fashion; she can design and sew,” Ide Ehigiato says.
When they acquired Bridal Trousseau, they retained some of the staff, and by 2020 had six employees, most of them part-time – including their 17-year-old daughter (their other daughter is 9 years old).
The employees were all laid off on March 21, 2020, when the state-imposed lockdown forced the boutique to close. The Ehigiatos, though, offered to pay a portion of any employee’s wages, to be deducted from future paychecks, if someone was “really in distress,” Ide Ehigiato says. “We couldn’t let our staff go hungry.”
They also received a PPP loan, which “helped a great deal,” he says.
The shop reopened in May and now follows strict pandemic protocols, including limiting the size of the bridal party in the store to just the bride and two guests, and requiring temperature screenings, wearing masks, and using hand sanitizer. The shop also uses UVC lighting to disinfect its gowns.
“All these measures impacted the business financially,” Ide Ehigiato says. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
“Everybody has been very understanding,” Mel Ehigiato adds. “When you just explain it as to why we’re doing it, they understand.”
Ide Ehigiato says the pandemic affected their business, but also provided opportunities. “It’s given us the opportunity to innovate,” he says.