For small business owner Iguehi James, 2020 wasn’t just the start of a new decade, it was the beginning of a promising new chapter for her Oakland apparel company. The owner of “Love Iguehi” designs vibrant women’s clothing -- head wraps, dresses, skirts and kaftans -- cut from African Ankara prints. She started with just her own two hands, her sewing machine and a long roll of determination. She sold her work at local markets, festivals and conferences. By the start of this year, she started working with a manufacturer with more sophisticated machinery and many more hands to cut the cloth. She was thinking big. She paid fees for space at five trade shows and conferences for the spring.
Then COVID-19 hit.
The bustling marketplaces where James met customers, traded smiles and sold apparel went eerily quiet overnight. Conferences and trade shows postponed. Demand for new clothes disappeared. Sales dropped about 95%.
The Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce kicked into gear as it saw the devastation the pandemic was having on small businesses such as Love Iguehi. With a $100,000 grant from Blue Shield of California to bolster its efforts, the chamber’s “Resiliency Fund” has raised more than $1 million. It can now offer cash – and hope – to more than 160 businesses eager to beat the virus and get back to serving their customers.
Making a pivot with help
James shifted gears and adapted to the crisis, making face masks badly needed to fend off the deadly virus. Luckily, as a member the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, James was able to apply for a grant, and soon received $5,000 to support her efforts. Her sewing machine continued revving.
James’ initial feeling upon hearing the news of the grant: total excitement. That excitement was followed by a sense of calm and gratitude, she says, knowing there was another organization in the community backing her up and supporting other Black-owned enterprises. “It can feel isolating,” she says about the challenges of running your own business. “So to see that someone believes that I am worthy of this money is very reaffirming.”
The Resiliency Fund for small businesses provides relief for expenses such as rent, equipment, supplies, technology, and financial training. These funds are critically important to sustain businesses, particularly during a time of crisis, because more than 80% of all small businesses are said to fail due to lack of cash to sustain operations.
“Blue Shield’s contribution to the fund makes a difference in the lives of others,” says Cathy Adams, president and chief executive officer of the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce. “Our businesses have been marginalized in a number of different ways, but the fund and COVID-19 have created an opportunity for all of us to come together.”
Many of the recipients of the chamber grant money had to embark on new business strategies. Robert Dorsey, chef and owner of Robert Dorsey Catering & Events, also received $5,000. He used the proceeds to help pay his workers, which include a prep cook, and a delivery and operations person. He also was able to contract social media and public relations experts to help out with rebranding the business. “The grant helped keep our ship in a position so we could keep sailing,” Dorsey says.
James, of Love Iguehi, used the grant proceeds for a variety of added costs. She had to buy some material at retail prices because it was the fastest way to source different fabric. Shortages also drove costs higher. (A spool of elastic rose to $64, up from $8.) She also used the grant to help develop her website, including hiring a photographer and purchasing Facebook advertisements to help drive traffic. “It’s a lot of back-end work to get what everyone sees on the front-end,” James says.
Why Blue Shield stepped up
Blue Shield’s support for the Resiliency Fund is one of a number of contributions the nonprofit, Oakland-based health plan has made to help its members and its neighbors manage through the worst health crisis in a century. The company’s employees have also stepped up to donate their own funds and contribute their volunteer hours to community causes across the state, including diverse communities where the impact of the pandemic and economic downturn has hit especially hard.
“We understand how this pandemic and the economic uncertainty from it is impacting health and well-being of communities we serve,” says Kimberley Goode, senior vice president, External Affairs. “We also know communities of color have been disproportionately affected, and this is one way we are working to close the gap.
“Our charitable giving and volunteerism have helped hundreds of deserving nonprofit organizations across the state. The pandemic has reminded all of us that caring for each other unites us, strengthens us and prepares us to be our best in good times and challenging times.”