This year’s South East Chicago Commission (SECC) symposium took place virtually, with entrepreneurs, artists and businesspeople taking stock of the economic landscape in the midst of a sharp recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“For the past year, our communities have been faced with a myriad of challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing racial inequities and protests and economic downturns,” said Elvin E. Charity, president of the SECC board, in an introductory video recorded for the virtual event this past Saturday. “We are hopeful that our presentation of this symposium will be one way in which we as an organization can contribute to making sure that our communities are safe and secure and that our businesses thrive.”
A technical glitch meant that most of the rest of the symposium’s opening remarks, including a keynote conversation that featured World Business Chicago CEO Andrea Zopp, were muted. (The SECC announced Monday that it would rebroadcast the conversation on Wednesday, Oct. 14.)
Other panels during the day included discussions about branding, e-commerce, and a discussion about the relationship between art and entrepreneurship that featured singer Maggie Brown and musician and producer Frayne Lewis, son of the famed jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis.
But the strongest connection to current events came during the panel, as part of a conversation about how small businesses can gain access to capital. Lucille Dobbins, who served as Chief Financial Officer under Mayor Harold Washington in the ‘80s, moderated the panel.
Much of the discussion, which can be accessed online, focused on the in-depth details of how to start a successful business, particularly as a Black entrepreneur. (As Amanda Askew, a lender at the nonprofit Accion, pointed out, “luxury stores downtown still don’t necessarily come past a certain point in the city.”)
But toward the end, the conversation shifted to the COVID-19 crisis and the accompanying recession, whose consequences have been severe for small businesses — one study from August found that Black businesses experienced a 41% drop in activity this spring, while a nationwide survey published during the summer found that the median business has less than a month of cash on hand.
Still, the panelists suggested that the crisis could be a clarifying moment for many people. “We are in the midst of a storm, a very real storm and we don't know when it will end. But a number of these businesses have already been in the midst of storms that now the rest of the country is catching up with,” said Christyn Freemon, founder of the economic development consultancy Project Forward. “When white folks get a cold, Black folks get the flu, or pneumonia, or COVID.”
“Are you ready for where we are? Because everybody’s not ready for where we are,” continued Freemon. “People are like, ‘Oh, well, pivot your business.’ No, some of y’all need to blow it up. Some of y’all can’t pivot. This is not a pivot conversation.”
Daryl Newell, president of Seaway — the storied South Side bank that merged with the Self-Help Federal Credit Union in 2017 — said people have to be willing look for credit and assistance anywhere they can get it.
“This is the only time you’re going to have a chance to get a (Small Business Administration) loan without your credit score, without having your house tied up, at three-and-a-half or four percent or whatever it is, and the other money is even cheaper,” he said. “Take advantage of the grant programs that the city, the county, the state, the federal government are offering.”
“Due to these unprecedented times, we get all kinds of private businesses setting up funds to give to Black folks,” he continued. “Unfortunately, George Floyd had to die, people are dying, but there are funds out there that you need to go get that these large companies are setting up that might just help you survive. That’s just the banker in me talking.”
Freemon, for her part, also suggested that entrepreneurs can often feel inspired “in the midst of destruction.”
“There will be millionaires and billionaires made, just as many as businesses (that) close, so now is the time to secure the bag,” she said. “Jeff Bezos is uber-rich in the middle of COVID. Amazon has grown tremendously. Be the next Amazon.”