Please look out for small businesses owned by women of color

Of special concern: PPP loans

Keeping customers safe has cost businesses like The Nail Bar in Uptown half their volume. Courtesy photo, and it's something, right?

When I opened my business, The Nail Bar, in June last year, I never could have anticipated the challenges that would come just a few months shy of our one year anniversary. A few months before COVID-19, The Nail Bar moved from its pilot space in Northeast Minneapolis. We came to share a space with another Black and woman-owned business, a multicultural hair salon called The Beauty Lounge at their current home in the Uptown neighborhood. After a massive renovation, we re-opened our space in January 2020 and quickly hit our stride. 

Soon, however, the virus hit, and we were inundated with questions about how the business would survive, as we struggled to obtain government aid even as our competitors got tons of support.   

A cornerstone of our business model was to ensure clients saw themselves reflected in our staff. Our woman, Black-owned status drove our values as a nail salon. The client base for nail care is diverse, but nail salons aren’t typically Black-owned and operated. We wanted to change the pampering experience to be more inclusive, and today, we’re proud to employ five talented nail technicians, all of whom are women of color. 

Like many small businesses, COVID has had a harsh impact on our operations. Not only did it require innovation in the way we sold and provided services, but it also brought with it a crash course on navigating government COVID relief programs. 

Like other service industry businesses, nail salons are a volume business. With social distancing and increased cleaning protocols in place, we can only do half our normal business. When we reopened on June 8th, we were grateful but knew we’d have to make additional investments in personal protective equipment, disposables and extra equipment to provide a safe experience for guests and staff. Our overhead increased and we began operating far less efficiently.

In addition to these adaptations, we also faced challenges unique to the hospitality industry. Salons are meant to be social spaces, where clients are greeted warmly. That aspect changed for us with COVID. We’re no longer able to offer complimentary beverages and workspaces with WiFi. Social distancing brought with it masks and acrylic shields at each station. The Nail Bar is happy to take steps to ensure the safety of our clients and staff because the well-being of customers comes first, but as a business built on pampering and social experiences, there are undoubtedly challenges. 

As our small business tackled these changes, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram became an important tool for communicating with customers and marketing The Nail Bar to continue to extend our reach. In June, we used Facebook Live and Instagram TV (IGTV) to celebrate our one-year anniversary by giving away gift cards to our followers on social media. We also use these platforms to highlight the beautiful work our technicians do. The Nail Bar actually found two of our nail technicians through social media content. 

To keep our business running in this new and very different way, what we needed was capital, which is just a fancy word for money. We explored available grant and assistance programs from the government, including the Paycheck Protection (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programs. 

The Nail Bar was denied an EIDL but was able to collect PPP after an arduous and lengthy process. The application process for PPP was unclear. Entrepreneurs and small businesses often lack back-office resources needed to tackle — and therefore take advantage — of these programs. Even with a master’s degree and help from the Community Reinvestment Fund, our team still feels intimidated by the program and unclear about the future as the rules of the program continue to evolve.  

As our lawmakers look toward expanding this popular program, small business owners are going to need answers, especially when it comes to the back end of the program. Will we qualify for loan forgiveness? What kind of debt should we anticipate? Government aid programs are only useful if they’re accessible. Many small businesses owned by people of color already face barriers, and accessibility is important if communities wish to grow diversity in their small business ecosystems. 

Community-owned businesses are crucial to the small business ecosystem and the communities we serve. To continue supporting small businesses, including Black-owned companies, it takes removing barriers and better communication from the government, and the support of our amazing customers, communities and fellow small businesses. We can get through this together, and our small businesses can come out stronger on the other side of this pandemic. 

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