Pandemic pivots: How three local black businesses turned to technology to survive

When the U.S. economy came to a screeching halt back in March due to the Covid-19 shutdown, it left many small businesses in a tough spot. Many had to close their doors with no idea when or if they would reopen.

By Rhonda Crowder

Photo courtesy of Victoria Webster, Blossom2Beauty

When the U.S. economy came to a screeching halt back in March due to the Covid-19 shutdown, it left many small businesses in a tough spot. Many had to close their doors with no idea when or if they would reopen.

It’s always been said that when white America catches a common cold, black America catches the flu. The crisis left members of the black community worried how their businesses would fare and if they would survive.

“This is something you can’t plan for,” says Jetari Veal, relationship manager with the Cleveland office of the Economic Community Development Institute (ECDI). “You have to adapt. It’s make-or-break, pivotal.”

The businesses that Veale is seeing pivot the most successfully are those who aren’t afraid to change and adapt to sell their products. Prior to COVID-19, ECDI provided microloans but, in order to help their clients transition, they’ve pivoted in the past few months to providing less stringent stabilization and recovery loans. These new products are for working capital and can be used at the borrower’s discretion. Many are using them to transition to selling online.

“People are coming to ECDI for loans to better adapt to technology,” says Veal, who has approved approximately 20 of 40 recovery loan applications as well as 8-10 stabilization loans so far. “They are realizing the need to establish an online presence and want to be equipped with the education to use the technology.”

Three local businesses, who made quick pivots towards technology, are proving his point.

Miesha Wilson opened NuLife Fitness Camp 14 years ago after providing instruction in the basements of friends’ homes. With a small staff, at one point she grew NuLife to three eastside locations. Most recently, she scaled back to two.

When Governor Mike DeWine ordered them to close, Wilson thought, “Oh my God. How will we survive?” But some previous foresight kept NuLife afloat.

Back in August 2019, Wilson had a vision to provide online fitness classes and launched NuLife TV via the company’s website. Back then, only a few people subscribed, probably because, according to her, she didn’t put a lot of energy into it.

“During the shutdown, I was able to market this offer [that was] already in place,” she says. “It really helped me sustain.” Wilson did apply for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but it didn’t arrive until May.

She also focused on marketing her NuLife fit gear retail clothing line, something she’s had for a while yet began revamping last May. Wilson, who has always utilized social media to market her business, continued, “I was able to focus on promoting those offerings and people became more aware of them. When the gym is open, it keeps me busy.”

NuLife remained closed for 82 days, before reopening in June.

“The Coronavirus could have crippled us,” she says. “Honestly, prior to the shutdown, we were in a state of stagnation. We weren’t growing. People had become complacent with what we offered. Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to reset and restructure. Now, I feel like it’s, in a sense, people don’t know what they miss until it’s gone.”

Having to close the doors of her two locations (on Larchmere and Kinsman in Box Spot), Lisa McGuthry, owner of Our Favorite Things Boutique, found herself stuck with a sizable amount of spring and summer items she’d just purchased back in February.

So, she immediately took to Facebook Live, becoming the “QVC of CLE.”

“I had to think of a way to bring money in,” says McGuthry, who only purchases fair trade items and had spent most of her revenue on merchandise. “I had to do something.”

On Facebook, she presented items for purchase so people didn’t have to come into the store. They could order online and do curbside pickup or she would ship them. “It gave people the opportunity to shop with me from the comfort of their own homes,” she says.

McGuthry, who’s been in business 12 years, didn’t make as much selling on Facebook as she does in her brick and mortar stores but it helped pay a portion of the rent and bills at home. She also began to attract clients from other states, as far away as California.

She, too, applied for SBA funding, but is still waiting to receive it.

“Right before the pandemic, business boomed,” she says. “People were receiving their income tax checks and had started shopping. We were doing well.”

A large part of her success came from the Larchmere event center, which she had to shut down. “It had become a huge source of revenue,” she says. “Right now, it’s just holding packages for shipping.”

Now, McGuthry is slowly reopening with strict measures in place and trying to get back in the swing of things. Going forward, she sees herself moving toward more online, developing a website and making the business more visible digitally. She will maintain a brick and mortar business but plans to provide more personal shopping experiences.

Natural hair stylist Victoria Webster had just signed the lease on her salon, Blossom 2 Beauty on East 200th Street in Euclid, a couple of weeks before the shutdown.

“I was all ready to move in,” she says.

Webster, who worked part-time at the Urban League of Greater Cleveland and another salon, had put in her notices to pursue her dream of becoming an entrepreneur.

“It was scary. I had no income. Luckily, I did have some savings,” she says.

The stimulus check, although not much, helped. “What saved me was communicating with my landlord and utility providers,” she continues.

But, with an increase of people watching YouTube hair tutorials, she noticed the hair industry taking a shift to more online education and decided to switch to that lane by booking online appointments and offering virtual consultations where she provided advice on what products to use and how to upgrade your hair care regimen.

She is thinking about how to incorporate the online component into her business model now that the salon is back open.

“I know a lot of people were grateful for the virtual appointments,” says Webster. “It helped me gain new clients. When we did open back up, those people came into the salon.”

The closure gave her an opportunity to do some renovations and she did have some unexpected costs due to new guidelines, but she still believes she made the right decision.

EDCI refers clients such as these three to the Women’s Business Center (WBC) for technology training in expanding online presence and sales. Although it isn’t easy, to be successful, entrepreneurs must be consistent, provide regular content, and invest in their platforms. “I need to invest in a team that keeps my content engaging, my social media updates and information fed to my following,” Wilson says.

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