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Alejandra Salas, owner of Reno Aspire Fitness, at her gym on March 19, 2020. Photo by Joey Lovato.

When lockdowns began in March, Reno Aspire Fitness owner Alejandra Salas was forced to close her gym, livestream her workout classes and suspend membership payments, putting a strain on the finances of a business she opened less than two years before.

Salas opened her gym in 2018 with relatively little help. She had watched her parents operate their own small business while she was growing up, and once she was out of high school she got her personal training certificate, saved money and then worked with the city to see what was required to open her own place.

“I’ve never had any investors or big loans, and, when the pandemic hit, it was just really hard because I didn’t have, you know, a blanket of security there,” Salas said. “So I definitely got hit by the pandemic, and it’s just been a lot of adapting and trying to do what I can.”

Nevada had the fifth highest growth rate of women-owned businesses in the country in 2019. Nationally, the same year, 50 percent of female-owned businesses were owned by women of color. 

But with COVID-19 causing widespread shutdowns and a subsequent economic downturn, those women of color have been hit hardest, with much higher rates of joblessness than the national average. It’s prompted both public entities and private companies to take a hard look at how they can help female business owners and their employees overcome the barriers posed by the pandemic.

“The whole idea of being able to teach not only women of color but small and mid-sized businesses about finance and marketing and branding … I think it’s a great idea,” said Terri Quinton, CEO of Q2 Marketing and a panelist at a virtual training event Caesars Entertainment held earlier this month for women of color. “Especially right now when people are feeling a little bit jittery, or maybe major jitters, about where they are and what they’re going to do in their future.”

Nationally, women and minority owned small businesses are at a higher risk of closure even though they are underrepresented in small business ownership overall.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that while jobs filled by women represented 50 percent of payroll employment in February 2020, positions held by women represented nearly 59 percent of job losses in March. In the hospitality industry, women make up 52 percent of the workforce but accounted for 54 percent of job losses.

The statistics are worse for women of color. Across the country, Black women are experiencing joblessness rates one-fourth higher than the national average while Latina women are facing rates nearly 50 percent higher.

Experts have cited multiple factors that may have contributed to this, including an overrepresentation of women in the low-wage workforce and the fact that women tend to take on the majority of caregiving responsibilities including child care.  

“It’s highlighted a number of economic issues that are deeply rooted in social issues for us,” Dr. Tiffany Tyler-Garner, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance in Nevada, said about the business shutdown during an IndyFest panel discussion this month hosted by The Nevada Independent.

Tyler-Garner pointed to data released by ReadyNation, a coalition of business executives who work to promote public policy that would benefit the workforce and economy, that indicated even before the pandemic the country faced an annual cost of $57 billion in lost earnings and productivity because of a lack of accessible child care. Even with schools open, two-thirds of parents indicated that they have had to leave work early as a result of child care struggles.

Now, with schools closed, parents’ schedules are even more difficult, and women bear the brunt of that reality. According to the annual Women in the Workplace study from LeanIn.org, women with children are three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for the majority of housework and child care. That same report showed that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce as a result of COVID-19.

Government entities, too, are turning attention to women of color in Nevada whose small businesses have been adversely affected. The state has allocated $20 million in federal relief to the Nevada COVID-19 Emergency Small Business Recovery Grant program, which prioritizes “disadvantaged business enterprises,” including businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans or people with disabilities. 

The Audacity Institute, a Nevada-based organization focused on supporting diverse entrepreneurs, partnered with the City of Reno to offer small business grants for minority and woman-owned local businesses.

Providing these loans at a city level was important for local officials and for the institute because of the challenges businesses owned by women and minorities faced in receiving funding through federal programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which experts estimated up to 90 percent of women and minority owned businesses were shut out of. 

Salas is one Nevada business owner who applied for the City of Reno grant and is waiting to hear back. Salas also applied for PPP loans and other federal help when she first closed her doors, but as a new business owner unfamiliar with much of the financial information the applications required, she says she had trouble and did not end up receiving the funds she needed.

“I’m doing everything myself, so I handle my finances,” she said. “I don’t have an accountant, so some of these applications were hard to apply for.”

Even for more established businesses, federal loans can be difficult to navigate. Denette Braud is the owner of Braud’s Funnel Cake Cafe in Las Vegas, a business she’s been operating for thirteen years. The cafe includes a brick and mortar location in the Town Square shopping center as well as a catering truck, and throughout the pandemic has offered curbside pick-up and delivery services.

Braud did receive PPP loans and was able to cover payroll for a short period while the store closed earlier this year, but the process of getting those loans forgiven has been difficult even with years of experience and the help of an accountant.

“It was a real headache … I spent it according to the guidelines, I’m not worried about that … but I still don’t know if it’s forgiven,” Braud said. “I’m just holding my breath that it is because I certainly don’t want to come out of this pandemic in a lot of debt, either.”

Eventually, Salas did receive funding through the Nevada Commercial Rental Assistance Grant that will help her with her $4,000-per-month rent, the expense she says was most difficult to cover before she reopened in July.

Although this was Caesars’ second online panel for women of color, the program was adapted to respond to new challenges facing the audience, including an emphasis on how to build a resilient business that can quickly adapt how it delivers services and products.

“A lot of small businesses, they have been very creative and innovative, offering things differently,” Gwen Migita, Caesars’ vice president of social impact, sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion. “It’s a very common question and concern about, ‘How do you weather resilience in very turbulent times?’”

Jamila Joseph is a business owner in Reno who knows first-hand how important innovation is to helping a small business survive the pandemic. While originally providing aesthetic services such as microblading and makeup for weddings, Joseph and her wife have pivoted their business towards selling apparel in the past several months.

“We started to do T-shirts and apparel and tie-dying just kind of as a secondary business,” Joseph said. “That has become pretty much our primary source of income these days ... As far as makeup and contact and touching, I’m just not comfortable with doing any of that at all.”

Beyond the close-contact nature of her previous business operations, Joseph also noted that, as a woman of color and a member of the LGBTQ community, she is more wary about doing in-person work at events such as weddings because of the current political climate.

“I’m a Black woman and I don’t know that I’ll be received the same way,” she said. “So now I feel more comfortable just working from home.”

Quinton emphasized the importance of women of color building connections with other women in their industries.

“While [women of color] are really strong on having social networks … we don’t have business networks,” said Quinton.

Salas attested to the important role building a network with other business owners has played during lockdown. She says she’s found “moral support” from other community business owners and believes she may have been better off when things first closed if she had built that network prior to the pandemic.

“I think it would have been really helpful to maybe have someone that has owned a business for a little bit to tell me like, ‘Hey, this is what you should do,’” she said. “I mean, I know no one can tell you what you need to do, but just to have someone that's educated on that it would be a lot more helpful.”

Joseph started her business with the help of her brother and other family and friends who had started their own businesses and could provide advice. This assistance, she says, is what enabled her to pivot operations when the pandemic began and gave her more knowledge about making her services more diverse and flexible.

“The fact that we had had those conversations and got that advice prior to starting the business and the apparel was very helpful,” she said.

Braud has been able to build such a network through the Urban Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada Women’s Business Center over the years, and she says the connections she’s made are the reason she was able to transition her company from a catering service to a physical shop. However, this is something she believes could have happened much faster if she had had that network earlier in her efforts.

“We’ve been able to win a lot of different awards because of that, because of exposure and just being out there and connections,” Braud said.

Braud also built a connection with Wynn Resorts through these organizations and has been able to feature her funnel cakes inside of the Wynn Resorts buffet. 

Caesars’ outreach efforts also include this practical business assistance. Aside from offering opportunities for training and networking, Caesars is trying to help women- and minority-owned businesses by adding them to its supply chain. 

“Here in Las Vegas, our largest supplier of masks, even our logo branded ones that we bought, and the disposable ones, happened to be a woman of color that was in our supply chain,” said Jessica Rosman, Caesars’ vice president of procurement.

For Migita, who owned a small business and knows firsthand what obstacles women of color face in the world of business, this corporate effort is an important way to give back.

“It’s something that hits home, and I think that we can often, as a community or large entity, extend more direct and individual support. It’s the individual support that makes a difference,” Migita said.

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