“When you see your kids putting their heart and soul into something, with no pay, doing it for their dad, well, that’s tough.” – Jeff Smith, South Shore Resort
The Paycheck Protection Program has been a lifeline to many during this pandemic, but it can also be frustrating, especially for microbusinesses, sole proprietors and farms. It’s understandable, of course. Big banks had more assets available and lending relationships with larger businesses. Some of the smaller businesses were passed by.
We wanted to fix that disparity, so we reached out to colleagues, friends, and partners to find businesses that had been left behind. The response has been so gratifying.
In February and March 2021, we helped 29 small businesses in 18 Michigan counties get PPP funds. The average loan was $11,399. Almost half (48%) of the funds went to diverse borrowers and 72% went to new-to-Northern-Initiatives borrowers.
We’ve met business owners who had been living off their retirement savings because they didn’t have money to pay themselves. We’ve worked with farmers to make sure they have food on their own tables. We filled a gap and their gratitude has strengthened us. “What an incredible difference this program is making for businesses and families,” said Elissa Sangalli, Northern Initiatives president.
Here are some of their stories. Read other stories here.
Jeff Smith has owned South Shore Resort, a family business near Muskegon, Mich., for 16 years. In February 2020, the resort was “100% booked” for the upcoming summer season. Then the pandemic hit and the cancellations started coming in. It didn’t take Smith long to realize how scary things were becoming.
His daughter Chloe works for the resort and he couldn’t pay her – or himself. “My retirement money was paying for everything,” he said. They started applying for every loan and grant they could find; they either were told to try elsewhere or got no response at all.
“I’m done,” Smith remembers saying. “I never got a penny from anyone before so I guess I won’t now. I give up.”
Chloe didn’t give up. She kept writing, sending letters to every bank and financial institution she could find. Jeff went to Arizona to help his mom and … he got a call.
Amber Gransinger, a credit analyst at Northern Initiatives, one of the recipients of Chloe’s letters, talked with Smith, only to give him more bad news. Because the business hadn’t shown a profit for 15 years (“I just pour everything back into this place,” Smith said) it would not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program.
But wait. A few weeks later, after a PPP regulations update, Gransinger called him back and asked if he had a Schedule C. He did. He and Gransinger worked to gather the other necessary information and soon Smith had his PPP payment. He remembers getting the phone alert when the money was deposited – and the massive relief he felt.
“When you see your kids putting their heart and soul into something, with no pay, doing it for their dad, well, that’s tough,” Smith said.
Smith said South Shore Resort still has some openings for this summer and the phone is “ringing off the hook” for the summer of 2022.
Shannon Cohen, an inspirational speaker and entrepreneur, needed some inspiration of her own. After months of applying for pandemic relief funds, she had yet to receive one dollar. “Sometimes we were finalists, but we never got a grant.” Her Tough Skin, Soft Heart brand started as a blog in 2014 and has evolved to include a podcast, books, public speaking and inspirational greeting cards. The business turns 5 this month.
“I have an all-woman staff, many who are heads of household,” Cohen said. She told them early on: No furloughs. Then she decided the energy she’d been putting into grant applications was better directed at helping her business flourish. “I just stopped applying. I was jaded. I saw the data that showed the inequities in lending.”
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the largest eligible businesses got their money first, while businesses trying to get loans under $50K had to wait weeks or months. Plus, most PPP loans went to businesses in communities that already had more access to resources, and loans didn’t reach a great share of businesses in the lowest-income communities.
Cohen inspired herself and her staff with clever innovations, including a robust online presence. Her line of cards was picked up by Target in 2020 and is available at 1,700 stores. She continues to stick to her mission of “curating products, places and experiences that nourish the soul.” But she never got “the dollars.”
Early in 2021, Elissa Sangalli, president of Northern Initiatives, reached out to Cohen about PPP loans. They’ve known each other from Grand Rapids business and leadership circles for years. Cohen also knows former NI president Dennis West, who was her mentor when she was in the WKKF Community Leadership Network Class with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
“At first I said, ‘Nah. I’m OK,” Cohen said, remembering her frustration with earlier applications. “But then it came down to the relationships.” Because of Sangalli and West, “I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ It was a wonderful experience! It restored my faith.”
Cohen received her PPP funds and was especially happy to find out that, if the funds are used properly, the loan turns into a grant. It helps her keep her business as debt-free as possible. Cohen has four contract employees and two high school students who work in fulfillment. Her Rockstar Woman Brunch is in its third year, bringing together women leaders from around the country for empowerment and networking. In 2020, close to 400 people attended from 18 states and Canada.