Growing up in Fitzgerald, I witnessed the evolution of entrepreneurial spirit as small businesses would open, some close, and new small businesses would take their place. There is an economic cycle of 20-years that supply and demand generally drive.
When I was little, our downtown was where we went to get what we needed to live. We picked up medicine from the local drug store, did our banking, bought school clothes from one of two department stores, and grabbed our groceries at the Piggly Wiggly before we headed home.
Today, many of Georgia’s small towns have reinvented themselves into destinations because of the innovation and vision of small business leaders. People now come to downtowns to plug into the nearest coworking space and be surrounded by the energy of entrepreneurial activity. They may find a local hand-made jewelry shop in Thomasville or discover a new original eating spot in Blue Ridge that they can post about on social media. They dig the craft brewer down the street in Albany, take up a round of axe throwing in Marietta, learn how to blow glass, or craft something all their own in a trendy art shop where galleries have become hands-on activities.
Through these generational shifts, Georgia’s small business community has risen to become the single largest economic engine in the state. In fact, 99% of all Georgia businesses are small business. Unfortunately, this sector has also been the hardest hit in this global COVID-19 health crisis. According to multiple sources, 22% of Georgia’s small businesses will never reopen their doors. So, how do small businesses survive? What will it take for them to make it through recovery and into a more resilient position for the future?
Many small businesses have found ways to not just survive, but thrive, through these unprecedented economic times. The most common trend is adaptation. Small businesses surviving today have learned how to disrupt their own business model or reinvent themselves to meet the new demands that coronavirus has dictated. We ‘ve witnessed the resilient and creative adaptations of businesses to deliver supply where demand had aggressively grown. I am reminded of Pretoria Fields who switched from making beer to making hand sanitizer because hand washing, and disinfecting, became paramount to next-day survival. Okabashi shared in our Future of Minority Manufacturing program that they had found ways to supply comfortable footwear to the many health workers that were on their feet day and night taking care of patients in overcrowded hospitals. Companies and small businesses like these demonstrated adaptability and a reimagining of their business model to thrive. We need to continue to help them do the same.
Small businesses must also recognize that COVID-19 is not going anywhere. Planning for starts and stoppages in the economy is necessary. And taking proper health and safety precautions is critical to survival in today’s market. The Governor’s office recently announced its Georgia Safety Promise campaign for which the Georgia Chamber is a proud partner. We encourage all small businesses to sign-up and pledge your support for keeping Georgia safe and healthy through wearing a mask, disinfecting surfaces, maintaining social distancing protocols, and washing your hands. The Georgia Chamber also encourages small businesses to train their employees. Recently, we introduced a new program with The Levee Studios in Albany called Unified Standards. This program is designed to provide COVID-specific training to your employees on the government’s guidelines for business operations. It is 100% CARES-Act funding approved and will bolster consumer confidence for any business displaying the official Georgia Chamber Unified Standards-approved seal. Details for this program can be found at gachamber.com/covid19.
We must also look to the future of the entrepreneur pipeline. Georgia schools should introduce more programs to encourage a small business mentality through classes, studios, and extracurricular competitions. And Georgia colleges and universities should follow the lead of Georgia Tech and educate every student with the skills to create their own economic path forward. Inspiring a generation of entrepreneurs is the best down payment we can make on our economic future.
Finally, local, state, and national governments must work to ensure proper infrastructure and resources are available. Hardworking small business owners and employees need the right foundation and environment in which to survive and re-emerge into a new economy. Government leaders must continue to offer resources like the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Relief loans. Communities should look to improve their own entrepreneur ecosystems by fostering coworking locations, maker spaces and incubators. They should start their own venture capital and angel investment initiatives and invest in transportation infrastructure that will support the new supply chains that our small businesses require to create and flourish
Business, non-profits, and government must work to build a statewide ecosystem that supports and addresses the unique challenges that minority start-ups face as well streamline government regulations, licensure and obstacles for any Georgian that has a dream. We all must help the small business community maintain its position for being a strong and dynamic economic force in the state. As we continue through the recovery process, we must keep the priority of health and safety as we adapt, reimagine, invest, and develop a more resilient environment to withstand the ever-changing demands of the New Georgia Economy.
Chris Clark is the president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber