Businesses continuing to struggle through the pandemic likely face obstacles in one of three areas —finances, business acumen or health — and resources are available for all three, according to panelists at Tuesday’s Northeast Connection and Small Business Breakout. About 30 area small business owners, government and education representatives attended the virtual meeting sponsored by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

More than two-thirds of small businesses surveyed by Columbia’s Office of Business Opportunities lost customers because of COVID-19, and 61% depleted their cash reserves — by far the biggest impacts they faced, the OBO’s Ayesha Driggers told attendees. Most of those surveyed said they’d use future financial assistance to meet payroll or pay rent or mortgage, but financial training also emerged in the survey as a critical need for small businesses. Driggers said the OBO has held more than 40 workshops since the pandemic began on topics including how to navigate the financial system and tap into assistance such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loan, Restaurant Revitalization Fund and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

Richland County also will offer a new business relief grant program starting in November, according to panelist Bryant Davis with the county’s Department of Government Services. The grant provides up to $15,000 in reimbursable expenses for businesses with one to 50 employees. Small business owners can get more information at osbo@richlandcountysc.gov or (803) 576-1540.

The financial aspect of running a business is the top reason for failure, agreed panelist Henri Baskins of the Columbia Chamber. “But it’s not necessarily having enough money, but rather not keeping the right records,” she said. “A lot of businesses fail because they grow too fast and don’t have the infrastructure to support it. If you know how to run your business, you’ll sell more widgets.”

Small businesses owned by minorities, women or veterans can take advantage of the chamber’s Minority Business Accelerator “MBA” program to build that business acumen, Haskins said. The 12-month curriculum covers financial management, business development, strategic planning, human resources, securing corporate and government contracts and more. The program is open to businesses throughout the Midlands region beyond Columbia.

Small business owners also can help ensure their success by being a role model for vaccination, according to panelist Vince Ford with Prisma Health’s community health department.

“Wearing a seatbelt in the car won’t prevent an accident, but it’ll make the outcome better,” Ford said, applying the analogy to the value of vaccination. More than 90% of COVID-19 patients admitted to Prisma’s hospitals, in intensive care units or on ventilators are unvaccinated, he said.

“Be the influencer,” Ford told attendees. “Take a picture of yourself getting vaccinated and share it with your team. We have the best doctors and medical care in the world. It’s not about the skill, it’s about the will.”

Ford also encouraged attendees to use reliable sources for accurate information about the pandemic and vaccination. “Talk to a trusted source like your primary care doctor, not your friends or social media.”

The Northeast Connection and Small Business Breakout group meets the third Tuesday of every month to network, share ideas and offer encouragement for greater success. Participation is free and open to anyone. Learn more about free online sessions for small businesspeople and other services on the chamber’s website. 

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