Starting a small business is no small feat. It's an endeavor that requires vision, hard work and a healthy appetite for risk.
But for so many business owners across the country, a global pandemic was never something they bargained for. As entrepreneurs find creative ways to serve their customers and communities, the Walton Family Foundation is supporting several new programs in Northwest Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta to help small businesses weather this storm and emerge stronger on the other side.
'Kiva Means Unity'
“Whatever our entrepreneurs are going through, I’m here to help them find a solution,” says Martha Londagin, who works for Fayetteville’s Startup Junkie Foundation as an executive consultant and capital access manager.
With support from the Walton Family Foundation, Startup Junkie Foundation in December, 2019 launched Northwest Arkansas’ first “Kiva Hub,” a nonprofit crowdfunding platform that offers hyper-accessible microloans for underserved entrepreneurs.
Kiva provides individuals who might otherwise have trouble accessing traditional capital with no-fee, no-interest loans of up to $10,000 that are crowdsourced from a global lending community.
Pre-COVID-19, within three months of the launch of Kiva Hub Northwest Arkansas, eight local borrowers had raised more than $56,000 in a matter of days—with each loan matched 1:1 by the foundation.
“Our small business owners have done an incredible job pivoting their product offerings, getting creative and adding new services."
One such loan was funded for Sheena Owens, owner of Kinley’s Soul Food at Lake Fayetteville. Sheena had begun to receive catering requests from large regional headquarters, and the loan enabled her to purchase a small delivery van and equipment without putting her personal assets on the line.
Kiva, which translates to ‘unity’ from the Swahili language, is fulfilling its true meaning during the COVID-19 crisis, with the loan program pivoting from helping businesses grow to helping them survive and recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic.
The Northwest Arkansas Kiva Hub has expanded its matching loan pool with an additional $450,000 provided by the foundation, increasing the match from 1:1 to 1:3 for small business borrowers in Washington and Benton counties.
“Our small business owners have done an incredible job of pivoting their product offerings, getting creative and adding new services,” says Martha. “Combined with the free consulting we offer at Startup Junkie Foundation on everything from creating an online store to setting up employee rules for distancing, the Kiva Hub of Northwest Arkansas is helping them secure support beyond what current federal programs can offer them.”
With the new funding, several loans have already been secured for small businesses affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Stacy Harper, the founder of Light House Solutions in Springdale, secured a Kiva loan to move her work online during the crisis. Stacy consults with local schools and organizations to offer emotional management services, arts and physical wellness support to the area’s at-risk and disadvantaged children and families.
In Bentonville, Kyle Alexander has been busy reviving the historic R.G. Macon & Carson Apple Brandy label, originally founded in 1893.
As Kyle and his partner prepare to enter their products into national spirits competitions in the fall of 2020, the loan is helping them keep their dream alive. They are preparing marketing materials and purchasing local produce, barrels and bottles to keep production deadlines on track.
As Martha continues to help small businesses in Northwest Arkansas navigate the Kiva process, she is hopeful for the future.
“I tell the businesses I work with, ‘You didn’t cause this, and you can’t fix it. All you can do is stay creative and keep moving forward.’ The community is supporting these folks as much as they can—they haven’t forgotten about the businesses that have served them for so long.”
‘To Survive and Thrive Again’
In the Mississippi River Delta, black-owned small businesses have been hit hard by COVID-19.
“Black businesses were already at a disadvantage, undercapitalized and without cash reserves on hand to address emergencies,” says Tim Lampkin, founder of Higher Purpose Co.
“The existing barriers prior to the pandemic have only intensified the inequities that already existed here in the Delta.”
Through Higher Purpose, an economic justice nonprofit that he formed in his hometown of Clarksdale, Miss.—the Birthplace of the Blues—Tim’s mission has been to build opportunity and community wealth for black residents who have faced generations of poverty.
Higher Purpose has operated as a Kiva trustee in Mississippi since 2017, helping black entrepreneurs use their unique personal and cultural narratives to attract funders for businesses ranging from restaurants to retail.
In March 2020, Higher Purpose launched Kiva Hub Mississippi Delta, with a matching loan pool from the foundation for businesses based in Coahoma County. So far, 15 Delta businesses have applied.
“The small business entrepreneurs that we work with don’t typically have relationships with traditional lenders,” says Tim.
“Rather than revert to payday lenders, which exploit low- income black residents with outrageous interest and harassing calls, the Kiva loans have allowed folks to fundraise with more dignity and respect, and it also helps them promote Delta businesses not just locally, but to a global audience.”
The foundation is also supporting Higher Purposes’ Black Business Relief Fund for entrepreneurs who have been directly impacted by the crisis, along with their ongoing business fellowship, a six-month program guided by culturally relevant curriculum, business growth support and funding opportunities.
Theodore and LaTanthony Strong are Higher Purpose business fellow matriculants and owners of Sweet Tooth Teddy Bakery in Clarksdale. The husband-and-wife team have continued to serve and feed their community throughout the crisis, shifting their business to delivery-only.
As Tim looks forward, his first priority is the health of his staff and his community.
“We see the data every day—black Americans and impoverished communities are being hit hardest by COVID-19, no question.”
“What the pandemic has shown us is that black businesses ... are more essential than ever.”
What keeps him motivated? The opportunity to reframe the economy on more equitable footing when it’s time to safely reemerge.
“What the pandemic has shown us,” says Tim, “is that black businesses and employees that for a long time were viewed as nonessential—are more essential than ever.”
From across the Delta, Tim is seeing optimism and resilience flow like never before from the event organizers, family farms, daycare operators and other small businesses that make up his network of entrepreneurs.
“Black entrepreneurs want to make a profit—but their priority has always been providing a service to their neighbors, and that’s what they’ll continue to do.”