By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
It is not unusual for small businesses to be in survival mode before they hit their stride and enter thrive mode. But the pandemic has made it nearly impossible for some small businesses to survive much less thrive. With many business owners being forced to close their doors, one organization is stepping up.
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation recently announced its intention to help small businesses through its ThriveOn Small Business loans. The foundation plans to offer up to $1 million in loans to various businesses located in Harambee, Halyard Park and Brewers Hill, with a special focus on Black-and-brown-owned businesses.
“Those businesses are suffering now, and we wanted to do something now,” said Ken Robertson, executive vice president, COO and CFO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.
Eligible small business owners can apply for a loan of up to $50,000 starting on Friday, May 7. The loans will have a fixed interest rate of 2% with no interest or principal payments for the first 12 months. The application deadline is Friday, June 25.
Robertson said the foundation will be making its decisions in July and loans will be disbursed in August. The hope, he said, is that the loans provided the jolt business owners need to sustain their business until the pandemic ends and they can focus on revival.
It has taken a lot for small business owners to sustain themselves up to this point, he said. Historically, Black and brown folks haven’t had access to capital, Robertson said, and on top of that is the impact COVID-19 has left on the economic environment. People have been pushed back, he said.
The neighborhoods the foundation is focusing on have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic, Robertson said. If a business lacks access to capital and its customers lack access to capital, then often its forced to close, he said.
The foundation will be prioritizing four specific types of businesses: early childhood education, restaurant and hospitality, retail and arts and culture.
“Those businesses have suffered more than most,” Robertson said. “They don’t have the ability to do this switch and go online.”
If a place is undercapitalized from the start, it’s already dealing with tight margins, he said.
According to press release, 30% of early childhood education providers in Milwaukee have closed their doors since the pandemic began; jobs in the restaurant and hospitality business are down almost 17% and arts and culture businesses have lost more than $29 million in revenue.
The ThriveOn Small Business Loans are part of the foundation’s five-year plan to invest $30 million as part of its mission to advance equitable economic opportunities in Milwaukee. Its other investments include the ThriveOn King building, the Gateway Capital, a venture capital fund, and more.
While the foundation’s economic impact is significant, Robertson said it goes beyond the initial investment. The organization wants to provide sustainable programming and create community spaces; it wants to help these neighborhoods regain their strength and flourish.
“This goes beyond getting people through this year,” he said, there are structural inequalities, which exist that need to change. “We hope it gets other people to pay attention and understand that this isn’t fair.”
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation wants to bring balance to Milwaukee’s economy, it wants to rewrite the rules and make them fair and equitable, and it wants others to help them. The group is challenging the idea of philanthropy and what it means to serve a community.
As Robertson said, the foundation’s only limitation is its ability to get out of its own way.
To access the loan application or learn more about the loan eligibility requirements, go to greatermilwaukeefoundation.org/thriveonloans. For questions about the program, contact Will Martin at 414-350-4207, and for questions on the application call Terese Caro at 414-343-3091.