Kenzie Biggins was holding it together until Delta Air Lines started furloughing workers in the spring.
She remembers thinking that if a giant like Delta was struggling under the weight of Covid-19, how would her small business survive?
Then, two former clients called for help, said Biggins, founder and CEO of Worxbee, a company in Greenville, South Carolina, that fields a team of virtual executive assistants.
As her business rebounded, so did her optimism. “All of a sudden, what I’m doing doesn’t seem so crazy anymore,” said Biggins.
Biggins is among those with expansion on her mind, though her plans are tempered by uncertainty. She is heading into 2021 from a relatively strong position. Worxbee started 2020 with a team of 18 executive assistants, dropped to 15 this spring and expected to end November with 30, Biggins said. Revenue in 2020 should come in just under $1 million in 2020.
Women business owners like Biggins have been leading startup growth for the past decade or more. Though women-owned and minority-owned businesses were more likely to close during the Great Recession, they added 1.8 million jobs between 2007 and 2012, according to a report by Cornerstone Capital Group. Firms owned by white men lost 800,000 jobs over the same period.
Now, the question is whether they will lead growth again, out of this recession – and what is holding them back.
Women Business Owners Plan To Grow
A majority of women-owned businesses plan to grow over the next two years, according to a survey this fall by KeyBank. But the numbers are down from last year: 77% of women-owned businesses have growth plans this fall compared to 90% a year ago and 95% in 2018.
“As winter has approached and Covid-19 cases are going up, there’s a much higher stress level among many of these business owners. Most are feeling the pressure,” said Colleen Dugarte, a vice president at Cleveland-based KeyBank and senior development manager of Key4Women. KeyBank started the Key4Women program in 2005 to address women’s access to capital.
When the pandemic first hit, the biggest economic impact fell on sectors where women are likely to own businesses, including restaurants, salons and hospitality businesses. (Professional services, another sweet spot for women, were less affected). The hard-hit sectors recovered some ground over the summer but stumbled again as winter approached. As of Dec. 1, at least 17% of all the nation’s bars and restaurants were completely closed, according to an estimate by the National Restaurant Association.
More than eight months in, the Covid-19 pandemic has been chipping away at the confidence and bottom lines of women business owners. Another economic wave could hit in the spring as tighter corporate budgets impact women-owned businesses in areas such marketing, training and executive coaching, Dugarte said.
“Obviously, that’s going to have a direct impact on all of those women-owned businesses,” Dugarte said
During this recession, some face an even bigger problem than before: Capital.
“Since the last recession, white women entrepreneurs, though not enough, are making progress in terms of the size of their businesses,” said Geri Stengel. “Not so for women of color whose businesses have shrunk in revenue size. The decline is greatest for Black women. Funding is a critical ingredient for growing a business. I expect to see significant effort from the new administration and ecosystem players to close the gap in funding for women, especially for those of color.”
It’s All About The Capital
Though there are high-profile attempts to close the funding gap – like a venture fund started by tennis champion Serena Williams – those are mostly aimed a particular kind of company, fast-growth, high-tech startups. The vast majority of women-owned businesses (indeed, all businesses) require different kinds of financing.
The community banking system, long a source of capital for the companies most likely to be owned by women, has shrunk since the Great Recession. Meanwhile, community development finance institutions, which were developed to close the finance gap, were geared for people seen as somewhat less credit-worthy, not for entrepreneurs who have a hard time accessing capital either because of systemic reacism or sexism, or because the finance system has been geared for fast-growth companies.
Take the experience of Rita Hansen, who founded Onboard Dynamics, based in Bend, Oregon. The company makes a patent-pending compressor for natural gas vehicles. “I’ve always worked in the hard sciences,” Hansen said. “For the last 15 years, I’ve been dedicated to alternative energy.” She’s worked in eight startups; this is her first time as CEO.
She was able to get government grants in the early years. But when she needed working capital, she hit a brick wall. Working capital would enable the company lower its costs to build the compressors by ordering supplies in larger quantities. The local CDFI wanted her to put her house up as collateral, which she wasn’t willing to do – and didn’t feel she should have to.
“I’m in my early 60s. I’m an entrepreneur in a scaleable business,” she said. “I’ve proven product-market fit. I’m stuck.”
Since the company launched its first product in 2018, it had $1.7 million in sales within two years. Then, 2020 happened – and three of the deals in its pipeline fell through or were delayed. With 15 employees, she was able to get a PPP loan, and had hoped for an EIDL of $2 million (those were the two main government loan programs). But the EIDL program suddenly dropped its limit to $150,000. “I have no idea if we’ll survive this,” she said frankly.
The signature business-recovery program in the U.S., the Paycheck Protection Program, passed over roughly 3 million women business owners that needed funding to survive, according to an April estimate by Builders + Backers and Her Corner.
Women business owners, meanwhile, have also been affected by one of the quiet tragedies of the pandemic. Because of the added demands of childcare, some are scaling back or folding up their business plans for the moment.
Biggins has been luckier than many – but she also made her own luck. An Atlanta native, she started Worxbee in 2013, moving Greenville to take advantage of the Greenville Chamber Minority Business Accelerator. While living in her parent’s basement, she tried for two years to land venture investment, but eventually bootstrapped the company with help from her family and friends, who invested about $30,000 in her third year. “This is a story of a black woman raising funding from 2014 to 2017,” she said. “Let me say I have a lot of strong feelings about this.”
When the pandemic hit, she was able to get a PPP loan, but had to switch lenders. She also took an EIDL — because she didn’t have collateral, she wouldn’t have otherwise been eligible for an SBA loan, she said.
Aiming For A Market Of Larger Businesses
She would like Worxbee to move beyond its client base of small businesses, nonprofits and retired executives who need help staying on top of their board and community commitments. One target is larger companies that typically rely on contracts with traditional staffing agencies to place executive assistants. Executive assistants deliver more personalized aid to the executives for whom they work, for example, by understanding and anticipating their travel preferences.
Depending on how the economy unfolds, companies may be looking for more flexible, cost-effective alternatives in 2021, Biggins said. “We’re positioned in a way that you can get this high-level support where you’d normally be paying six figures a year for less than $30,000.”
Biggins is aiming for revenue of $10 million in three or four years. But she is not expecting to get there quickly. It takes time to find and match executive assistants and the economy will take time to heal.
When it does, it won’t look the way it did before Covid-19. People may still be leery of large crowds and choose to keep working remotely and conducting business virtually when possible.
“It’s a new economy and I think people really need to take that into account,” Biggins said. “How does my job, how does what I do apply to a new economy and a new way of living?”
Meanwhile, she thinks policymakers also need to adapt to the economy. “The evolution of small businesses and innovative ideas are running laps around government policy. It is time to rethink W-2s and 1099s,” she said, highlighting one of the key reasons women-owned businesses, which tend to have fewer formal employees, were able to access grants and loans. “Contractors should be a more accepted form of growing a business without all of the red tape. I believe this would create more opportunities for contractors to grow small businesses and teams of their own. This would help the government achieve the goal of growing more small businesses and creating more jobs.”
Biggins’ Advice For Entrepreneurs
• Sometimes running a business feels like a race with only one winner, but it’s not. In times like these, we really need to be focused on abundance. It’s not about getting your slice of the pie. It is about learning and growing together. I would love to see more women coming together to exchange ideas, share successes and failures, and deep-dive on feedback. We have so much to learn from each other and previous experiences.
• Don’t be afraid to put your brilliant Q1 2020 idea on a shelf. Focus on the new economy and innovation that will be needed in 2021. The need for that brilliant idea may come back around, but it might not. You don’t want to waste time, money, and energy.