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Market-Based Solutions to Vital Economic Issues
News & Media
May 1, 2020

“There’s always an opportunity”: Learnings from North and South Carolina businesses in the time of COVID-19

Maya Anderson, Economic Development Analyst, NCGrowth

In the latest webinar collaboration with NCGrowth, Entrepreneurship Center Executive Director Vickie Gibbs spoke with three current and former clients of NCGrowth about COVID-19’s impact on small business. Gibbs was joined by Katie Chung, sales manager at family business Southland Electrical Supply; Eric Henry, owner and founder of TS Designs; and Diana Saillant, owner and founder of Saillant Language Consulting. Through the webinar, the audience was able to engage with three vastly different industries and take away some key learnings on the effect COVID-19 has had on North and South Carolina businesses.

The webinar focused on each interviewee’s personal and professional experiences during “The Great Pause,” as well as how each has accessed resources available for small businesses. They also shared tips and tricks managing in an unprecedented time.

For Diana Saillant, COVID-19 has opened new possibilities. Saillant Language Consulting offers three primary services that have been affected differently by the pandemic. While in-person hospital interpretation services are down, the translation services and classes Saillant offers to train other interpreters have not been as negatively affected. Translation has always been remote, and with the help of NCGrowth, Saillant has been able to transfer her classes online, a move she says will likely be a permanent one because of the wealth of opportunity available. Saillant recommends that all small businesses work on having more than one income stream. Her response to dealing with COVID: “You have to see it as an opportunity to branch out. You have to be open and flexible.” Taking her own advice, while Saillant was initially wary of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) because of her desire to remain debt-free, she has since applied for a PPP loan and will be focusing on using the money so that she can take advantage of the forgiveness programs. In the spirit of opportunity, she figures she has “nothing to lose” by exploring these options.

Eric Henry, who is running for a seat in North Carolina House District 64, spoke about the difficulty accessing federal funding that many small businesses are having. “A lot of success in small business is knowing how to push the right buttons,” he remarked in recounting the way that larger corporations were able to access COVID relief funds earlier through their connections. Having the right relationships in place prior to crises is crucial for surviving them. But while being in business for 40 years has meant that Henry was able to access PPP funds, he is still working through all the undefined regulations surrounding the money’s ability to convert to a grant. In the meantime, TS Designs is adapting with the times, and has started to make masks, as the large portion of his business making T-shirts for colleges and university systems has dried up. Henry suggested that businesses work to stay engaged: “In the position we’re in, you’ve got to keep a positive attitude no matter how bad it is.” Henry hopes that this great pause will be an opportunity for the country to reset and put renewed interest in “…bring[ing] back local, transparent and equitable supply chains.”

Katie Chung works as a sales manager at her family’s three-decade-old company, Southland Electrical Supply. With a large part of her workforce deemed essential and working through the pandemic, Southland’s executive team worked hard to ensure that work could continue while employees remained safe. At the beginning of the pandemic, Chung’s IT team was able to quickly pivot and access the extra laptops they needed to allow their nonessential workforce to work from home. At the same time, protocol was established for the essential workforce that included taking advantage of the company’s large campus and a newly renovated space to ensure a safe distance is maintained onsite. Despite all the change, a bright moment occurred when a manager broke for lunch shortly after the protocols were put in place and found employees eating near each other in their protective gear. “It’s hard to keep people from being social,” she laughed. Chung says that much of Southland’s ability to weather the current storm has been created through relationships they have built over the years. From Chung’s informal group of women peers in management to the company’s connection with NCGrowth, partnerships have helped Southland access best practices and resources. “Clearly, what has come out of this…is that having good partnerships [is key],” she said.

All three business owners pointed to relationships and an opportunistic mindset as the best way to make it through a crisis like the pandemic. Their advice to businesses is to both give and receive support, creating a loop of resources and help that businesses across the state can benefit from. As Saillant noted, “There’s always an opportunity.”

Are you a business in need of support? Check out the NCGrowth-Entrepreneurship Center webinar series at go.unc.edu/covid19resources, and be sure to tune in Thursday, May 7, for our next webinar, “Preparing for the Big Reboot: Self-Care for Yourself and Your Team.”


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