KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An instant feeling of peace sets in when Sybil Bailey greets her clients inside a tranquil West Knoxville spa room, a welcome retreat after a stressful year.
"Touch is a powerful thing and a lot of people want those kinds of services," said Bailey, owner of Afro Mermaid Skincare.
Bailey took a leap of faith last year after leaving a successful corporate job and launched her dream business, Afro Mermaid Skincare.
"I opened in January 2020 to much fanfare and love and support, and promptly shut down the first week in March which was terrifying," Bailey said.
Her clients began dropping off and financial worries soon followed.
Bailey began to second guess her decision.
"I needed to make this business work to make this business work so it was a very scary time," Bailey said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected small businesses across the board, but especially minority-owned small businesses, which make up a large share of service industries, leaving them vulnerable.
According to a recent study, 1.1 million minority-owned small businesses in the U.S. are an essential job source.
Women own nearly 300,000 of them, and many scrambled to find ways to survive the pandemic.
"I was sort of doing virtual consultations, sort of pushing retail for people, smaller kits, samples," Bailey said.
As Bailey innovated, she started getting more attention on social media and business finally started picking up again.
Now, she's taking on new clients, hoping to thrive on the other side of the pandemic and see how her business will grow.
"I have nothing to compare it to. I don't know if this is great or no, so I'm kind of just looking forward to the future to see what the new normal is," Bailey said.
Deidra Harper, co-founder of The Women LLC, a group of six women helping small Black-owned businesses in Knoxville, has tips and resources for businesses recovering from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: How have you seen women be impacted by the pandemic, particularly minority women? Why do you think that is?
A: I don't know if I have the exact answer of why that is, but I know a solution that we tried to bring during the pandemic is the Women Foundation, The Women LLC, we wanted to provide access to capital for small businesses. I have noticed there has been a spike in entrepreneurship amongst Black women. And I think due to COVID, being at home and having a little bit of more flexibility, and free time to pick up that hobby and actually turning into an income-driven operation, but then you still want to have capital and access to those resources to be able to expand your business. So I know that is a reason why The Women, who is a group of individual women that come together to form our organizations to bring a solution to those things that we are experiencing today.
Q: The Women of Knoxville has really been doing some great stuff to help out minority-owned small businesses. Talk about some of the things you're offering, in particular, your micro-lending program.
A: We are very excited, we've had our first round of microloans. We did those back in the fall. So we were able to provide access to capital to three small businesses locally here in Knoxville, Tennessee. But on top of that, we're overjoyed and excited that we're going to be able to do that again. So this spring, definitely follow us be on the lookout, we will open our applications back up to do another round of access to capital and provide that for those small businesses.
Q: What are some other resources that you would suggest for other businesses that might be struggling right now?
A: I would suggest getting involved with roots collective, it is an organization that Tanika Harper has. Right now, I believe it's more in the Facebook stage as being a group but there's a lot of mentors that are provided in that space, find you a mentor, find some networks that you can get involved in. I'd also shout out to Damon Rawls who's produced the Knoxville Black Business Directory. So that is a great resource any in the event that you're looking for a mentor, want to see what's out there. I definitely go to that first to check out and see if there's someone that's already doing it or maybe there's a business that I want to partner with.
Q: Are you encouraged by what you're seeing right now at this stage of the pandemic when it comes to minority and small businesses?
A: Yes, I really am. I've really seen a collective work of movement going forward of coming together, collaborating. And I think that's really what is going to make minority businesses a little bit stronger and be able to just come together, work together for a resource network, mentorship, so that we can continue to move the needle forward.
Q: Do you think The Women Knoxville will be expanding on some of their efforts in the future when it comes to helping out some of these businesses?
A: Yes, definitely. We meet consistently constantly thinking about what other things that we can do. And I know one in the future would also be to provide community grants. Right now, we are doing microloans and micro-lending for small businesses. However, we know like I said that there are other community organizations, grassroots organizations that can use that opportunity as well. And that we continue to see a disadvantage to have you know, those Black nonprofit organizations really having a foot at the table and being able to access some of those grant resources. So we want to be able to provide community grants in the future.
Q: If they want to apply for something like that, how do they go about doing it?
A: Yes, go to our website, www.thewomenllcknoxville.org. And right on the website, you'll see there'll be able to apply, resources about us, get to know us a little bit more. I think you'd be very surprised at a lot of our backgrounds. They're different but they do align and one thing that brought us together was solution bringing a solution. I think that's important.