Support in difficult times: Local program provides grant to minority-owned businesses dealing with pandemic struggles

Just over a year ago, Dale Campbell decided to pursue his own business as a full-time venture.

The Dubuque resident committed fully to his media creation company, Positive Productions Plus, in the fall of 2019 and was heartened by the initial response.

“We had a lot of interest initially, but when COVID hit, it cut things down drastically,” Campbell recalled. “It is hard when you cannot visit with clients at their office. Zoom meetings aren’t the same.”

A recent $500 grant from Northeast Iowa Community College helped Campbell weather the storm during the tumultuous year. Campbell’s business is one of 18 local, minority-owned enterprises that received funding through NICC this fall.

Recipients include a wide variety of businesses from different economic sectors including childcare centers, video production companies, salons, dance studios and restaurants.

NICC partnered on the project with Startup Dubuque, which helped raise awareness about the grant program and connect with minority business owners.

Jay Wickham, director of Startup Dubuque, a local entity supporting entrepreneurs, said there have been a variety of federal and state programs offering support to businesses since COVID-19 turned the economy upside down this spring. But not all business owners were able to access such assistance.

“What we realized as we got later into the year is that many smaller businesses — and many minority business owners — were shut out of these grants,” he said.

The NICC funding sought to close that gap.

“We knew there was a need and felt there was an opportunity for us to help out,” said Wendy Mihm-Herold, vice president of business and community solutions for NICC.

Campbell, of Positive Productions Plus, said the funding was a “shot in the arm” during a difficult period for his business.

Even during typical times, however, he emphasized that launching a minority-owned business can be a tall task.

Campbell started Positive Productions Plus as a side project in 2008 before embracing it as a full-time occupation 15 months ago. The company provides a wide array of services to clients, including website creation, videography, augmented reality demonstrations and virtual-reality training.

For minorities that are starting a business, it can be more challenging to seek out advice or secure necessary funding.

“I think it makes a difference just in terms of having all those contacts,” Campbell said. “As a minority business owner, knowing who to talk to, how to network and how to make connections can be a little difficult.”

Making inroads with clients can also be challenging.

Campbell believes that community members have an open mind about minority business owners. Even so, some can be reluctant to make a financial commitment.

“There is a lot of lip service paid (to minority-owned businesses),” he said. “But it is one thing to say you want to work with a business and another thing to do it — to be willing to sign, put the money down and say we are going to give you a shot.”

Campbell said that the message behind the grant program — the fact that local organizations were willing to support minority entrepreneurs — was as meaningful as the money itself.

Funds from the program can be used for a variety of purposes, including supplies, marketing and wages, said Mihm-Herold of NICC.

She framed the initiative as the latest example of NICC’s long-standing commitment to promoting a diverse economy.

“It has always been our goal to expand and support diverse ownership of businesses,” said Mihm-Herold. “It is essential for the economy that we have owners from diverse backgrounds providing products and services for everyone in our community.”

Wickham believes the funding will help these small-business owners get over the hump in a year marked by a public health crisis and resulting economic hurdles.

Moreover, he hopes it is another step toward supporting small-business owners of all backgrounds.

“In this community, you have many legacy, family-owned businesses that have been around for a long time, that people know very well and support,” he said. “The question is, how do we support those (business owners) that are relatively new to the community, who are trying to make Dubuque their home and their livelihood?”