Pia Desai, a Director of the Desai Sethi Foundation joined TechTown President & CEO Ned Staebler for a conversaion, or NedTalk, about how our partnership on the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund and grantee Learning Forums has resulted in new ways of helping Detroit’s small businesses adapt to coronavirus. Watch their covnersation, or read an edited transcript below.
Pia Desai from the Desai Sethi Foundation, thank you so much for joining us today.
First of all, can you tell us a little bit more about the Desai Sethi Foundation? What are your goals? What do you do?
Absolutely. Thanks, Ned. The overall mission of the Desai Sethi Foundation is to improve lives of underserved individuals through education, entrepreneurship and wellness. In the 21st century we think about adding a technology layer to all of this where we can. A big focus of ours is on social enterprises. Everyone I think has a slightly different technical definition of what a social enterprise is. For us, those are organizations, be they for profit or nonprofit who design and deliver products and services for underserved individuals.
Why do you think social enterprises are so important?
You know, I think that there are a couple of reasons. One is that in many ways, a lot of products and services that go toward low and moderate income individuals are not necessarily designed for them, but end up being byproducts. So in our mind, if we can find organizations that are committed to delivering those from the outset and very much have that individual in mind as their end user and target customer, the types of products or services you can build will be much more well suited for their needs. The idea is that by doing so, can we help to set those individuals, those communities on trajectories that might look different than the ones that they are on today?
That makes a ton of sense. Yeah, that those communities are often afterthoughts. It’d be nice if in user centered design, they were the user who the design was centered around and actually had input into the product development.
Exactly. One of the programs that we were planning to launch this year, which may get pushed back a little bit now, will incorporate elements of Human Centered Design into how social enterprises from the outset, think about how to reach and address their customer.
Very cool. Very cool. I love it. So, you were a very early donor to the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund.
What inspired you to support the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund?
We were so grateful to see action being taken so quickly. So, what inspired us was the fact first of all that it was there. Big kudos to TechTown for being completely on top of that.
As I mentioned, entrepreneurship is one of our key pillars. COVID affected all of us in different ways and has continues to as individuals, as professionals, as parents as caregivers. When we thought about the groups within the population that were left vulnerable from this, small businesses was one that like very quickly rose to the top. Cash on hand for these businesses is often only enough for a couple weeks at any point, and that’s when businesses are able to operate at 100% capacity. Knowing that that was something that was no longer going to be on the table for them, we wanted to find a way to support immediately, particularly the profile of small businesses that the stabilization fund wanted to support: entrepreneurs, in many cases low and moderate income individuals, who really had to hustle to get their dream off the ground and are there to largely serve Detroiters.
Detroit certainly hustles harder. We’re very proud that the firms we targeted very much were serving and hiring Detroiters. You know, that first round help companies that had about 1700 1800 jobs. 1500 of them were Detroiters. 1490, or something like that.
Thanks again, for your leadership on that. But you know, the Desai Sethi Foundation didn’t stop there. As you said, it’s not just about money. You doubled down and you said you want to help small businesses other ways, and you created these learning forums. So, what was the goal for the stabilization fund Learning Forums? And what did you learn?
As an organization, DSF is always trying to ask ourselves, what can we do to make any program that we support, or run on our own as successful as possible? We think about that as including wrapping a layer for support from in-kind services around a financial contribution. The stabilization fund was amazing in its speed and delivery and the simplicity of what it was offering. So, what we said is, can we add to that by helping to provide guidance and support regarding what the funds could go toward? What issues are coming up week over week that might be concerning to business owners? So, learning about and meeting that need was one goal.
The other goal was to provide these business owners need support at a time like this. Support can come from folks who have domain expertise or are subject matter experts of the sort that TechTown offered. But a lot of support is going to come from someone who’s saying, “Hey, man, like I’m going through the exact same thing. And boy, is it tough? What creative ideas do you have?”
The way that we designed the learning for was kind twofold, one element around what’s topical at a given point in time. So initially, a lot of that was helping to explain the CARES Act and how you think about applying for PPP. Then it moved toward other issues that became relevant as the weeks passed. We had sessions that were on marketing, on branding and around partnering and working with other small businesses in the area. The TechTown experts were so knowledgeable and provided incredibly input there.
Then the second half of each forum was really an open discussion amongst the participants. They were there to guide each other and help each other. And I’m telling you from a brainstorming perspective, any ideas that the TechTown and DSF teams were contributing were good, but the ideas that came from the business owners were far and away much, much better. They just understood and related to each other and were able to find pockets of overlap in a way that was incredible.
We saw a lot of repeat attendees, which we thought was a fantastic sign that they were really getting value from it. And so, you know, we’re super grateful that TechTown was willing to collaborate with us on this idea and that it was helpful in in allowing the stabilization funds to be used in the best way possible. Additionally, as business owners were thinking about what comes next, they were in a position to say, ‘Okay, I’ve got some good ideas.’
It was clearly great. My team has reported back to me that they’re going to use a lot of their learning from the process in their own work going forward, as we move onto 313 STRONG, which is our technical assistance program. But you know, you mentioned the business owners, and that they had some really cool ideas that they were able to communicate with each other.
Did any stand out? Is there anyone you’re like, ah, the coolest business was x? And I know it’s a hard one. I get asked it all the time. Tell me your coolest business. I’m like, which one is your favorite child? Are there any that spring to mind?
There were so many fantastic ones. I’ll highlight two that I loved. So, one was a salon called Bare Skin. There was a woman named Alicia Frazier, who runs this salon and they do massages, waxing, things like that. Very much services-based.
So, what she did was, did was she asked herself – since I can’t keep my physical doors open and there’s no way to actually sell my services online. What’s the ancillary suite of products that might be interesting to my customer?
She has in her salon some products that she sells, skin creams, things like that. She couldn’t get into her salon, and she also didn’t really know how she would manage shipping. What was she going to do, like each time go to the post office that a new order came in? So she went to her suppliers and a basically found a way to design all-in-one packages that were then drop shipped to customers, which she sold.
She completely pivoted to an ecommerce model within that time. And it’s something that she can continue to do and will sit very nicely as an additional revenue stream alongside the fantastic services she’s able to offer in Bare Skin itself when its able to reopen.
Another example was a daycare called Baby University, run by a woman named India Armstrong. Now, a daycare center feels like an extremely difficult kind of a service to be able to provide in a time like COVID. What she did was also pivot online. And there were two ways that she thought about doing this. One was to provide an additional set of eyes by providing virtual babysitting. And then the other piece was building handbooks to deliver curriculum to parents at different points depending on their child’s cognitive development. Here are the types of exercises we would be doing with them at the center. These are the ones that are easiest for you to manage in your own in your home. So, she provided a little bit of support through the sort of like extra eyes that were on the child in in the room, but then a great lift through this handbook that she delivered alongside it.
Very cool, yeah pivoting to online. It’s hopefully providing some revenue now.
To your point about Bare Skin, it is a multi-channel stream of revenue when you when you reopen. There’s no need to stop doing it and can augment declining revenues or frankly, just increase revenues overall if things get back to more normal state.
So, speaking of online, can you tell me more about Revolution Small Biz, what that is, and what you guys are doing to help get small businesses online?
I have to say this was completely inspired by what we were hearing in the Learning Forums. So much of what we heard was, ‘We’re finding hope and some amount of success by pivoting to online.’ or ‘We’ve always been really scared of getting online, is this a time where we should force ourselves to embrace it?’
As we heard feedback from the two groups that were on different sides of the spectrum in terms of their familiarity with technology and willingness to take the plunge, we said, “Can we help ease the pain or lower the burden and barrier to opening your digital doors by providing a service that would really help you do this?”
So, Revolution Small Biz is a program that we put in place. It’s very simple, where we work with web developers to design simple but highly professional websites that can help Detroiters, small businesses in Detroit throw open their digital doors for the first time.
If you’re a product business or a services business, you know, there are different offerings that would make sense for you. In the case of product businesses, it would look like true ecommerce where you’re actually transacting online. In the case of services businesses, this may look a little bit more like a great marketing effort in place to begin generating leads. So, people become really familiar with your brand, maybe can make appointments, things like that. But the idea is your reach can be potentially expanded beyond the immediate community that you’ve always served. And there is a way to view this as only enhancing the value proposition, the fantastic product and service that you were able to deliver in your brick and mortar location, through a great web presence. We can assist these small businesses in doing that by pairing them with coaches from our foundation, web developers who actually do the execution, and training so that once the site is built, they’re in a position to continue maintaining it on an ongoing basis themselves.
That’s amazing. It’s such an important part of the process. So many businesses don’t have that web presence that’s so crucial, or they have a bad one. And we all know that you make a decision about a business as soon as you pop on their website, whether or not you would trust them to buy something.
So, who are your web developers, where did you find these folks?
We’re working with a couple different partners. We have some that are based locally in Southeast Michigan. We have others that have more of a national footprint, but we vetted several companies and tried to find ones who had real familiarity and working with small businesses and the types of organizations that we wanted to be supporting. And secondly, those who understood that this is a very clear and streamlined process that we want to run to be able to support several organizations at once, and found a handful that are just fantastic partners.
Great, great. Well, thank you so much again, Pia Desai from the Desai Sethi Foundation.