Population Health

April 13, 2021

Helping minority-owned small businesses survive and thrive post-COVID-19

Image of an open sign on the front door of a shopThe ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on small businesses and entrepreneurs, placing an approximated 4.2 million businesses and 47.8 million jobs at immediate or near-term risk of not surviving.

To address this economic challenge, an interdisciplinary project at the University of Washington worked to connect business and legal support to assist and empower historically marginalized business owners and entrepreneurs in Washington state.

The project, “Helping Minority-Owned Small Businesses Survive and Thrive Post-COVID-19,” was launched with a Population Health Initiative COVID-19 economic recovery research grant in June 2020. It is a collaboration between Jennifer Fan, assistant professor at the UW School of Law, and Elizabeth Umphress, professor and Evert McCabe Endowed Fellow at the UW Foster School of Business.

“We wanted to help the community, specifically historically underrepresented entrepreneurs, survive and thrive during this very difficult time,” Fan said.

To achieve this goal, the researchers proposed a three-stage approach to support entrepreneurs and small business owners. This involved creating a COVID-19 resource list for small businesses, providing a series of negotiation trainings and offering one-on-one pro bono legal consultations.

“Not everyone in society has access to the knowledge that law school or business school has to offer,” Umphress said. “Our work entails providing this knowledge for free and targeting the populations that may not have access to this knowledge.”

Fan and Umphress also collaborated with internal and external community partners. The researchers utilized the UW Entrepreneurial Law Clinic (ELC), of which Fan serves as clinic director. The project also involved support from the Washington Pro Bono Patent Network; the UW Foster School of Business Consulting and Business Development Center; and the Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) Library to Business Program, with direct support from Jay Lyman, a SPL librarian who specializes in business and technology.

“We all worked in concert to help,” Umphress said. “The Seattle Public Library was such a huge source of information for every single one of the participants who were involved.”

SPL helped participants research specific legal or business questions and offered supplementary resources to help participants extend the advice and knowledge received into real-world applications.

“Looking at population health from a broad perspective, the factors that contribute to someone’s health [include] their economic circumstances,” Fan said. “To effectively address a problem, you need to approach it from multiple angles and this project allowed us to effectively do that through an interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Stage 1: COVID-19 Resource List

The COVID-19 resource list curated for small businesses was made available through the ELC website. The list was made available in both English and Mandarin.

The list features federal and state level resources for business owners, providing a central access point for pertinent business and legal information and resources.

Stage 2: Negotiation Trainings

The negotiation trainings were led by Umphress and held remotely through Zoom. Each training was recorded and transcribed into English, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Spanish.

The recordings continue to be accessible on the ELC website and through SPL.

“We’ve received feedback from people via social networking and other sites, saying this project really helped people,” Umphress said.

Stage 3: Pro Bono Legal Consults

The pro bono legal consultations were arranged by Fan and held through the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic.

17 different dates for consults were scheduled, with 65 consults provided in total. The consultations focused on questions related to employment law, corporate law, and intellectual property law. Fan recruited volunteer attorneys from large companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook to assist with the consultations.

“We had a number of attorneys volunteer for the consults,” Fan said. “In fact, attorneys would reach out to me to ask how they could get more involved.”

In addition to the direct legal knowledge provided, participants were supported through a SPL reference librarian and UW Law student intern who were present to follow-up with participants’ questions and provide further resources.

Project Impact

Through this work, the researchers effectively reached their intended audience of historically underrepresented entrepreneurs and business owners.

Pie chart of participants in the projectOf the project participants who responded to requests for further information, 7.4% of participants were of Hispanic or Latinx origin, 18.5% African American, 26% Asian, and 29.6% Caucasian. Additionally, 11.5% of participants identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community and 63% identified as female.

Beyond reaching historically underserved communities, the project had tangible impacts on the local Seattle community.

One participant testimonial the researchers received attests to the success and helpfulness of the project:

“Last week I presented my proposal to the landlord and yesterday I was blessed with the news that they had [accepted] the proposal, saving me $46,000 in back and future rent,” the testimonial reads. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being passionate about what you teach and sharing with so many of us during these difficult times!”

This work underscores the positive impact interdisciplinary partnerships may have in advancing population health.

“It was gratifying to be able to pull different resources together to assist entrepreneurs with their business and legal questions as they navigated the various challenges that the pandemic presented,” Fan said.