Dawnyé Hawkins assists a customer from behind a partition. Hawkins, a recent college graduate, has worked at Sha-poppin for about three years. (Photo: Woojae Julia Song)

Photography by Woojae Julia Song/Catchlight Local

As the federal government’s main initiative to help small companies survive the coronavirus pandemic, the Paycheck Protection Program has become a focal point for businesses across the nation and praised by Democrats and Republicans alike. But questions remain about how well PPP loans have worked — and who they worked for best.

Early surveys and studies repeatedly showed Black and Latino businesses struggled to get assistance from the program while white-owned businesses benefited. Most of the data released last year by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which administers the loans, didn’t detail how much minority-owned businesses received. The small amount of data that did include information about race or ethnicity of business owners who received PPP loans indicated Black-owned businesses “received less than 2% of the loans, and 6.6% of the loans went to Hispanic-owned businesses,” according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity.

With another round of PPP funding set to launch this spring, the Better Government Association’s Olivia Obineme wanted to spotlight the stories behind the statistics and detail the experiences of some Black-owned businesses and nonprofit leaders in Chicago and the suburbs when they applied for PPP funding.

For this series of interviews, the BGA partnered with Austin Weekly News, which covers the West Side neighborhoods of Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park; Village Free Press, which covers nine of Chicago’s western suburbs; and Catchlight, a nonprofit news organization focused on visual journalism.

Catchlight reporter and photographer Woojae Julia Song conducted more than three hours of interviews with three Black business owners and one Black nonprofit leader who reported receiving PPP loans. All of the interview subjects were identified and vetted by Michael Romain, who edits Austin Weekly News and publishes Village Free Press.

We have condensed Song’s interviews into short excerpts, which have been edited for clarity. We hope these interviews will shed light on the experiences of Black business owners and social entrepreneurs who applied for PPP loans. We also hope these stories will be useful for other Black entrepreneurs applying for PPP loans or other government grants in the future.

Vena Nelson

  • Owner, Go Big Accounting and Global Business Center, 840 S. 17th Ave. in Maywood 
  • PPP funds received: $8,712 

Nelson, a certified public accountant, works with local Black-owned businesses, nonprofits and churches through her Go Big Accounting company. She also operates Global Business Center, a shared office space in Maywood for area entrepreneurs to conduct business. When she learned about the first round of PPP loans, Nelson called dozens of her clients. “Maybe one or two” got the funds, she said. Her state representative recommended she work with a nonprofit to help more small businesses through the PPP process.

The pandemic hit during tax season. I probably do, on average, about 125 tax returns each tax season. Well, the PPP came up. I had banked with Chase at the time and so I applied with Chase. Silence. I heard absolutely nothing. And I actually ended up getting PPP through Wintrust.

When I was doing this, I not only did it for my company but I called all of my clients who I provide accounting services for and I had webinars to talk to them about getting their applications in. I walked everybody through how to go to the SBA website, how to go to their banks to fill out the PPP applications. Maybe one of my clients got PPP funding and that was through a community bank. 

I was so upset that we banked with the big banks, I contacted my state representative and I just complained that the big banks did not serve us. I think the intent of the legislation was to help small businesses, but the banks have kind of ignored and preyed on our communities. They really haven’t invested in our communities. 

I saw a lot of the good and the bad. If you don’t have enough capital for your business, the longer you stay in the game, trying to turn it around, the more deteriorated you become. So you may have more late payments, your bank account may be overdrafted more. Your credit goes south, but you’re still trying to maintain your smoothie shop or your trucking company. A lot of those people were not eligible for the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) or for the paycheck protection loans because of their credit.

Jeannie Jones 

  • Site manager for the Bethesda Manor West Association, 23 S. Central Ave. in Chicago 
  • PPP funds received: $5,528 

Bethesda Manor West is a nonprofit housing development that provides affordable housing to area residents. It is run by the Pleasant Ridge Missionary Baptist Church, which has served Chicago’s West Side for nearly 97 years. Jones is wife of the church’s pastor, Joseph Jones, and serves as first lady of the church as well as its Christian education director. Bethesda is one of the few clients of Nelson’s that secured a PPP loan.

We did the PPP program, but we didn’t hear about it or were informed of it until the day it was due. When my CPA called me, she said, ‘We gotta get this in today!’ And I said, ‘What? We haven’t been told.’ So I had to gather all of my documents in one day and we got it in on time thanks to her — and that was Vena Nelson. 

She helped a lot of businesses and churches try to apply and get it going. I think, overall, it was a good program.

There are some things I would change, though. For minority small businesses, a lot of them (lack enough financial resources to) have full-time workers and they tend to have contractors who are on regular staff, but are not on the payroll. I think there should be some allowance for those small businesses that have contractors on a regular basis, but who are not on a salary. So, I wish they would look at that.

I also want to make sure that the loan forgiveness doesn’t slip by us. I notice that I don’t hear anything else about the forgiveness application. I printed it out when it came into my email and forwarded it to my CPA and my management company to make sure that it’s done appropriately. I didn’t want to do anything to mess up the whole thing. So, my concern is, can it pass by you without them notifying you? I would hate to learn later that we missed that deadline and now have to pay interest on that loan and pay it back. That’s a possibility and that can be the catch. 

Never just trust yourself to go blindly and do it. Find out some people who have applied or find someone like a Vena who knows what they’re doing, because you don’t want to mess up and get audited if you do the wrong thing. I would say, go for it. Do it. Even if it’s hard, it’s worth it.

Corry Williams 

  • Owner, 345 Art Gallery, 345 N. Kedzie Ave. in Chicago 
  • PPP funds received: $3,000 (self-reported)

Williams, who is also a Chicago police officer, re-opened 345 Art Gallery in Garfield Park in February after the city loosened coronavirus restrictions on storefronts. The gallery canceled many of its programs, including art shows and partnership events with Chicago Public Schools, during the pandemic. Williams said when his gallery applied for PPP funding, preparation paid off. While not completely adequate, the loan helped, he said. 

We have a team member who fills out our grants. We sat down and discussed the ask and whether it met the qualifications in areas that they were looking to assist. 

So, we figured things out on our own. We knew what we needed and what we were doing and how it would help support us during these times and just provided the information for the documents that were requested of us. 

We used the money for payroll protection in order to keep the team employed. That extra money really helped. It wasn’t enough, but I appreciated the amount we got. To me, it wasn’t how much they gave us, it’s how we utilized what we got.

It (the loan) was for the purpose of keeping the team together because we still got together to come up with ideas. The planning doesn’t stop. We try to know what’s going on in the art world and in different art galleries and think of different events and activities for the kids that we can bring back to the gallery.

Stacey Hawkins Armstrong

  • Owner, Sha-Poppin’ Gourmet Popcorn, 10352 Roosevelt Rd. in Westchester 
  • PPP funds received: $17,745

Patrons dub Armstrong the Mad Scientist of Popcorn. She’s been testing popcorn flavors since she was 9 and has customized more than 150 popcorn flavors in her West suburban storefront since 2018. During the pandemic, Armstrong saw other businesses close and didn’t want that to be her business’ fate. She decided to go curbside with her popcorn retail shop.

I tried to apply for PPP through Chase, which is where I bank, and it was horrible. You couldn’t get through online and you couldn’t go in somewhere and speak to anyone. Every time I turned around, I hit a brick wall, hit a brick wall. There was nothing. I was just left out in the cold. Just like other small business owners that were shut out, I was in a dark room. It was like, ‘What do I do?’ It just seemed like my dreams were diminishing right before my eyes.  

When I made contact with the person at Self-Help Credit Union, it was maybe a little more than a week and my process was done. That’s how simple it was when you have someone to contact. Chase is such a large company, you can’t say they don’t have anyone for customers to contact. And as large as they are, they should have had some kind of helpline when they were going into this since they were the ones getting millions of dollars. But you go to a smaller entity and they guide you through it from beginning to end. 

I didn’t want to close my doors because I employ a lot of high school and college students. I try to keep them working because that keeps them busy. I also teach them about opening up a small business so I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to let my dream go.

All the money that I received went towards my payroll completely just to keep my kids employed. It gave me that leg up to keep them going and that was all I needed — just to make sure I was able to innovate and keep my doors open and keep someone there to help me. And that’s what I needed.

Last year April, Armstrong filed a class action lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase Bank and three of the bank’s large business clients. That suit is still pending. We reached out to Chase for comment on Armstrong’s lawsuit and they emailed us the following statement: “While we can’t comment on pending litigation, we’re proud that our bank provided more PPP loan relief funding than any other lender in both 2020 and in 2021. In 2020, we processed $28 billion in loans to 280,000 small businesses. The average loan size was $112,000 and 50% went to companies with fewer than 5 employees. This relief went to America’s small businesses, protecting more than 3 million jobs.”

Five Things to Know
Before you Apply for PPP

Looking to apply for governmental funding for your small business? Here are some tips we gathered from the small business owners we interviewed about their loan application experiences:

1. Get an accountant, if you don’t have one already 

All four of the businesses we interviewed for this project had one very important thing in common — they all had accountants who were able to easily provide the required information for applying for PPP and other emergency assistance. 

2. Pay your employees legally

Many did not pay their employees taxable income, which means employees did not receive 1099 or W-2 forms. Taxpayers use those forms to provide information about their income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

3. Invest in a payroll processing service 

To keep track of what you’re paying your employees and what you’re withholding for taxes, invest in a payroll processing service, such as ADP, SurePayroll, Gusto Payroll, QuickBooks and Paychex.    

4. Seek out information 

You should actively monitor the websites of key government entities such as the SBA, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. Subscribe to start receiving those agencies’ emails or text notifications to get the latest updates about possible financial assistance for businesses. 

5. Get a champion 

All of the businesses we interviewed expressed gratitude for having networks of support that they can lean on during times of financial hardship. Those networks can also advocate for them and mobilize resources when the time comes. Join a local chamber of commerce or a larger chamber such as the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce. There are also groups designed to offer support and community for Black business owners, such as Black Owned Chicago.

Woojae Julia Song is a freelance storyteller and photography fellow with CatchLight Local, documenting how business owners of color are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. She previously reported on Chicago’s housing crisis with City Bureau.

Michael Romain is publisher and editor of Village Free Press, a hyperlocal news blog he founded in 2013. He is also equity editor for Growing Community Media, a nonprofit that publishes four weekly newspapers in Chicago’s west suburbs and West Side, including Austin Weekly News, where he serves as editor.

Olivia Obineme is manager of partnerships and local content at BGA. In this post, she will advance the BGA’s commitment to increasing coverage for communities in Chicago and throughout Illinois that are disproportionately affected by income and wealth disparities.

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