CINCINNATI — On Monday, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) re-opened its signup portal, giving small businesses a chance to get forgivable loans as they continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program hasn't had the best track record since its inception, and many small and minority-owned businesses have felt alienated by the program in the past, but many still hope this second round will be different.
Locally-owned businesses have been among the hardest hit and harder still within that have been minority-owned businesses like Pause Cincy in Corryville. The business houses four different companies, including Erikka Gray's business, which sells fresh plants and sweet-smelling candles.
"Our grand opening was on Valentines Day and then literally a month later we were shut down due to the pandemic," said Gray.
Faithful customers helped her keep the lights on, but Gray said she avoided the PPP in earlier rounds after hearing about all the difficult red tape her peers had to fight through.
"I know a lot of entrepreneurs, and we all kind of shared the same story," she said. "Not a lot of us were getting the funds and even the ones that were, they were getting the smaller buckets, not the larger amounts."
Eric Kearney, with the African American Chamber, said Gray's experience and perception isn't unique. He said many small businesses have felt they didn't have good odds when applying for the program.
"Something like 95% of Black-owned businesses have fewer than 10 employees, so if you are a sole proprietor, you don't have time to go out and find someone to be a marketing executive or build relationships with a bank," said Kearney.
He said many of the Chamber's members struggled with not having the right connections with government-approved banks, accountants and business lawyers who could help advocate for their companies.
"Not all banks participate, so you have to make sure you have one that does ... makes sure you find a person inside that organization that can advocate for you and really fight for you so you can get those funds for your business."
But he's optimistic about the PPP this time around, and said he believes this time really small businesses will benefit. Currently, he said, there's roughly $15 billion allocated specifically for companies with 10 employees or fewer.
"There is an emphasis placed on gig workers, solo-preneurs and entrepreneurs that are just sole proprietors," said Kearney.
It is still important to brush up on the government's latest rules about who qualifies for PPP, according to Ami Kassar, a business strategist with Multifunding, a lending company.
"The SBA portal is open to take applications, but that doesn't mean that different lenders are ready," said Kassar. "In reality, it will take probably two weeks before money really starts to flow and hit the street."
If the whole process seems daunting, there is help: The African American Chamber recently hired two new employees whose sole focus will be to help small, locally-owned businesses navigate the application process.