A new program in San Antonio aims to help small, minority-owned businesses stay afloat in an unprecedented year marked by the coronavirus pandemic, social unrest, and an economic crisis.

The program, called Helm, offers what LiftFund CEO Janie Barrera calls a laser-focused approach to providing personalized support for these businesses.

LiftFund, the nonprofit organization hosting the program, normally acts as a low-interest microlender for local business clients who can’t get – or don’t want – traditional banking services. Their clients include taquerias, hair studios, tattoo parlors, and more.

Helm, made possible by a $2 million grant from USAA, will go beyond lending to provide education courses, additional financing, mentorships, and access to new client lists, among other resources.

“It’s a comprehensive net,” said Sylvia Lopez Gaona, Helm’s program director.

Eighty businesses will be selected for Helm Accelerate, the program’s accelerator, which offers the most amount of guidance and resources. They will be divided into cohorts for the spring and fall.

Among those who have already applied are the owners of Cadeaux, a gift shop on North St. Mary’s Street that caters mostly to busy downtown office workers – or it did once. With many major employers having workers stay at home, foot traffic in the area has died down to a trickle.

“Before, you could just wake up and unlock the door,” said Arthur Perez, who has co-owned and run the store with his wife since 2017. “Now you have to strategize.”

They began to plan more closely around clients’ birthdays and anniversaries. They now offer free shipping, private shopping appointments for clients outside of normal business hours, and even valet parking – with Perez running the cars.

Still, the “curveballs” thrown in the last year have proven a serious challenge. Perez said he hopes to be accepted into Helm’s accelerator program to learn from the 8-week curriculum.

“I’ve been in business for a long time,” he said, “but it’s amazing what you can always learn from someone else.”

LiftFund is seeking to use Helm to target businesses that would not otherwise survive to the end of 2021. Barrera calls it “life support.”

That list has grown under the pandemic. Small businesses – many of which previously had no reason to develop curbside services or a website – have scrambled to keep up with the new demands, without the safety net that comes from being connected to a larger corporation.

“Businesses that would have been strong in the past are now struggling,” Gaona said.

Minority-owned businesses suffered an outsized toll. Among Black business owners, the first month of the pandemic saw a 41% drop in the number of active businesses, according to an analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Latino-owned businesses dropped by 32%. Those numbers have slowly and partially rebounded since then, but the effects have lingered, with nearly a fifth of Black-owned businesses still not reactivated.

“It’s confirming what we’ve known for years and years now,” Barrera said of the pandemic. “People of color do not have equitable access to resources.”

LiftFund was founded in San Antonio in 1994 and was based on microlending programs throughout Latin America. The organization has since expanded to cities throughout Texas and 14 states and has provided support to more than 23,000 small businesses, according to its website.

More information about Helm is located on its website. Webinars outlining Helm Accelerate are slated this month for Feb. 16, 18, 23, and 25. The deadline to apply is March 15.

USAA and Sylvia Lopez Gaona are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here. For a list of individual members, click here.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.