Local Learning and Training Organizations Support Business Owners Through Challenging Times

Above: International Woman’s Day by the PS27 Foundation

Every business owner or entrepreneur knows that training and support are a huge part of their life – and success. As Dr. Ton O’Neal of Grow, FL, wrote for EVOLVE online last year, “Unleashing a spirit of entrepreneurship requires a specific environment where innovation, collaboration, cooperation and regionally based support systems are aligned to create economic impact.” Successful businesses don’t happen in a silo.

Like most places across the country, St. Johns County has a number of networking, education and training and mentoring groups. And, like most entrepreneurs and business owners across the country, our residents who run a business rely on them.

It’s no surprise, then, that when COVID kept everyone from leaving home, business owners and entrepreneurs looked to those same organizations to help them navigate the shifting sand. For many, the details might have shifted, but the struggle was familiar.

The core problem was still the same: How can I make enough money to stay open, pay my staff and vendors and pay myself?

Instead of woes about keeping revenue up and costs down, increasing customer numbers and finding the right staff, business owners were now thinking about whether they could (and should) transition to a remote workforce, how to apply for and be compliant with the COVID relief grants and how to pay their staff with no revenue coming in.

And instead of woes about how to write the perfect pitch deck, where to get the right introductions for funding and how to be first to market, entrepreneurs were now thinking about what the startup world might look like after the pandemic is over and whether their must-have product or app would even still be relevant.

The University of North Florida Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (the Center) is an equity-free, comprehensive business incubator, which typically provides early-stage startups and small businesses services, space and support for one year, at no charge, via a cohort model. To date, the Center has worked with 59 companies, 54% of which are female-led and 59% of which are minority-led.

Kara Barber

Kara Barber, the Assistant Director for the Center, shared that they “started noticing individuals weren’t interested in waiting around until our next cohort to start working on their business or idea.” Applying, interviewing and waiting to be part of a year-long cohort with limited spots wasn’t going to cut it. It was time to rethink how they were serving the First Coast Region business and entrepreneur communities.

So, the Center expanded by providing support to “walk-in” companies they “felt they could help, based on their needs and our bandwidth.”

Being part of a year-long cohort can be a dream come true, but most business owners and entrepreneurs get their education and support in smaller chunks. These are typically small events and workshops covering any number of topics, such as bookkeeping, social media, green supply chains and leadership.

There are also a few signature full-day events that people look forward to each year, such as the Female Founder Forum, put on each year in celebration of International Women’s Day by the PS27 Foundation of PS27 Ventures. Started in 2015, the event is designed to help more women to become successful entrepreneurs and innovators. Programming includes tools to build a sustainable business that will create jobs, provide returns and result in personal wealth.

Shannon LoGiudice

Shannon LoGiudice, who runs Operations & Administrations at PS27, shared that this looked-forward-to-event shifted during lockdown. Fortunately, they were able to pivot to a virtual event, which was well attended and enjoyed.

Scott Maynard facilitates a St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce Economic Development panel discussion.

Like anyone entrenched in the startup world, the folks at PS27 are no strangers to adapting and innovating. Shannon said, “It challenged us in a good way – to figure out the ins and outs of zoom and provide the same level of experience women expect from us. So, we watched a lot of virtual events to get ideas and create some best practices.” Based on the feedback they received, they were successful!

The event is going back to in-person this year, and now the team is taking on the challenge of having an in-person event in this new world of social distancing, mask wearing and general overwhelm.

One of the most invaluable resources to any business owner is the local Chamber of Commerce, which many times helps business leaders understand what various government bodies require and can provide.

Scott Maynard

According to Scott Maynard, director of economic development at the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, the organization’s role expanded quickly with the ESF 18 Emergency Programming. “Partnering with the City and County to get information disseminated about the variety of federal, state and local programs was key to helping our local business and industry.”

Which brings us right back to where we started. In so many ways, the First Coast Region is that environment where “innovation, collaboration, cooperation and regionally based support systems” come together to support business owners and entrepreneurs. And based on the results from the past couple of years, it looks as though we are poised to stay that way for a long time into the future.