The past few months have helped me crystallize what’s really important.
The health and safety of my loved ones and community first and foremost, but also high on the list is protecting the vibrancy and diversity of our city.
Yet this crisis has made me realize my choices haven’t always been in alignment with those values. Too often, perceived urgency led me to trade local personal connections for speed and convenience. In pursuit of efficiency or thriftiness, I traded sustainability. I had become too used to having everything in the world at my door in two days.
Not only do those decisions drain dollars from local communities, we are learning more and more how low-wage “essential” workers are paying a high price for that convenience. Now, I realize there is nothing I need so urgently it is worth putting other peoples’ lives in danger.
Seattle’s Laura Clise, the CEO and founder of Intentionalist, started her social purpose corporation more than two years ago to make it easier for people to better align their values with their spending. Her simple idea was to provide an online directory to connect customers with small businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.
Clise, 41, is no stranger to bridging differences. Growing up as a lesbian, Korean American adoptee in a multiracial family, she struggled with not belonging at times, and had to learn to navigate her different identities.
When she started Intentionalist with some savings and $37,000 in crowd funding, she wasn’t thinking about how a global pandemic would upend the small business community, she was thinking about how to “accelerate the space between intention and action.” She said now, walking through neighborhoods full of boarded-up businesses, the pandemic is a visceral reminder of how vulnerable small businesses are and that “we can’t take the small businesses at the heart of our communities for granted.”
Clise said the pandemic has reinforced the disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable businesses.
“In addition to the many ways that they contribute to our communities,” Clise said, “small businesses have long been an important source of economic stability and mobility for historically marginalized communities. In the same way that there are gender and racial pay gaps, there is a corresponding revenue gap.”
When consumers choose local, independent and economically vulnerable businesses, she said, we “collectively put our thumb on the scales to correct for institutionalized bias and discrimination.”
An example of that in Seattle was the community organizing to rally support for Asian American owned restaurants that were hit first by xenophobia and racism and then by the coronavirus-fueled economic crisis.
With so many stores and restaurants temporarily shuttered by the stay-home order, Clise and her team had to quickly pivot to figure out how to continue to create the bridge between businesses and customers. They recognized there was a technology gap, and many of the struggling small businesses they worked with did not have digital storefronts to sell online gift cards to offset the loss of revenue.
So in late March, for instance, Intentionalist launched a gift certificate marketplace. The marketplace sells and delivers old fashioned paper gift certificates to customers on behalf of small businesses and then gives the money directly to the business. There is no cost to the business for the service, but customers are asked to leave a tip, if they choose.
John Khalil, owner of Cedars of Lebanon in the University District (not to be confused with the Cedars Indian restaurant), was one of the businesses to participate. He said the pandemic has been a “complete disaster” for his business, with revenues plummeting from $500 a day to $150 to $200 every two days. The bills are still coming, and Khalil said he barely makes enough to cover rent and insurance and has been relying on credit cards to keep the business afloat. He has seen no small business aid so far.
The gift certificate program brought in more than $500 for him last month, which helped to offset some of the losses. Overall, the gift certificate marketplace generated more than $11,000 in sales for small businesses in its first month, Clise said. Traffic on the Intentionalist site is up too, with three times the number of visitors as before the pandemic. Now, in addition to the usual platform, Intentionalist has a takeout and delivery directory to connect customers to restaurants.
When I last wrote about the impact of the coronavirus on small businesses three weeks ago, there was some hope the second round of aid might reach the small and micro businesses that are most in need. But that does not seem to be the case. In a survey reported in The New York Times on May 18, just 12% of Black and Latino owned businesses said they received the small business aid they asked for and nearly half of owners said they anticipated having to permanently close their businesses in the next six months.
We have an opportunity now to think about what an intentional recovery could look like. As Clise said, while we can “swipe and click our way to immediate gratification” there’s something missing. What’s often missing is interpersonal connection and investment in community.
Individual decisions alone will not ensure our local economies survive; it will take smart public policy and structural changes as well. But for me, investing in the businesses that invest in my community is one way to better align my values with my actions.