Creating big change with few resources isn’t easy, but the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce proved last year that it is possible.
In 2022, the chamber received a $75,000 grant from Clark County, which came from the nearly $95 million awarded to the county through the federal government’s COVID-19 pandemic assistance package.
“When the community was hit with the pandemic, it was very clear there were companies that needed the chamber’s support, but we also realized no company should be threatened with having to close their doors one or two weeks into a pandemic or a crisis of any sort,” said Janet Kenefsky, vice president of membership and operations for the chamber.
With the pandemic relief funds in hand, the chamber scaled up its Business Pathways to Opportunity and Development program.
“We wanted to make sure that every company had the ability to withstand a pandemic. But also, how do you take those skills and thrive during non-pandemic times, during the good times?” Kenefsky said.
The program provides educational workshops, drop-in consultations, individual coaching sessions and cohort coaching sessions to business owners at no charge, to chamber members and non-members alike.
Kenefsky said the program is designed to match businesses with their needs, where and when they need it.
“If educational workshops work for you, we’ll provide you with opportunities to drop in on workshops, hear from speakers, walk through programming,” she said. “You get homework to do, and you can listen on your own time or join us when they’re live.”
The most popular element of the program is the individual coaching sessions. Kenefsky said the sessions allow business owners to sit down one on one with a coach, who can walk them through every aspect of their business.
“That gives the business owner a way to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t know how to do this very well. I need some help.’ And they can go through that in a confidential manner,” she said.
Taking a hands-on approach to helping businesses is a big part of the program. For example, Kenefsky said rather than directing someone looking to start a new business to the secretary of state’s website for answers, the coaches work to provide those answers.
“Starting a business in the state of Washington is very cumbersome and oftentimes very confusing. We sit down, and we walk you through the whys, we walk you through if you should be (a limited liability company) or an S corp or a B corp — what are the tax advantages, what are the disadvantages? They do their homework,” she said.
Once those questions are answered, the coaches will move on to things such as identifying the business’ target customers, building a brand, and learning how to maximize resources and focus on marketing, among other topics.
“The chamber, like other organizations, looks to support the small businesses, micro-enterprises, with opportunities to learn and grow and maybe fill the gaps in their business acumen,” Kenefsky said. “If you’re a chef and you own a restaurant, we can help you with the management part.”
That assistance can include bringing in financial advisers to help with foundational skills — tracking revenue and expenses, creating a profit-and-loss statement, and reporting those figures to the government.
Creating a network
The cohort coaching sessions are similar to the individual coaching sessions, but they group businesses together.
“That’s where we start building community,” Kenefsky said. “We’re going to put you with eight to 10 other businesses in the same realm, and you’re building community with them. Now, you have eight to 10 other companies that you know you can reach out to over the years.”
Creating that network allows businesses to share their experiences and skills, and gives owners someone to turn to for advice, she said.
The popularity of the cohort coaching sessions led the chamber to create nonprofit, food court, and health and wellness cohort groups.
When the Business Pathways to Opportunity and Development program was launched last year, the goal was to get 40 companies or businesses to sign up.
“We ended up getting over 200 companies, and we get companies signing up every single day,” Kenefsky said.
The chamber now has companies from nearly every city within the county participating in the program. It is hopeful that a second round of grant funds will become available, which would allow the chamber to expand the program.
“We wanted to target the refugee communities. We do have some Afghanistan refugees and others going through the program. They’re business owners in their home countries but came over here, and a lot of them are working in retail right now just to have a job,” Kenefsky said. “We’re working with them on how to properly build a company here in the United States and state of Washington.”
For more information about the Business Pathways to Opportunity and Development program, go to www.vancouverusa.com/business-owners/businesspod.