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We reached out to Brianna Ellison, director of community engagement for Verizon, as part of our initiative to bring the Verizon Small Business Digital Ready program to Michigan entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners.
From marketing tools to one-on-one mentoring, learn more about what Verizon is doing to help small businesses in Detroit and throughout Michigan in this Q&A.
- What work is Verizon doing in the Detroit/Michigan community to help small businesses?
Verizon has actively partnered with Michigan small businesses. We are members of numerous chambers of commerce and associations from across the state that work with small businesses (such as the Detroit Regional Chamber, Grand Rapids Chamber, Dearborn Chamber, The Right Place, MI Chamber, Automation Alley, Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance, MI Business Incubator Assoc.). Verizon participates in a number of thought leadership events with these organizations to share expertise and resources with their membership.
In 2021, we extended a grant to Grand Valley State University’s Veterans Entrepreneurship Lab. Veterans and/or military spouses work on their business launch over a three-month period. MVE-Lab equips participants to identify their target customers, network with others, and find the resources they need to launch profitably and successfully. It concludes with a Pitch Showcase awarding at least $25,000 in prize money. Guests include other veteran entrepreneurs, mentors, and experts like attorneys and marketing specialists, including the leader of Verizon’s veteran employee resource group who shared information about Verizon support for small business owners along with his own personal experience as an entrepreneur.
In 2021, we also established a partnership between Verizon’s Pro Bono Program and the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance’s Capital Connect Program. This program is preparing and connecting Metro Detroit Black-owned businesses to various funding resources to ensure their sustained success. If any of these businesses need further legal assistance or one-on-one support, the Verizon Pro Bono Program team has agreed to work directly with these businesses to identify additional legal services.
Finally, in September, Verizon launched Small Business Digital Ready. This online curriculum is designed to give small businesses the personalized tools to succeed in today’s digital world. The program includes learning modules, expert coaching, peer networking and a marketplace of tools and solutions. The free online resource is available to any small business across Michigan (and nationwide) and will be utilized by Verizon partners such as the Black Business Alliance’s Capital Connect Program.
- What do you mean by “Digital Ready” and why is digital readiness important for small business owners today?
Digital readiness is about making sure businesses have all the tools and resources they need to thrive in today’s economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed unforeseen challenges on entrepreneurs and further accelerated a shift to digital ways of working. More than 75% of small businesses pivoted their operations due to the crisis and more than 50% of SMBs say their online interactions with customers have increased. To stay competitive in the new economic environment, small businesses must be agile and adapt to shifting consumer preferences.
To stay competitive in the new economic environment, small businesses must be agile and adapt to shifting consumer preferences.
Small business entrepreneurs understand the importance of utilizing digital tools in their day-to-day operations, but find it challenging to implement meaningful digital transformation. According to data published from Morning Consult and Verizon in their September 2020 report, “more than two in five decision makers say it is likely that their business will expand through digital technologies and rely more heavily on communications.” At the same time, more than two-thirds of respondents acknowledged that adding or transitioning to digital/online operations has been challenging for their business to address. How do we bridge this gap? Entrepreneurs need easy access–wherever they are–to personalized learning and coaching resources in order to successfully implement digital strategies into their businesses and have the confidence to succeed in the post-pandemic future.
- Why is the Verizon Small Business Digital Ready program a good resource for business owners in metro Detroit and Michigan?
Home to various research organizations and anchor institutions, along with a vibrant and multicultural entrepreneurial ecosystem, Detroit’s rich roots embody the hardworking and innovative ethos of its diverse small business owners. Detroit has roughly 50k small businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color and the city is committed to ensuring residents are gaining equal access to educational and economic opportunities of the emerging high-growth economy. According to a 2021 Detroit Ecosystem Assessment, Detroit has 23% of all startup companies in Michigan and has all of the necessary resources to launch and grow businesses that are digital ready. As Verizon seeks to connect BIPOC business owners across the country with this valuable resource and create more equitable pathways for entrepreneurs to thrive in the digital economy, we view the small business owners in the greater metro Detroit area– and Michigan–as a critical user base in the effort.
Verizon’s Small Business Digital Ready program was built by (mostly BIPOC) small businesses for small businesses. Jamiel Robinson, the executive director of Michigan-based business development organization, Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB), was a prominent voice in the Small Business Advisory Committee that helped shape the program and its offerings. Diverse subject matter experts drive our content, interactive video modules, and coaching events. In short, entrepreneurs in metro Detroit will be equipped with digital strategies and relevant learnings–through curated curriculum topics, coaching events, and community groups–to apply to their businesses!
- What guidance are the small business owners you work with seeking?
We know generally that small business owners are interested in learning more about financing, digital marketing, and operational efficiency. Our users have told us they’ve received tremendous value from the educational resources and in connecting directly with experts–through both one-on-one mentoring and group coaching events. Fifty-eight percent of users on the platform are interested in connecting with a finance expert and 64% of users on the platform are interested in connecting with a marketing expert. The most popular topic areas are accessing capital, digital marketing, and improving online presence. Business owners would also prefer to be a part of a community where they can learn from one another, as 52% of users want to connect with peers with similar interests.
Our users have told us they’ve received tremendous value from the educational resources and in connecting directly with experts.
- How can Verizon help with community networking on a personal level, not a digital one?
Verizon Small Business Digital Ready is built to be a valuable tool to the BDOs, Small Business Development Centers, CDFIs and other organizations that are on the ground helping small businesses every day. We are partnering closely with these types of organizations and working with them to integrate our resources into their offerings. Small Business Digital Ready’s community section also lets businesses connect with other businesses and resources by city so that they can connect to support in their local area!
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Verizon began the grassroots work of hosting virtual community dialogues focused on small businesses in communities from across the state. The purpose of these dialogues is to hear about the great work small business owners and small business development organizations are currently engaged in, the current and ongoing challenges small business owners are facing, and to discuss how Verizon can be supportive moving forward. Attendees have included small business owners, small business support organizations and chambers of commerce.
Now more than ever, we at Verizon will continue to build on the incredibly valuable relationships with the communities we serve. These dialogues are only the beginning of what we hope will be long-term partnerships where we can continue the conversation and explore future opportunities to be supportive.
- What skills do you bring to the community as a liaison between Verizon and small business owners?
As a local liaison between Verizon and small business owners, I work to build bridges of connection with my peers, internal business partners and external stakeholders to champion policies that enrich lives and enable a digital future that serves all Michigan communities. I am able to leverage relationships within Verizon and with business support organization partners to form coalitions to tackle the challenges small businesses face, amplify successes and best practices, and disseminate information about Verizon tools and resources. Reflexively, I meet with businesses to listen to their needs and drive the way in which we deposit goodwill in our local communities and innovate to build the networks that move the world forward for everyone.