The Vital Importance of Supporting Georgia’s Micro-Businesses with Elizabeth Wilson from GMEN

The Georgia Micro Enterprise Network is a nonprofit industry membership association that has been a catalyst for economic development in Georgia and throughout the Southeast. Through its network of business development and training organizations, GMEN acts as a resource to support and fund viable micro-businesses in an effort to create new jobs and business opportunities.  

On this week’s episode of The Playbook, host Mark Collier, business consultant for the UGA Small Business Development Center, is joined by Executive Director, Elizabeth Wilson, who is going to share how GMEN’s programs and initiatives are driving growth for Georgia micro-business entrepreneurs.

Transcription:

Mark Collier:
Welcome to The Playbook.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you, Mark. So glad to be here today.

Mark Collier:
All right. You have an entrepreneurial story all on your own, and I would love to hear about it.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you, Mark. I’ve been an entrepreneur from …. it’s almost like I was born as an entrepreneur. My father was an entrepreneur. He was also a pastor, but he was working, entrepreneurial pastor.

Mark Collier:
All right.

Elizabeth Wilson:
In our home, whenever there was a lack, there was an opportunity to create something or to become an entrepreneur. I think my first entrepreneurial endeavors were that usual lemonade stand. Then I started figuring out people really loved my mother’s cooking when I was a child, so I started selling my lunches.

Mark Collier:
You know what?

Elizabeth Wilson:
I said, “This looks like an opportunity.” From that point, every time I saw a need, I thought that there was a chance to create some sort of entrepreneurial activity. That led me into this field where we want to encourage more people to take that leap as early as possible and as often as possible.

Mark Collier:
All right. So, your organization, the Georgia Micro Enterprise Network. Tell me a little bit about that organization and your history as its co-founder.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Sure. GMEN, Georgia Micro Enterprise Network, has been around since about 1997.

Mark Collier:
That long?

Elizabeth Wilson:
That long.

Mark Collier:
Wow.

Elizabeth Wilson:
It really was the catalyst for bringing what we call micro enterprises into Georgia. It was birthed out of an organization that we created called [Business Now 00:02:41] the Business Neighborhood Organization for Women. When Business Now started helping women, we started thinking, “Who else is doing this work? Are we here doing it ourselves or who else is doing business development work around the state of Georgia?” We did a … where you all come and people came. About 75 organizations started meeting together and collaborating and once we got to the table, we said, “We should create an association amongst ourselves.”

Mark Collier:
So, this was a true grassroots effort?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Grassroots effort, just because of a need.

Mark Collier:
Wow.

Elizabeth Wilson:
We didn’t want to duplicate work, we wanted to be able to identify where there were gaps in services. As we were able to onboard new organizations, we wanted them to become a part of the collaborative. From those initial meetings, we created GMEN. As the co-founder, we helped to just coalesce it and bring it together. For about the first six or seven years, we were the fiscal agent for it and then it launched itself. We brought in an executive director and after about 12 years, I came back in as the executive director, when that executive director, Patricia Williams, retired.

Elizabeth Wilson:
So, it went from very grassroots, to becoming a standalone organization once it received statewide funding. Then after that funding went away, we still felt that there was such a need for an organization that could be an association, and we have continued it and next year we’d be celebrating our 25th anniversary.

Mark Collier:
25 years.

Elizabeth Wilson:
25 years.

Mark Collier:
Well, congratulations.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you.

Mark Collier:
That’s quite an accomplishment.

Elizabeth Wilson:
That is an accomplishment.

Mark Collier:
It is. All right, perfect segue. I’m a foundations guy, so I’d like to know mission, vision, core values. Share with me what are GMEN’s mission, vision and core values within the organization?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you, Mark. Our mission has always been, particularly as an association, is to be not only that convener, but to make sure that underserved and disadvantaged, and those who are not a part of the traditional model for business development, were also included. As a value, we’ve also said GMEN needs to represent Georgia. Not one segment, not just the urban part, or not just Atlanta, but actually to be an organization that speaks for all of Georgia.

Mark Collier:
I like that.

Elizabeth Wilson:
We made sure that as a part of our core value, we said we’d leave places on the board open for our rural development programs, that always include them. We also wanted to make sure that as an ecosystem, we were inclusive of universities, SBDCs, those larger organizations, as well as new organizations that were coming into the field.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Those were the things that I think has kept the organization as a leading edge and the ability to collaborate. To be that support organization for others has been one of our strong core values.

Mark Collier:
That’s phenomenal. I like all that.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you.

Mark Collier:
Let’s talk about definitions for a minutes. What do you define as a micro business and why does GMEN focus on that particular market segment?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Yeah, that’s one of the things that we continue to focus on because it’s such a big segment of businesses. Most businesses start at that micro level.

Mark Collier:
Micro, let’s quantify it. Is it the under certain revenue sales per year? Can you throw a couple of numbers out?

Elizabeth Wilson:
SBA definition of a micro business, is a business that can start for say, under $50,000. It would be a business that had less than 10 employees. Typically in the field, we also add the definition of some sort of disadvantage. Either credit disadvantage, or disadvantage because of a inability to access capital. Maybe just because it’s a woman-owned business or veteran-owned business, youth business. Anything that’s just not the core business set of corporate businesses. That group is so large, particularly here in Georgia, about 96% of the businesses fit in that category.

Mark Collier:
Wow.

Elizabeth Wilson:
That don’t have more than 10 employees, that could have gotten started for less than $50,000. What we thought was if we can put a core training and beginning capital access at that stage, really helping people to grow into business, then we wouldn’t see as many of the defaults and we wouldn’t see people maybe starting with more capital than they need and then hitting a roadblock and then the business is gone.

Mark Collier:
No, that is one of my pet peeves, because a lot of people are pushing, “Let’s get more businesses started, let’s get more businesses started.” I say, “No, we need more sustainable businesses. Businesses that are going to be around.”

Elizabeth Wilson:
Yes, exactly.

Mark Collier:
Starting a business means nothing, if you go out of business, as many small businesses do.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Right, right, and going out of business in a way that destroys a family unit.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Taking on too much credit and then that person is unable to, for a long period of time, maybe access capital again for business. Utilizing homes for business, we’re trying to help people to make better decisions so that they can have businesses that grow. I really want to call our association now might grow enterprise because we don’t … Might grow enterprise, yes.

Mark Collier:
Might grow, enterprise, I like that. So you better trademark that.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Yeah. I better get in quick, but yes, because that’s where we want people to be. People get stagnated at that early start because they didn’t plan for growth.

Mark Collier:
No, yeah, you’re right, you’re right.

Elizabeth Wilson:
So, the whole thought now is even though you might only be the only employee, what is your strategic plan to add more employees? When are you going to create that infrastructure-

Mark Collier:
Correct.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… so that the business itself can grow? Are you in the right market where there is going to be growth? If we could help people at those early stage to make those decisions? I think we’ll see more businesses that are sustainable.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely. I mean, a lot of businesses, they don’t focus on strategic planning because … Look and I get it. They’ve got to make that cash register ring every day. They’ve got to drive that revenue. What we say is, they spend so much time working in their business that they don’t spend any time working on their business.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Exactly. And they don’t come with that mindset. People will say, “I’m an excellent cook, so I want to open up a restaurant.” Without thinking, “What commitment are you making to your own life?”

Mark Collier:
Sure, and what skills do I need?

Elizabeth Wilson:
What skills do you need? You might have great skills in the kitchen, but what does your accounting look like?

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Elizabeth Wilson:
What are the legal implications that you haven’t considered if someone gets sick from your food? So many times, even Mark, I’ve seen people who think they’re really good cooks.

Mark Collier:
It’s all subjective, huh?

Elizabeth Wilson:
And you’ve opened a restaurant and you put all this and nobody’s ever told you, “This sauce is not quite right.” So, those are the opportunities we see at the micro level, to really help people think through all of that process and to get access to the resource partners early on to help them.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely. So, from your vantage point, what are some of the biggest obstacles that you see Georgia micro businesses facing?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Well, again, that whole silo issue, I think has been one that we have seen people just open up a business. In America, you can just do that.

Mark Collier:
You sure can.

Elizabeth Wilson:
And there are very few things that you can just … without any training or if you have the ability to pay for a license, you can start a business. So we think that since this we’re now in a global world-

Mark Collier:
We are.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… and the competition for business sustainability and growth and profitability has increased exponentially.

Mark Collier:
Yes, absolutely.

Elizabeth Wilson:
So anything that you’re stepping into now, you need to know who your competitors are going to be at a global level.

Mark Collier:
Yeah, competitive analysis is key. We have a whole tool at the SBDC, 12 page competitive analysis tool that because it’s so vitally important.

Elizabeth Wilson:
It’s so important that people know that they are not in this alone and that they don’t have the … even though it might be a creative idea, somebody else is doing it. If we’re going to really take on that continuous leadership role here in Georgia, of creating small businesses, of being the Mecca for businesses, we really want to … I think it’s time for us to really put some more metrics around that growth, to really look at every business as it gets started to make sure that it has a good infrastructure at the license stage.

Mark Collier:
Yeah. Well, business are much like buildings, the most important part’s the foundation.

Elizabeth Wilson:
I agree, totally.

Mark Collier:
So you’re absolutely right about that. So we talked about some of the biggest obstacles. Now let’s talk about some of the biggest opportunities for these micro businesses that you see on the horizon.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Yeah. I think right now with the inclusion of technology, which should be infused in every business.

Mark Collier:
It better be.

Elizabeth Wilson:
It better be.

Mark Collier:
It better be.

Elizabeth Wilson:
There are new opportunities, not only for access to capital, access to training, the ability as you said, to be where growth is. Ability to see forecasting opportunities, to really see markets emerging, as well as markets descending. We have a lot of people still pooling and starting in markets that are descending, I think-

Mark Collier:
And that’s lack of research, lack of planning.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Lack of research, lack of planning and lack of knowledge about the world. Even here in Georgia, we can’t be a standalone state. We’re one of 50 on the continent itself.

Mark Collier:
Yes, we are.

Elizabeth Wilson:
And we’ve got to really be able to see what other states that are growing businesses a certain type of way are utilizing to make sure those businesses are sustainable and bring those resource and training and knowledge here to Georgia to help our businesses too.

Mark Collier:
Now, let’s talk strategy now. Last year was a rough year for everyone. So, tell me, what were some of the challenges that GMEN faced last year?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Oh God.

Mark Collier:
What are some of the strategies you put in place to make it through last year?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Yeah, well as an organization, because we’ve always said we should be just like our businesses, we need to make sure that we are always a part of the leading edge, that we are attending trainings as an organization, that we don’t see ourselves as a standalone, but we are a part of a larger ecosystem of business development organizations around the country. So, we’ve been involved in online training and access to virtual support services for six or seven years. So, that was just normal for us to do that. And then when the world changed, we didn’t have to shift as much because we were already doing that. We had tried to encourage a lot of our members to come on board and a lot of them were not capable, so they had to immediately close down.

Mark Collier:
So, you had other members during COVID year or pre-COVID?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Yeah, we’ve always been a membership association. As a part of that 75 who came together, we said, “Well, let’s be members, so that that way we can have a way to conveniently share, to bring ourselves together in convening and trainings and have a membership support amongst ourselves.” That also helped us to know where we were doing business well in Georgia, as well as where there were gaps.

Elizabeth Wilson:
So, when we saw the opportunities, well, when the country shut down, we didn’t. We just kept going. And because we were already doing trainings, people were sending their entrepreneurs to us and we said, “Let’s just create a bigger tent. Let’s just invite everybody. If you want people to come, we’ll help them pretty much to pivot.”

Elizabeth Wilson:
Because of that, we also got a lot of support from both the philanthropic community, as well as through CARES Act and it’s like, “If you’re doing the work, here are the resources to do it.” So, we started growing-

Mark Collier:
That’s great.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… exponentially, we really expanded over the last year and brought in new services, became that distribution for both businesses and organizations, provide a lot of training and we’re continuing to do that. I think that’s why we’re positioned now to take on the role as a hub organization for others around the state to again, provide even more support.

Mark Collier:
That’s phenomenal. So, what are some of the other areas of economic development that you’ve been involved in both locally and perhaps on a national basis as well?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Sure. Well, one of the things we saw, which was very difficult during COVID, was that people were having to make hard decisions.

Mark Collier:
They were, they were.

Elizabeth Wilson:
It was either, “Can I pay my mortgage or can I pay the lease on the business?” For businesses that had long term leases, even though they would’ve liked to, they were not able to maintain after being closed for six, or seven, or eight, or nine months. So, even though they had been in the location maybe for 10 years as a lessee, they lost the space.

Elizabeth Wilson:
So, we saw a lot of businesses having to lose their locations. That was very painful. They said, “Well, if they didn’t have to make the decision between mortgage or rent and business, then maybe we could be helpful.” So, we got into the business of also being able to partner with CARES Act dollars and emergency rental assistance dollars to be that distributor of funds around the … with certain counties.

Elizabeth Wilson:
So, we recently partnered with Cory Davis and Associates, who also managed several of these ERAP programs for the City of Atlanta. We distributed about $7 million in mortgage assistance-

Mark Collier:
Wow.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… for Henry County.

Mark Collier:
Wow.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Those were funds that, counties all over the Georgia have access to those dollars.

Mark Collier:
So GMEN stepped up to help facilitate.

Elizabeth Wilson:
We stepped up and said, “We’ll do it. We’ll facilitate it. We’ll make sure those dollars get out.”

Mark Collier:
That’s great.

Elizabeth Wilson:
And we’ll work with the county to make sure that the businesses in that county are taking advantage of those services-

Mark Collier:
Makes sense.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… and then we can also refer them to our support partners.

Mark Collier:
That makes perfect sense. So what can business development organizations do to better help build stronger businesses from your perspective?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Well, right now I think we all need to go back to our original intent and be at a bigger table together, to really look at Georgia as a whole and say, “How can we … ” Two things. We want to be the organization that continues to try to bring in resources to Georgia to be able to support organizations. We also want to be able to say, “If there’s a technology solution that one of us knows about, all of us need to about it.”

Mark Collier:
Share the wealth, right?

Elizabeth Wilson:
We got to share the wealth and share the knowledge and then be able to say, “How can we be a unique state in this area now?” How can we not only follow Silicon Valley and California, how can we start leading in that area and making sure that our businesses are bringing in the best, newest, most efficient ways to run their business?

Elizabeth Wilson:
How can we bring in more capital as well as additional grant dollars? Because we saw that was really helpful for businesses, to have a variety of capital sources to stay afloat. How can we make sure that that stream continues and how do we make sure that as federal funds are available, that they come to Georgia? That’s one of the things we just really-

Mark Collier:
That’s important.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… our advocacy mop hat says we are under resourced, so what can we do with our voice at the state level to make sure that we are encouraging, not only more applications for support, that we’re submitting those, but that we’re submitting good applications that are being funded. So that those resources can continue to flow.

Mark Collier:
All right. Well, let’s look long term now. What’s your vision for the Atlanta business community and what would you like to see happen as we move forward, post-COVID?

Elizabeth Wilson:
Post-COVID, I want us to come out not as we were, but again better. One of the things that we definitely saw was that even some of the best businesses, long-term businesses, restaurants, and shops that had been around for 20, 30 years, when they saw how unprepared they were-

Mark Collier:
Yes, absolutely.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… take advantage of opportunities-

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… it really was an eye opener.

Mark Collier:
Yes, it was.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Everybody almost became a micro business overnight. So we were able to go back and say, “Well, what does your accounting structure look like? What is your banking source? When was the last time you looked at your legal documents? what does your employee infrastructure look like?”

Mark Collier:
All your business stuff.

Elizabeth Wilson:
It’s basic, basic, basic stuff, but it really mattered. It’s great to have the most fancy shingles and things like that but if the infrastructure is not strong again, it’ll come out in the wash. So, it’s an opportunity for us to encourage people to go back and do a one-on -one. To reconnect with their business support organizations, with the SBDCs, with the CDFIs to sit down and ask for audits of my business, for people to really take seriously the need to be trained for this new world.

Mark Collier:
That’s right.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Because you will be left out.

Mark Collier:
That’s right, that’s right.

Elizabeth Wilson:
And to come on board, to embrace technology as much as we can and start being the creators of technology, as opposed to just the users.

Mark Collier:
Correct. Opportunity belongs to those who prepare for it.

Elizabeth Wilson:
I agree.

Mark Collier:
All right. Elizabeth Wilson, executive director at GMEN, Georgia Micro Enterprise Network. I want to thank you so much-

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you, Mark.

Mark Collier:
… for taking the time to come in today.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you.

Mark Collier:
Share the great work that you’re doing at your organization, and I can only see bright things in your future.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you, Mark. And we were really excited that GMEN was selected by the SBDCA to be a part of their Pilot SBA Navigator Program.

Mark Collier:
Fantastic.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Yes, when we put in the application, it was just like, “Who can we partner with? How can we reach out to the whole state and submit a competitive proposal?” There were over 700 proposal submitted.

Mark Collier:
There were, there were.

Elizabeth Wilson:
51 selected and we were one of the only organizations in Georgia that received that. So, over the next two years, again, we’re going to ramp up-

Mark Collier:
All right.

Elizabeth Wilson:
… look out for partnerships and hopefully just change the face for small businesses for micro businesses, small—that Georgia really becomes all it can be in this arena over the next two years.

Mark Collier:
Phenomenal.

Elizabeth Wilson:
Thank you.


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