Expert Connexions: Resources for Businesses Dealing with COVID-19
In this virtual chat, we talk with Michelle Rahl of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce about resources and support available for businesses dealing with COVID-19.
Michelle Rahl is the Vice President of member engagement for the Chamber. In this role, she oversees a motivated and engaged member services team which is responsible for the on-boarding of new members and the retention of existing members.
Julie: We are so glad you can join us for our Facebook live series called Expert Connexions. My name is Julie Holton, I’m the Founder and Principal Strategist of mConnexions, a Digital Marketing Agency headquartered in Lansing. We work with businesses and nonprofits of all sizes. So we knew as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit that we needed to really help our clients and our community. So we started doing that in the best way we know how which is communicating and connecting. So we’re working to connect you to resources here in our community that can help. Today we’re going to bring you three new experts. Coming up at one o’clock David Smith is going to join us. He is a start-up advisor, an angel investor, who works with a lot of small businesses and startups here in the Lansing area specifically at the fledge he works with a lot of startups. So we’re going to be talking to David about how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting startups and small businesses and get his advice on things we should be doing. Then at 3 o’clock we’re going to talk with Tanesha Ash-Shakoor. She is the founder of voices of color and she’s also the founder of the statewide rally in Michigan that brings awareness to domestic violence and so today we’re going to talk with Tanesha about how this stay at home order the shelter-in-place order is impacting those who help people deal with domestic violence and we’re going to talk also about resources available for those who may need it because know that this is especially a time where resources are needed. So that’s coming up today at 3:00 but first today we’re going to focus on business and I’m so excited to bring in our guest today because she is not only a colleague here in the Lansing area but also a good friend Michelle Rahl. Thank you so much for joining us. Michelle is with she’s with the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, morning Michelle.
Michelle: Good morning Julie. Thanks so much for having me.
Julie: Thank you for taking the time I know this has just been a really crazy time. We were talking beforehand because you have so much on your plate because not only are you dealing with the personal aspects of the pandemic as we all are, but it is your job day in and day out sometimes maybe too late into the day as your husband might say in and day out to be having these conversations with members of the chamber. All of these businesses that are so greatly impacted and so Michelle I thank you for joining us and I want to talk about what the chamber is doing to help your members.
Michelle: Sure again thanks so much for the offer to be here. You know appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and your audience here and you know as you mentioned that the chamber represents about 1,100 businesses in the tri-county region and you know we’ve spent about a month that we’ve all kind of been living this COVID craziness and you know really over the last month the chamber has taken some strong steps to provide strong resources to be available to pivot when necessary. I think that’s a word that we’ve all become pretty familiar with you know but one of the first things that we wanted to do was just build out a solid resources page on our website. With all of this information coming so fast and so furious and from so many different sources county, state, you know federal levels, we needed to kind of be a repository for that information and filter it through and provide it in a way that is manageable and that folks are able to navigate it and find whatever resources you know they might need.
Julie: And certainly there is so much information out there and you know business owners that I talked with on a regular basis it’s hard to know what information is accurate, what is the most up-to-date information and so having a website like yours where it’s one-stop shop with the most critical information for businesses is really good. So I want to let people know your website is lansingchamber.org. So if you haven’t already checked it out know that it’s right there for you on the home page a great resource for you especially for members right now.
Michelle: Correct so again you know as new executive orders or other directives or pieces related to the funding continue to come out, our website is updated many times a day you know based on the information that comes out and you know another piece of that was really kind of our outreach to the business community in our business impact survey and we want to know as real time as possible how these different pieces of you know COVID are affecting your business and it’s been it’s been interesting to watch kind of the needs continue to evolve as we you know continue to get deeper and deeper into this and as we you know potentially sit at you know the halfway point you know potentially maybe who knows you know we need to make sure that we’re staying on top of you know the issues that are affecting our businesses today. So we can you know continue to provide the resources and the outreach you know put programming or messaging together. So if you haven’t yet taken the impact survey I would highly encourage you to do that. That is also part of that COVID resources page on our website as well. So Michelle what are some of the issues. some of the biggest issues right now that you’re hearing from members? What are some of the commonalities and maybe some of the unique things that you’re finding so far?
Michelle: You know really obviously the cash flow and payroll you know issues you know continue to be you know kind of key so you know that speaks to the you know the large amount of small business funding through the PPP in the economic injury loans. Those are you know a direct result of kind of those cash flow and payroll issues that our members are having or our business all of the businesses are having but it’s continuing to evolve. You know I think now again as we sit you know a few weeks into this we’re starting to see some impacts on supply chain issues. The companies that are open, that our essential, are struggling to you know find the parts and the pieces and the products they need to continue to do business. So that would be an issue that we would you know continue to keep our eye on, but also now that we’re working remotely those are her who are working remotely how do you keep your team engaged? How do you continue to keep morale high for your team? Productivity is starting to see a dive. I’m you know hunkered down in a quiet little corner here praying that my five-year-old doesn’t you know come crashing this interview. So I’m not the only you know not the only working parent who’s you know struggling to be as productive as we once were. So you know these issues and challenges are just going to continue to evolve and you know and we just threw that survey as how we can continue to kind of stay on top of those and again get messaging programming together that helps our business kind of navigate this new normal.
Julie: Absolutely you know and Michelle one of the things that you and I have talked about as far as productivity is of course the work aspect of those that can work continuing to work and be productive in that, but facing the fact that we are just all humans and so at the end of the day this is impacting us on a personal level in addition to professional level there are the financial concerns that you know obviously short term and long term business concerns and I know you and your team are really dealing with all of it and you’re also working remotely too of course in this situation. So you know tell me I know the chamber has been doing some unique things that I have found interesting as far as connecting with other business associations and informing some of these alliances so to speak and working with other groups that you can collaborate. Tell us about that. What kinds of things are you doing with other organizations?
Michelle: Sure so you know just a couple weeks into this you know we recognize that we have so many strong you know chambers and business support groups you know everything you know from like I said our local chambers to the DLi’s and the Motta’s of our communities that there was an opportunity to really kind of align and amplify our efforts. We’re also uniquely vested and in our businesses and in our business community in this region and it was such an opportunity for us to all come together and show this business community that we are 100% in support of them. Whatever they may need, how do we continue to you know get these resources out into the communities so it gets out into the business community? So again there’s just a lot of opportunities for all of us to kind of come together. We meet weekly, you know virtually and then we just put an open letter out to the business community, signed by all the various groups. So again we’re just trying to come together, in this time of need and share resources and again align and amplify this message and you know these online roundtables that we’ve been doing again are just another opportunity to drive valuable connections you know it can’t be business as normal, but it we have to try to have business as much as possible. So we are just trying to just figure it out.
Julie: Yes, I really like that you know and Michelle what I really love about what I hear you saying is you’re talking about the collaboration. Talking about the ways that groups and individuals can come together and I know we have some comments and I’m going to read a couple of these and also invite our audience you know please feel free if you have questions for Michelle on whether it’s chamber related or programs related would love to hear from you and your comments and ideas as well. We have a captive audience right now with Michelle so if there’s anything you want the Lansing chamber to hear you know now is your opportunity. We have a comment from Jessica Brooks who I know is a small business owner and she says thank you for all you are doing to help businesses. The local chambers are so important to helping their businesses get through this and you know Michele this comment Jessica thank you for that comment and this comment comments like this have really come through. I did an interview with Shari Pash a couple of weeks ago who works with a lot of chambers, yes I know you know Shari well and I’ve had conversations with you, Michelle, with Tim Damon at the chamber and with the Michigan Chamber Kristin Beltzer and just talking about how chambers now are needed more than ever and whether that’s actually being able to provide physical resources, whether that’s being able to direct business owners to those Resources, whether it be through the SBA loans and grants and other programs that are coming through, but also just the personal connection and I want to talk to you a little bit about that Michelle because I know a lot of what you’re doing right now is some virtual hand-holding and as much as we’d like to be there in person. So talk us through that and what you know if a business owner is struggling, what are some things that they can reach out to you for? What are some of the things that you are able to provide for them?
Michelle: Sure we’ve been doing these very small we’re just calling a membership I chats or chamber I chat’s and you know we’re just kind of connecting with different subsets of the membership whether it’s industry or you know our new members who’ve you know just barely kind of got out of the gate and then this kind of happened, but what we’ve really found with those conversations is it is such an intimate ability to let the member talk. You know we’ve all of these business owners have been sitting on so many webinars and consuming so much content. You know dealing with the pressures of their business and the pressures of their home life and you know to give them five minutes to release the pressure and to tell their story and to hear from other business owners who are also dealing with similar problems and you know let them idea share and vent and it really does kind of turn in to a little pseudo therapy session in a way and it gives us such an insight into how these companies are navigating this crisis. I mean each individual business has to look at all of the tools and resources at hand and make the best decision related to their business position at the time and you know that’s not a decision that we can make for them or we can help them make and you know so just being able to provide the content be that listening ear. You know be a beacon of positivity in the community. We recently launched a share the good initiative, hashtag share the good. So we want to promote the different ways that these businesses and this community is coming together to support one another from hey-ho asphalt donating mass, to playmakers donating shoes I mean the way that we’re responding to all of this is a community is a beautiful thing. I mean I got an email from a business owner small business owner concerned about her business but at the end of it her last comment was let me know how I can help any other business. If you need anything I’m here and to me that just really speaks to the true heart of this business community and the way regardless of what the issue is we’re going to come together and you know it’s going to be community over COVID.
Julie: I love that community over COVID and isn’t that incredible seeing people come together. I love your share the good campaign because it’s really highlighting things that people are doing and Jessica Brooks who had just left us that comment I know at she owns the dress shop and her seamstresses have been sewing masks for health care workers and so it’s just so many amazing things like that, that are as we see our community come together. Couple more quick comments here. So Jill says excellent points Michelle team morale is so crucial especially for our extroverts and those without support at home. Jill I feel you and I know Michelle feels you too. She is the most extroverted extrovert who is a hugger and this is got to be so hard, so yes Jill you’re totally right. Michelle’s team morale is crucial. Stephanie says now is certainly the time for chambers to shine. Helping businesses when they need it the most. I completely agree with Stephanie.
Michelle: Thank you for those comments. I mean it you know it sometimes feels like you know you just can’t do enough or you know that you know you can’t be there in person as Julie mentioned you know I talked with these members, we hear these stories and all I want to do is reach out and give them a big hug and I’m unable to do that. So you know how can we you know virtually support one another? How do we bring our teams together and continue to stay focused on the issue? You know how do we not get COVID burnout. I mean you know it I was laughing with a colleague of mine we’ve all gotten an email from every company that we’ve ever done business within our entire lives right and you know COVID resources or here’s you know here’s how we’re doing this. So again how do we not just add to that noise? How do we continue to add valuable content? How do we continue to share the good stories? Drive the conversation but you know not in a way that drives fatigue on this as well.
Julie: Yes and as you know personally as a business owner, as a member of the Lansing Chamber, member of the Michigan Chamber and other small chambers, those of you who are watching if you are not plugged in whether it be to your local chamber or local business community now is the time and I certainly understand and know Michelle understands that resources are tight right now but I you know I strongly suggest get plugged into those communities, the Facebook groups, the LinkedIn groups, get plugged into some of these online chats, these virtual conversations because business owners I know it can feel like you are alone in this and that this is I mean this is something that certainly none of us could have predicted or prepared for. I was talking to Stephanie on my team about you know our own disaster plans and of course we had you know some plans that were kind of half done and others that were done and in the works and you know but we have the very real conversation of ok if I were to get sick or if someone else you know others on our team get sick what are our plans? What do we do? How do we function and these are certainly conversations that we were not having six months ago or if there’s a global pandemic what do we do?
Michelle: And I think just the speed at which all of this has occurred has just you know been something that’s just been tough for everybody to manage. I mean if you had no plans to have your staff work remotely you know there was a few weeks long wait to get a laptop. I mean you know I mean it’s just the speed at which all of this you know all of this moved. I mean essentially in a week you know we as an organization went from you know postponing a couple events to working remotely. I mean that’s just the speed at which you all of this moved, which it is hard for any you know business owner to deal with and I think a lot of business owners our little type-a and you know they like to have the information in front of them to make you know the best decision they can and when you don’t have that information and there’s so much uncertainty out there. How long is this going to last? You know what are the next 90 days going to look like? Again that’s another opportunity for the chamber to step in and provide some guidance and some leadership there and that’s really kind of the next part of the conversation is what is this ramped up going to look like? You know as we you know as we keep an eye to the future you know as soon as it’s safe health-wise and we can you know that the economy is able to you know safely open back up our businesses are looking and preparing to do that. How do we help our business owners? Take advantage of this time. You know every business owner had or has that business to-do list right oh my websites a little stale, I’d love to you know I’d love to update that. Haven’t pulled out the business plan in two or three years, love to do that. Well now you have the time. So how do we continue to, you know, help our business owner’s kind of take this negative and turn it into a positive and say you have time, let’s tackle that business to-do list. So when things do open up, your website has got that e-commerce piece of your website now built in, so you’re ready to go. You got your marketing plan you know ready to ramp up when things open up. So again just looking forward and being a part of those conversations as well, I think that’s a critical component of this right now too.
Julie: Absolutely I mean we all look around our houses and we think okay like time to pull out the paint can and you know let’s dust some things off and work on the projects that we never had time to do. The same thing is true with our businesses. Now is the time and we didn’t we don’t necessarily want this time, we didn’t ask for this. I know that for some it’s a silver lining and its time that they’re able to use and enjoy and that is such a blessing and that’s great. For others it is certainly there’s a lot of stress and anxiety and worry attached to having this time. The bottom line is we do have time and there’s time to be having these conversations. Time to look forward to recovery and so I’m really interested in Michelle in some of the steps that the chamber will be taking and I’m sure those plans are in process. Is there anything you can kind of give us a look ahead to about as we start to move into recovery mode? Hopefully sooner than later, but as we start to move into recovery mode certainly the chamber is going to be a resource. How are you and your team looking ahead to the future?
Michelle: Yeah you know you’re exactly right Julie. I mean for some of the business owners who may be you know are a little anxious about this time, you know taking some steps to work on your business helps give you a little bit of sense of control. That you’re actually doing something you know of valuable moving things forward. So there is some real value in that and I think right now you know utilizing some of our surveys to provide feedback, you know two different elected officials and how they’re looking forward. So you know right now it’s really going to be dependent on you know the health and safety of everybody but again we you know marketing you know getting folks back together in a safe way I mean that’s just really what people are looking forward to and you know if you want to kind of silver lining this you know all you can I think hopefully out of all of this we really recognize the value and importance of relationships and you know being together and what that really means for our ability to connect and build trust. You know this is unlike anything we’ve all ever dealt with and it feels a little odd to be living history but at the same time, we’re tough and we’re going to come out of this and we’re going to be right raring to go when you know the Chamber’s got the business community’s back on this and you know whatever those needs are even if it is just a quick zoom call to vent or to ask some questions that’s what we’re here for. You know sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to need your needs change from day-to-day and week-to-week so you know that’s why we here and all of these business groups that we work with you know live and breathe for the business community.
Julie: And we certainly need it right now. You know we’ve talked about COVID as being the new c-word and it is so very quickly becoming our reality but I love you’ve mentioned a lot of other c-words today that I think we can we can wrap up with, which is collaboration, communication, connection, these are all things that are going to help us move forward. First of all, to help us get through what we’re going through in the now, but then to help us move forward as we prepare for recovery and then start moving through it. So Michelle thank you so much for joining me this morning.
Michelle: Thank you so much for the offer. I really enjoyed it.
Julie: Yes, so I’m going to put up one last time maybe your website here because I want to make sure those that are tuning in lansingchamber.org, very easy to get to you but there is a full page of resources for you there that Michelle and her team have been working on and continue to keep updated. Connect with Michelle directly if you are already a Chamber member and are looking for more resources or if you’re if you are in the Lansing regional area and you’re looking to become a member now is a great time certainly to get connected with others in the business community and with these resources that are provided. So Michelle thank you again for joining us this morning.
Michelle: Thank you and everybody have a safe and wonderful day.
Julie: Absolutely okay and then join us today coming up again in about an hour and a half one o’clock we’re going to talk to you Angel investor and startup advisor David Smith about things that are happening in the startup community and some more resources for small businesses. So we’ll talk with David and then at three o’clock today we’re talking about domestic violence and resources available there. So stay with us and we will see you back here in about an hour and a half. Thanks, everyone.