When North Carolina’s Small Business and Technology Development Center made the decision to raise money for the Piedmont Triad’s Black- and Latinx-owned businesses impacted by COVID-19, it did not take long for applications to come flooding in.
“There were a lot. Hundreds,” said Anthony Abney, former grant program chairman and now business launch specialist for the center.
With community support, Abney and his team had done something extraordinary — they’d raised more than $1 million in a couple of months. In the end, that money would find its way to 21 different Black- and Latinx-owned businesses in the Triad.
But it was no small feat deciding how to do the most good with the money they’d raised. Enter UNC Greensboro Bryan School students Chris Causey and Madison Ferguson, who are both pursuing a Master’s of Science degree in Accounting.
“So, we wanted to help businesses disproportionately impacted by the pandemic survive over the next six months,” said Abney. “We asked ourselves, ‘Can this business survive another six months? Will this grant help them survive?’ We asked ourselves if we could create jobs, could we help these businesses retain jobs and can we help these businesses keep their services available in their communities. That was the criteria and the lens that influenced our decision making.”
Causey, originally from Elon, is a self-described older student who had worked as a branch manager for a finance company for nearly a decade before returning to school.
“I was used to looking at loan applications, and these are grants, but it was a good change of pace,” she said.
Ferguson, originally from Liberty, says her mother was a CPA. She knew a little about the accounting field growing up, citing job security as another reason she decided to pursue her MSA.
“I had never done any nonprofit work before this internship,” said Ferguson. “But I liked looking at the applications, the personal stories.”
Abney says the center works with UNCG and other universities in the region on numerous internship programs and loves to strengthen those relationships by collaborating. He says for this particular effort, Bryan MSA students were a perfect fit.
“They were literally helping out with the decision-making process for this grant. We didn’t just hand out this money to random businesses, there was a process that included financial analysis,” said Abney. “From that standpoint that’s a lot of great career experience, and you also have to look at the community impact. They were part of something really special in terms of raising that much that fast and then deploying it, and not only deploying it but we picked really great companies that are going to survive this thing and tell a great story in terms of the number of jobs retained, jobs created, businesses able to stay in their communities. From an experience standpoint that is an amazing thing to be a part of.”
For Causey, it was invaluable.
“You need to do real-world stuff. I can say this because I came back to school from the real world,” she said. “It’s not all textbook, it’s a lot of judgment, it’s a lot of gray areas. On these applications, yes there were checklists but you know you have to use a mix of knowledge from the classroom and also make professional judgments and common sense judgments. So it’s good to take something you’ve learned and apply it.”
After a fall semester’s worth of work was done interviewing and sorting through applications, it was time to award the grants. Unfortunately due to the circumstances with the pandemic, the ceremony had to be held over a Zoom call — but that didn’t make it any less powerful of a moment, both for the 21 business owners as well as those who helped to make the project happen.
“Everyone in that Zoom introduced themselves and everyone came together. Seeing everything come into place, I really enjoyed the experience and I got to see a different side of the business world,” said Ferguson.
For Causey, it was nice to see the money going to those who needed it, the appreciation they showed, the pride of everyone on the call. She said it put the internship into context, that their work was bigger than just sorting through applications.
“This was definitely a demonstration of what can happen when a community comes together and is unified and wants to get something done,” said Abney. “This is the type of result that you get.”