Small business is in Phyllis Cassidy’s blood. Now in her 60s, she’s either been a part of one, teaching about small business finance or working alongside others to start, run and grow small businesses.
“More than 90 percent of New Orleans’ economy is driven by small businesses,” said the lifelong New Orleanian. “And the majority of those are micro-businesses with fewer than five employees. That’s just who we are.”
Cassidy was trained as an accountant, and was part of a family business for 14 years. She taught classes at Dillard University, but was looking for an opportunity to give back to the community she so dearly loved. In 2001, she launched the Good Work Network, focused on helping women- and minority-owned businesses. At the time, her clients were pre-venture micro-entrepreneurs looking to supplement their income. She had about 60 clients and an operating budget of about $100,000 per year.
Four years later, Hurricane Katrina swallowed up the New Orleans economy along with everything else.
“For the first 18 months, everybody was in shock. You go through the motions trying to do anything that seems ‘normal,’ but you just can’t grasp it all. Everywhere you go, there’s a water line on the buildings, showing how high the water reached in any given area. And everything under that line was this shade of gray. There was absolutely no vegetation.
“It was the perfect storm of governmental inadequacy at all levels of responsibility. But we had an outpouring of help and support from around the nation. Had that loving spirit not descended on the city in such huge proportions, it would have been very different,” she said.
Those with businesses to come back to met a series of challenges, ranging from overcoming damages, to the fact that the population of the city – and therefore their customer base – was greatly diminished. The need was great, but Cassidy was uniquely positioned to respond.
“We had just received an SBA (Small Business Administration) grant for $250,000 that became effective on Oct. 1, 2005. The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce gave us office space in a building downtown on Dec. 1, so we began to respond to the needs of restaurants, child care centers and retail shops,” she said. “We went from 60 to 400 clients in that first year.”
Cassidy said most people were just frustrated. The storm exposed underlying financial problems that otherwise successful businesses had been able to overcome: tax liens, insufficient records and other factors that prevented them from securing loans and federal assistance.
“We were able to work with a host of private sector funders who helped us provide grants and other assistance with fewer restrictions,” she explained. “It’s not like you can rebuild from that kind of devastation sequentially or logically. You have to rebuild holistically – addressing everything at once.”
One sector that the Good Work Network helped reinvigorate was the child care industry. The city had gone from more than 200 centers before the storm to only six.
“This is a critical service, and it’s not like folks can go back to rebuilding their businesses or back to their jobs without a place to take care of their children,” she said. “But what happened out of meeting those needs was a really wonderful collaboration. We brought in partners and experts and had the opportunity to not just rebuild these centers, but to improve the quality of care – everything from teacher training to using Creative Curriculum to adopting the quality rating systems. That industry didn’t just come back … it came back better.”
The greatest lesson Cassidy learned from Katrina is tied to one of the greatest needs she still sees in the city. “We experienced a level of collaboration and cooperation that never existed before, but racism is the wound that has not healed.”
Now, Cassidy works to connect minority businesses with the mainstream economy by arranging events where representatives of large corporations can meet and connect with minority-owned small businesses, and it’s helping create new business opportunities and relationships that didn’t exist before.
“Poverty and race here in New Orleans overlap largely, like they do in many communities,” she said. “But I think that people are starting to recognize that if 50 percent of the population of a place are living in poverty or functional poverty, it hurts the overall economy. This is the place to break down racial barriers. We are helping tear down barriers of distrust and build bridges for the benefit of all.”
Cassidy believes her work is fundamentally about “giving hope to folks who have been hopeless. Hopelessness and despair has a toxic effect on low-income communities. I believe that economic opportunity is the core issue to solving a lot of the social problems we face.”