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How local business can drive the coronavirus economic recovery

How local business can drive the coronavirus economic recovery
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“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” With our nation in crisis, this adage has taken on new meaning for the investors, developers, and small business owners I work with, many of whom are transforming complex operations almost overnight to meet rapidly evolving demands. Fallout from the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the most vulnerable people and laid bare our economic disparities, but it has also illuminated the power of local businesses to both serve and strengthen communities, if they are willing to be creative and redeploy their valuable assets.

Thousands of low income communities already faced fragile economies, underfunded support systems, and little investment before this current crisis. Indeed, this is the focus of work driving positive social impact in opportunity zones. Millions of families across the country have lived one everyday disaster away from financial catastrophe for years. These same vulnerable communities are poised to be hardest hit as business shutters and unemployment surges at record rates. Without creative solutions, the inequalities between affluent and low income communities will deepen, therefore jeopardizing our shared economic future in this country.

While the relief legislation passed by Congress offers us a vital lifeline, the intentional collective action of local businesses is desperately needed. By redeploying their unique assets, whether capital, manpower, property, or infrastructure, local businesses can meet urgent community needs in the short term and enable an inclusive economic recovery in the long term. If you are rolling your eyes, I understand because local businesses helping their communities seems simple in theory yet complex in practice.

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The Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation based at Georgetown University has developed a network of investors and local businesses that prove this thinking can be implemented in the real world. In response to the coronavirus, they are throwing out the existing playbook and being creative with their valuable resources to meet community needs.

Hotel Revival in Baltimore is repurposing nearly every resource it has. It is providing free hotel rooms for health workers. It is offering kitchens and spaces to displaced chefs and entrepreneurs to their operations running. It built up the infrastructure to provide care packages and free lunches to service workers and those in need, already distributing more than 1,000 with Coastal Sunbelt Produce and Hungry Harvest last week alone.

As cities close dine in services at restaurants and bars, Think Food Group has turned the otherwise dormant kitchens of its popular restaurants into community kitchens, serving hundreds of affordable or free to go meals daily for those in need. Local Initiatives Support Corporation, one of the largest social enterprises in the nation, has partnered with Verizon to give grants to small businesses facing immediate financial threat. It is focused on entrepreneurs of color, businesses owned by women, and enterprises in historically underserved areas that do not have access to capital.

This intentional and collective thinking about how to redeploy what local businesses have to help their communities is exactly what is required to meet the urgent need of this moment and place our country on a path to inclusive economic recovery. This will look different across the spectrum. Small businesses are also among the hardest hit and may need to address their own urgent needs before focusing on community impact. Thoughtful collaboration with communities can also take lots of time and effort.

The idea is to be creative and leverage partnerships to maximize what is possible. Local businesses must not be immobilized by uncertainty. They should lean into it and start small, but also think expansively about who else to involve. They might be surprised to discover unexpected partners. They should think about returns with a long term lens, act on immediate needs, and share what is working so everyone can be more effective.

While the crisis our nation confronts is challenging, it is also a powerful opportunity for visionary leadership to prevail and for local businesses to reimagine community impact. They can be creative and think about the unique resources or manpower they can redeploy to meet an immediate need for their fellow neighbors and contribute to an inclusive economic recovery. Our shared economic future in this country depends on it.

Jennifer Collins is a fellow in residence with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation based at Georgetown University in Washington.