Liza Mendoza in her east Lincoln gym
Liza Mendoza stands in front of the selfie wall at her gym, LP Fitness, in east Lincoln. She said the city's only gym owned by a minority woman is a place “for every age, shape, size, and color.” Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC

By Ellie Kuckelman

Corinthia Fisher started her Lincoln hair salon two years ago in the middle of the pandemic. 

But for her, the hardest part of building her business wasn’t spreading out clients so there weren’t too many people in the salon at once or quarantining with her four kids at home or even advertising.

The biggest difficulty was knowing the right people.

“It’s kind of like who you know and if you don’t know anybody then you aren’t going to get anything done right away,” she said. “We just didn’t know the right people, so we didn’t get any assistance.”

For her, even seemingly simple tasks like finding electricians and plumbers to get her business up and running were difficult.

And because she was one of two Black women in Lincoln to own a hair salon, Fisher also found it difficult to build a business network.

Building a business network is a common problem among minority women-owned businesses in Lincoln and nationally. In addition, the pandemic has led to the death of many networking events that small business owners depend on to expand their business reach. That has led to many minority businesses struggling to develop connections and find resources. 

But many have turned to a 152-year-old business organization — the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, which has long recognized the importance of building a business network. It offers several services and programs designed to help minority women.   

Both locally and nationally, minority women small business owners are a critical part of the entrepreneur community.

According to the 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report by American Express, minority-owned businesses account for 50% of all women-owned businesses and generate 23% of all women-owned business revenue. They include some 6.4 million companies in the U.S.

High failure rate for minority-owned businesses

However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open. This percentage is projected to be much higher for minority-owned businesses.

Amy Marquez, an owner of an organization company, explained the challenge she faced.

“As a solopreneur it’s been hard since I didn’t have those connections; I am the one doing everything,” she said.

Similarly, Liza Mendoza, founder of the only minority woman-owned gym in Lincoln, emphasized the importance of connections.

 “I can’t say enough about networking and who you know,” she said. Mendoza started teaching fitness classes in parks, and as her community grew, she started renting out time slots in gyms and then eventually bought her own gym.

Brandy McWilliams, a Black business owner of a home-based bakery, also said a challenge she faces is “finding the right people with the right answers to help me structure my business.”  

According to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Black business owners have experienced a drop of 26% in business activity from pre-COVID-19 levels. Latinx, Asian and immigrant business owners have experienced similar losses. This could lead to negative long-term consequences for job availability and economic equality.

This drop in activity could be, in part, due to fewer networking opportunities or a lack of awareness about such opportunities in these business owners’ local communities.

Chambers of commerce benefits

However, some business owners are looking to the chambers of commerce to help them confront this challenge.

The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce website posts a business directory with a list of minority-owned, as well as women-owned businesses in Lincoln. 

“That is incredibly helpful because businesses have commitments, for example, for supplier diversity,” said Kathy Andersen, director of innovation and entrepreneurship for the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. “The directory is also helpful if you want to network with people who are in the same boat as you.” 

She said many new businesses in the chamber struggle with making connections, especially those starting out alone.

“Being a solopreneur can be a lonely task, you can feel like you’re on an island, and with the business directory you can seek conversations and networking opportunities with people who are also starting a new business and going at it alone,” Andersen said.

Along with the minority-owned business listings, the chamber’s website contains a variety of resources about encouraging diversity, equity and inclusion.

Women-focused programming

The chamber also offers events and programs specifically for women. 

Each year the chamber conducts its annual ‘Women in Business’ event, in partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Business, said Derek Feyerherm, director of operations and development for the chamber. The event includes panel discussions, keynote speakers and other educational opportunities. 

In addition, the chamber just announced that at the 2022 Women in Business event, it will offer a new program — RISE Lincoln, which provides a platform for women to connect, engage, learn and grow. This program offers leadership book discussions and free community coaching to help with personal and professional growth. The coaching is done in communities of eight to 12 women and is facilitated by one of RISE’s seven certified coaches.

Feyerherm said the chamber looks at its programming holistically in order to provide resources that are geared toward businesses and startups of all stages and demographics. 

“Any business entrepreneur or leader who would like additional assistance as it pertains to being a woman or minority-owned business is encouraged to reach out to our team and we will guide the business in the appropriate direction for these types of resources,” Feyerherm said.

The chamber’s website outlines a list of benefits for its members like advertising opportunities, business referrals, discounts and networking and sponsorship opportunities. The Lincoln Chamber works to help these new businesses develop new contacts and make the business community aware of their arrival on the scene.

“The chamber can provide technical assistance and help with advocacy for small businesses,” Andersen said. “We can talk to the city and state and talk about current problems that small businesses are facing and what their business interests are and what could help them be successful. It’s a great place to have your voice heard.” 

The public policy advocacy that the chamber does focuses on creating a positive business climate in Lincoln and Nebraska for businesses of all sizes. 

“There are four policy related events each month that the chamber conducts where any of our member businesses are able to attend and ask questions, provide feedback, and have opportunities to visit with elected officials and city employees,” Feyerherm said.

Advisory council formed

In 2022, the chamber also launched a Small Business Advisory Council, a group of small business owners and representatives who meet monthly to discuss opportunities and concerns impacting Lincoln’s small businesses. 

“This council receives updates from all of our divisions and conversations are had of how each of our divisions can better help small businesses succeed in Lincoln,” Feyerherm said.

The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce recognizes the importance of developing connections early to help jumpstart the success of these small businesses, Andersen said.

“Having a network can mean that you can clear some of those early hurdles more easily, you can get advice that can help you avoid problems entirely, and you can get connections to funding or business coaching,” she said. “All of those things that can help power where you need to go.”

Although the pandemic made networking events more difficult, the chamber made adjustments, Andersen said. 

“During the pandemic, the chamber did a good job of hosting a remote meeting offering or a hybrid offering,” she said. “They shifted programming and tried to meet people where they were.”

Many minority women small business owners have reaped much benefit from joining their local chamber. Marquez joined the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce in June.

Amy Marquez - How Lincoln's minority women business owners confront challenges and build networks
Amy Marquez, owner of Serene Spaces, says being a solopreneur has many challenges but is also rewarding. Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC

“It has been a big benefit,” she said. “From going to the chamber events to networking things and learning more about the ins and outs of what is going on in Lincoln and what the business community looks like in Lincoln and meeting people and making connections from them; the Chamber is really good about that.”

Joining their local chamber of commerce doesn’t just expand their business network, but it also affects how customers view the business. According to a study by the Schapiro Group, when a small business is a chamber of commerce member, consumers are 80% more likely to purchase goods or services from the business in the future. There is also a 73% increase in consumer awareness and a 49% increase in the business’ consumer favorability rating.

“When consumers learn about a business through the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, it does signal to them a business’ willingness to participate in their community and a desire to be part of a group of people who are interested in seeing businesses succeed in Lincoln,” Andersen said.

The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce has noticed progress among its membership. 

“We can firmly say that the chamber is on track to have the best member retention it has seen in a decade,” Feyerherm said. In addition to new members, previous members are taking steps to return. 

“Many businesses that dropped their membership in 2020 and 2021 due to the economic and workforce issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are rejoining this year or have indicated they will in 2023,” Feyerherm said.

However, some small businesses worry about the time and finances that are involved in being a member of a chamber of commerce. 

Dues based on employee numbers

For the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, membership dues are determined by the number of both full-time and part-time employees. Two part-time employees count as one full-time. The membership fee ranges from $355 per year for 1-3 full-time workers, to $2,625+ for 200+ full-time employees.

“I think the cost of the chamber membership is worth it and it wasn’t a burden for me, but it certainly would have been a hard stretch a few years ago when my situation was different,” Marquez said. 

In regard to required time, events held by the chamber are optional.

“There are events different times of the day, different days of the week, different focuses, so you really can pick and choose things that are of interest to you,” Marquez said.

On any given month, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce hosts 10 events. 

“These events range from networking or educational opportunities, discussions around public policy, to celebrations of businesses, CEO’s and other signature events in the community,” Feyerherm said. These events are typically free for all members and, on average, last about one hour.

However, there are limitations on the variety of events available.

“It makes us sad when somebody joins, and we don’t have events that serve their needs,” Andersen said. “However, we look at how our programming is serving people or not and try to do better segmentation to meet the diverse needs that are out there.”

Also, when joining a local chamber of commerce, the chamber helps businesses with marketing and advertising within Lincoln, but some small businesses find it difficult to reach customers outside the city. However, the Lincoln Chamber of commerce provides resources to help small businesses do so.

For example, the chamber can connect people with mentors from SCORE, a nonprofit organization that helps small businesses get off the ground and grow. The mentors can offer advice, education and consulting on business development as well as growth strategies. The chamber can also connect people with the Nebraska Business Development Center, which offers programs and consultation on developing a business plan and refining the business owners’ target markets. 

“We include nearby communities when we are helping with advocacy, organizing events, or talking with someone about a business proposal,” Andersen said. “We try to have a regional view and not just a city-border view.” 

Many minority entrepreneurs have overcome the challenge of starting and running their own businesses, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s rewarding,” Mendoza said, “and my heart is in this.”

Marquez tries to focus on the value of looking forward.

“My mantra is ‘just do the next thing.’” she said. “That’s what my father used to say.”

The importance of minority businesses

The number of minority-owned businesses in the U.S. continues to grow. According to the 2019 report mentioned earlier, from 2014 to 2019, firms owned by women of color grew 43%. These minority women continue to overcome challenges, and there is a growing recognition of their importance and the need to support their businesses.

“The United States is such a melting pot,” Marquez said. “If we didn’t have minority-owned businesses, we would be missing out on such a rich segment of our community.” 

She feels that minorities bring different perspectives and cultures.

“We were built to live in communities and the more diverse our community is, the richer our community is.”

The goal for these women is continued growth.

“I would like to expand my business and get a commercial space,” McWilliams said. 

Fisher hopes to one day own her own property and sell products at her salon. 

Mendoza wants to increase her membership and eventually open a new location on the South side. 

Many of these women also hope to set an example for future generations.

Marquez said she wants her kids to believe they can be anything they want to be. She wants to be an example for them and show them that they can follow their dreams.

“I think that’s true not just for my kids but for the whole next generation,” Marquez said. “Just give it a shot.”