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Detroit CDFI Helps Small Businesses Go Digital

The pandemic forced businesses to adapt quickly — often, through shifting shopping, payment and more to digital systems. However, not all small businesses had the resources they needed to make that transition. Here’s how one newly minted CDFI stepped up. 

By Bianca Gonzalez 

When COVID-19 forced the world to go virtual, some businesses — like those in the East Warren district of Detroit — were forced to make that transition with fewer resources and limited access to technology. That’s why Michigan Women Forward (MIWF) created Bridging the Digital Divide, a program designed to give businesses region access to technology and training to increase their digital footprint.

The Bridging the Digital Divide program was designed in response to a summer of 2020 study on the impact of COVID-19 on East Warren businesses. Even before the pandemic, small businesses in the region faced hurdles, including racial and economic disparities. The population of East Warren is 70% Black and 60% of businesses in the area are Black-owned. In a survey of these business owners, researchers found that only 26% of businesses are using online sales and only 46% operate a website. 

Despite the ubiquity of credit card payments in today’s world, only 73% of businesses surveyed were capable of accepting credit or debit card payments. More than half of respondents said that their businesses would benefit most from tools to help market products and services and leverage their social media accounts. 

Bridging the Digital Divide is a nine-month program designed to give East Warren businesses access to technology and training to increase their digital footprint. The program consists of 3 major components: access to technology, technological education and training on digital marketing.

Alexis Dishman, chief lending officer for Detroit-based CDFI MIWF, explains that she doesn’t think today’s digital divide “was a result of the pandemic, but it actually opened our eyes to the digital divide” that already existed. MIWF asked participants to complete a spreadsheet so they could figure out the kind of funding business owners needed. 

“Many of the entrepreneurs we were working with didn’t have adequate computer systems, didn't have access to Excel, and were actually using their phones to complete some of the spreadsheets that we needed,” Dishman says, adding that many also “didn't have the resources that they needed to actually create their website and were trying to do it on their phones or using outdated technology.” While most people have access to the internet, “it takes a certain level of technology and understanding even just to run your business and have an e-commerce website,” Dishman says. This lack of access to adequate technology hinders businesses operationally and minimizes the potential of their online presence.

That’s why the program was not only focused on training entrepreneurs on how to use technology, but providing them with the tech itself. Participants received a free laptop from Dynamic Technology, a partner of the program. The laptops were set up with software like Microsoft suite, Shopify, and Quickbooks.

Nezaa Bandele, one of the program’s first participants and the owner of Paradise Natural Foods, wasn’t taking advantage of digital marketing or e-commerce before the program. Despite having the demand, Bandele wasn’t in a position to sustainably scale her business.

“I could pull off events and catering from the customer’s point of view,” she says. “But back of the house, afterwards, everybody was wiped out because there were some systems that we just didn't have in place.” Before the program, she says her website “looked pretty, but wasn’t user friendly.”

After going through the Bridging the Digital Divide program, Bandele is able to “leverage the power of a website” by adding fully functional online ordering, catering and shopping pages as well as a page to book her corporate education lectures. 

”That cuts down a lot of labor hours, which is huge, especially in the food business where margins are really low and labor is really high,” she says. “Just being able to do that, we’re able to process a lot more.”

Aside from assisting clients with improving the functionality of their sites, the program also gave training on how to use Quickbooks accounting software and weekly digital marketing training sessions provided by program partner Kanopi Social.

After a successful launch, the program has expanded. In addition to their flagship East Detroit cohort, there is now a cohort of 30 in West Detroit and a cohort of 20 in Flint, Michigan.

The Bridging the Digital Divide program is making digital marketing and e-commerce tools and education so business owners like Bandele can scale their businesses in cost-effective ways. “I'm really looking forward to being able to take care of my customers because we have a digital system that can do heavy lifting,” she says.

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.