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Podcast: Supporting Small Business Recovery in Mesa, AZ with Jaye O’Donnell & Jenny Poon

Posted on February 23, 2021


Small Business Support - GovLove
Jaye O'DonnellJenny Poon
Jaye O’Donnell
Assistant Economic Development Director
City of Mesa, Arizona
Bio | LinkedIn | Twitter
Jenny Poon
Founder & CEO
CO+HOOTS
Bio | LinkedIn | Twitter

Mesa Cares. Two guests joined the podcast to talk about supporting entrepreneurship and economic development using an online tool and technical assistance. Jay O’Donnell, Assistant Economic Development Director for the City of Mesa, Arizona, and Jenny Poon, Founder & CEO of CO+HOOTS, discussed how the City worked with CO+HOOTS to support small businesses. Jaye shared what the City was looking for in providing technical assistance to help businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Jenny talked about how CO+HOOTS got involved and the creation of the online HUUB platform.

Host: Lauren Palmer

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Episode Transcription

Lauren Palmer  00:08

Coming to you from Kansas City, Missouri, this is Gov love, a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders Network, we engage the brightest minds in local government. You can support Gov Love by joining ELGL. Membership is just $50 for an individual or you can sign up your organization. I’m Lauren Palmer, a Gov Love co host and Director of Local Government Services for the Mid-America Regional Council. Before we get into today’s episode, Gov Love is brought to you by Granicus. Short term rentals or STRs are found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Their numbers are growing at a staggering rate in 1000s of communities across North America. What does this mean for government? It’s time to act. Short term rentals can be a tremendous source of revenue for local governments or a real community nuisance. It all depends on adopting the right Compliance and Enforcement strategy. To date over 350 communities have partnered with Granicus on their STR compliance programs for everything from address and host identification to ordinance consulting and permitting tools. Interested in learning more about the STR market in your community and how Granicus can help? Visit granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information. Today I’m joined by Jenny Poon, founder and CEO of CO+HOOTS and Jaye O’Donnell, Assistant Economic Development Director for the City of Mesa, Arizona, Jenny and Jaye, welcome to Gov Love.

Jenny Poon  01:45

Thank you!

Jaye O’Donnell  01:45

Thank you for having us.

Lauren Palmer  01:48

Today. Yeah, we’re glad to have you. Today we will talk about the work that Jenny and Jaye are doing to support entrepreneurs and small businesses to access government and community support to achieve success. But first, we will get started with a lightning round. So our first question is, as a child, what did you want to be when you grow up? and Jaye, we will let you answer first.

Jaye O’Donnell  02:12

Oh I’m sorry. It just takes you back a little bit. Um, I wanted to be a jockey. I loved horses, and I loved to ride horses. And then about eighth grade, I was over five feet and towering over everybody else. And I knew that was never going to happen. So I I quickly switched my dream to then to be a bookstore owner, which that never happened either. But maybe someday.

Jenny Poon  02:44

I wanted to be an inventor. So I was that oddball kid that was rigging strings and wires everywhere and making pulley systems and I blame my I want to say it was my fifth grade teacher that assigned us the Rube Goldberg Rube Goldberg challenge. And from then on every little scrap of paper or weird mechanical item, I would collect and try to rig it to something to do something. So I wanted to be an inventor and I didn’t I didn’t really know what that meant. Just that I wanted to make things.

Lauren Palmer  03:19

I find that really impressive. Do you have any cool inventions that you came up with as a kid?

Jenny Poon  03:27

I rigged this, so I rigged the string to our door. I was obsessed with the clap on clap off thing, the lights and so i would I would rig, rig strings and doors to turn off my lights and I shared a room with my brother and my sister all the way through high school and we would always fight with each other on who is the last one into bed and who is responsible for turning off the lights and and closing the doors. So I did that, I always got stuck with that or I would make my little sister do it. But finally I just rigged the door so that I could pull it from next to my bed and then also rig the light switch at the same time. Now we have tools like Zapier for that and smart home lighting and things like that. So I’m, I’m it’s cool to see the world improve those simple things.

Lauren Palmer  04:17

Yeah. Okay. Very interesting. Well, Jenny, we’re gonna let you go first for the next question. What are you currently reading or listening to?

Jenny Poon  04:26

I love this one because I love hearing everybody else’s too. My favorite podcasts, I have two that I listen to a lot outside of Gov Love, is How I Built This, which is a store, podcast episodes about how businesses started from like the ugly, dirty hacked version to where how it’s come to be, and so there’s a lot of great stories about big companies and how they how they were built. And then the other one is Code Switch. And that’s a podcast about race identity from the perspective of journalists. So as a former journalist, I really, really love that. And I’m going to do one call out to a book that I really like. So I really like reading books around culture. And there’s this book called Behold the Dreamers. It’s about a Cameroonian man who immigrates to the US, and a story, the story about what it’s like being an immigrant in America, the challenges as an immigrant and the assumptions of their extended family back home. It just reminded me a lot of my family as refugees coming here, and how, while America is seen as this very powerful country, there’s a lot of disparities here, and how a lot of extended family from these developing countries think America is just this, this country where everybody is rich. And so it it, it gives us really interesting perspective. And I would say that if you have the ability to listen to it on audiobook, do it, he does these amazing voices. The author is also the reader of the book.

Lauren Palmer  06:06

Okay, well, you gave us several good leads, Jenny, what about you, Jaye?

Jaye O’Donnell  06:11

I feel completely unsophisticated at this point, hearing Jenny’s response. If I’m going to read, it’s rare that I pick something of high art or high quality. So I’m reading right now, crime fiction. I love Michael Connelly. And the book I’m currently reading is Fair Warning. I really, I don’t know, I just like to unplug when I’m reading. Although I have read a couple of books recently that I thought were fantastic. And one of them is Grit, by Angela Duckworth. And I think that has so much merit in terms of really proving that passion and practice can actually cement your trajectory to a completely new level. And I think it gives just all kinds of different people, but particularly those who you know, come from lower socio economic environments, an opportunity to sort of hope and dream and realize that you can actually push and work hard and still get to this higher level.

Jenny Poon  07:25

I love her TED Talk, too. If you haven’t seen her TED Talk, it’s really good.

Jaye O’Donnell  07:30

I will plug into that one.

Lauren Palmer  07:32

And Jaye, there is no shame in reading great fiction. I like to be decompress with my reading too. So appreciate that interest as well. So our final lightning round question. We are going to shift gears from reading and listening and to What are you watching? So I would love for each of you to share what is the worst movie you have ever seen? and Jaye we’ll let you go first. 

Jaye O’Donnell  07:57

Oh, thank you. I’m a Netflix binger, I must confess. And for some reason, about a month ago, I ran across a movie called The Runaways and I love Joan Jett. I grew up in that era. So I started watching it and I’ve never ever shut off a movie, or stopped watching a movie in the middle of it. And this one I did I actually, I actually stopped watching it with 14 minutes left, and I haven’t turned it back on to finish it. So that was not a good movie, in my opinion.

Lauren Palmer  08:30

Do you think it’s because you’re a big Joan Jett fan? And maybe it just didn’t live up to the true origin for you?

Jaye O’Donnell  08:38

Oh, no, because I’ve seen other other movies about artists that I like that were just much better acted. I just thought it was kind of fuzzy and just not not a lot of passion and heart into it. So it was too bad. I maybe I had high expectations that could have been it.

Lauren Palmer  08:59

Maybe it turns around in the last 14 minutes. You’ll never know. All right, Jenny, what about you?

Jenny Poon  09:14

This one was really tough. I, so I have very low standards for movies. I, my husband will laugh because he always teases me around what kind of movies I like and I like the Fast and the Furious franchise. So so I I couldn’t really think of one that I really, really hated. But I thought that Sharknado was kind of dumb. And you know, I was also thinking about I don’t know if you all have watched The Last Airbender cartoon series, they made a movie of that. I thought that was horrible. I think anything related to like, if it’s a book that turns into a movie and you’ve read the book, like the movie never lives up to it. And if it’s a cartoon movie that then gets recreated and never lived up to it. So any of like the the second generation of the Disney movies, right like the, the Mulan’s and the Aladdin’s, I can’t, I can’t seem to wrap my head around those ones because I always just compare it to the original. So yeah, I don’t have anything that’s horrible. I’ve watched everything. But nothing that I absolutely hate. Because as long as I’m not not thinking too hard about it, it’s entertainment and I can deal with it.

Lauren Palmer  10:27

Okay, good to know you are a forgiving movie critic. Okay, well, thank you for participating in our lightning round. I’m very eager now to get into the heart of our conversation on entrepreneurship and small businesses. But first, let’s learn a little bit more about both of our guests. We always like to start by just hearing about different career paths of our guests on the Gov Love podcasts. So, Jaye, we’re gonna start with you. Just tell us a little bit about your career and how you landed in the role that you’re in in Mesa.

Jaye O’Donnell  11:02

Sounds good. I’m going to go back just a little bit, because I’m not sure Jenny is even aware of this. But I, I grew up in the restaurant industry, working for my parents in a small town in Iowa. And my parents owned this restaurant. So at a very early age I, I had been helping my mom clean the restaurant and organize the menu items. And eventually, I started working in the kitchen of the restaurant. And then I you know, was promoted to waitressing and bartending. And I did that throughout my entire young adult life really helping to pay for college. And I, I was always trying to get my parents to think about how to get more business into the restaurant and marketing and menu design. So at a very young age, I was already thinking about marketing and strategy and branding. And so it was it was kind of interesting that I chose this this career path or kind of fell into it. But after college, I moved around a little bit, basically, to avoid getting a real job. I lived in London, and I worked in Harrods and made balloon animals. So that was an interesting career move. I think my parents were very concerned I was really going off the wrong path. But I actually came back and then I went to Mexico to study Spanish for a while. And then once I came back to the States, I wound up getting a job in Arizona with a magazine and it was a trade publication. But I was able to help sell advertising on that particular publication. And I loved it. I loved meeting the people I loved meeting the folks in the hospitality industry. And it really gave me a sense of direction on on kind of the possibilities that existed in the professional world. So I I fell in love with tourism and Media Relations and Marketing and eventually worked at the City of Glendale, I started their tourism program there, I went to the State Office of tourism and ran their marketing program. From there, I shifted over to the Arizona Department of Commerce, and ran their business attraction division, which included the film office, international trade investment and domestic business attraction. And then 11 years ago, the city of Mesa had a position available in their office of economic development. And it It seemed perfect for me. So I applied and wound up getting the job. And I’ve been here ever since and have, am now the Assistant Director of the Department and I’m getting to use a variety of skill sets. But I really enjoy now being in this entrepreneurship space and working with small businesses and companies like Jenny has in CO+HOOTS. It’s just such a really cool arena to be able to see so many businesses affected in a positive way, with partners from around the state really doing some significant work, so.

Lauren Palmer  14:30

We cannot wait to hear more about that. So, Jenny, what about you, tell us about your career path?

Jenny Poon  14:35

Yeah, Jaye, I did not know that you were also a restaurant child. That’s so cool. And also publishing. So I’m a I’m the daughter of immigrants. My parents came here as refugees from the Vietnam War in the early 70s. And I grew up also in a restaurant. My parents started a restaurant just before I was born. And I every day after school would come to this restaurant because there’ll be nobody to take care of us unless we were there at the restaurant. So like Jaye, spent a lot of time, you know, bussing tables and helping to answer phones and, and there was another layer of layer of complexity there in that my parents didn’t speak the language very well, obviously didn’t know how to navigate a lot of those systems. And that informs a lot of the work that I do now. But so that that was the very beginning of, of entrepreneurship for me. And I was always told never to become an entrepreneur, because for them, it was their last resort. So entrepreneurship at that time wasn’t this glorified thing that it is today, there was no, you know, there was Steve Jobs. But you know, they didn’t really understand what that was. And it wasn’t they didn’t understand entrepreneurship, as tech entrepreneurship. They understood it as, like the heavy work that they have to do every single day and not taking a break ever. And they didn’t want that for me. And so they told me that I needed to go get a college degree and get a regular job to be able to have that stability that they didn’t have. And so I did that I went to college, was the first person in my, first woman in my family to get a college degree. I became a journalist a few years after that, and worked for a few papers and then moved into infographics design, which is like the work that you do when journalists come back, and you analyze that data and you find ways to visualize it so that normal people can comprehend all of this data. So I worked in that space and and helping analyze and visualize and eventually moved into the design department doing a lot of art direction and creative direction. And like Jaye really loved learning about the small businesses. So I was the art director at the Arizona Republic for a publication called AZ magazine. It was like the lifestyle magazine, but there was a big business component to it. And so did a lot of interviews and direction around small businesses in the community. And that then led to in 2009, the Arizona Republic closed all of its publications. And so I lost my job then. And I didn’t really know what to do. But I decided to start a company against all the things I was told as a youth but I quickly realized that I didn’t have that stability, you know, when I was working for somebody else, I could have been let go at any time at any point. And I couldn’t see beyond the two weeks notice that they would have given me and so I started my own agency really focused on helping the community impact driven organizations communicate and brand and market themselves better. And, and where that led to building CO+HOOTS, a co-working space that we have is I was I was working at home much like almost everybody, probably today in the middle of the pandemic, we were all, I was working at home. And I was realizing that I was hitting this plateau, I wasn’t learning a lot, I was very used to learning from other people around me. And so I really needed to be around other people who were, were going through similar things, you know, navigating similar processes. And that led to just just starting a co-working space. And I went out and co-working wasn’t a thing at that time. So I found a I found a space and negotiated with his landlord, found some people who also were working on building their businesses and started as a shared space model. But really what I wanted was this ability to constantly learn and improve how I was doing business. And so we added in programming and so now CO+HOOTS is a co-working space, a purpose driven co-working space incubator and entrepreneur center in Phoenix. And we’ve led a lot of the path in building co-working in our community here and was recently ranked top four in the nation just because it’s it’s more than just physical space for us. It’s it’s bringing resources and connecting people to networks that often as underrepresented and underrepresented entrepreneurs and often under, under, I guess under utilized people. We we don’t have access to a lot of those resources that people come from generational wealth inherently have. And so trying to break down those barriers, barriers is a big piece of what we do with Cahoots, which has then led to the work that we now do with the City of Mesa and the platform that we launched through the pandemic to help cities do the same kind of work.

Lauren Palmer  19:33

So that’s great. Thank you for telling us a little bit more about CO+HOOTS. Jaye, could you tell us a little bit more about the community of Mesa?

Jaye O’Donnell  19:41

Sure. I’m going to start with the fun facts first. We are the home of the Chicago Cubs and Oakland A’s spring training facilities, which is actually starting on time this year. Miraculously, I think obviously the capacity will be very limited, but we’re looking forward to spring training. It is Mesa’s second Christmas, as we like to call it because our sales tax revenue really is impressive In December and March, the Boeing Apache helicopter is manufactured in Mesa. Boeing Companies has had a facility here for decades. And this is a surprising fact I think for most people, there are more than 300 days of sunshine a year in Mesa, and that’s more than San Diego or Miami Beach. We have a population of more than 518,000 people, are the 35th largest city in the United States and the second largest in the Phoenix Mesa metro area. So we are just east of Phoenix and we’re about 15 minutes away from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. We are, our city encompasses 138 square miles. So we’re huge geographically, and we’re inside a 21 city region that has a population of 4.9 million people currently projected to grow to 5.3 million by 2025. So very fast growing community. Mesa is a fairly young community with a median age of 36, and a median household income of 59,000. annually. The economic development priorities are really are what we consider our industries of opportunity in Mesa. And if you can remember HEATT, you can remember our targeted industries. We have healthcare, education, aerospace, which is also aviation and defense, tourism and technology. And just on a couple of days, I wanted to give a quick note in our health care segment, we really focus on medical device manufacturers and if you watch the Superbowl, you may have seen the commercial featuring Nick Jonas. Dexcom ran a commercial. They are manufacturing their continuous glucose monitoring devices here in Mesa. And they expanded from their San Diego shop to Mesa about four years ago and have continued to double production every year. In the aerospace and aviation sector, we have two airports, one is commercial and the other, Falcon Field Airport, is the third busiest general aviation airport in the country. So very strong aviation sector and supply chain. I think one of the things that Mesa does really well with is infrastructure, and then our talented workforce, both in terms of quantity and quality. I, you know, when I worked for the State Department of Commerce, we would entertain proposals from several different municipalities when we were competing on site selection projects, and Mesa did infrastructure so well, and they, the city was really good at partnering with companies to figure out solutions to what companies needed and to be able to get the company to market really quickly. So we like to tout the fact that government here in Mesa is really a partnership opportunity for companies looking to grow locally, as well as competing on the on the international stage as well.

Lauren Palmer  23:29

Okay, great. Well we want to hear more about the project that you’ve done with CO+HOOTS. So, Jaye, you released an RFP for assistance for the Mesa small business community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us more about the RFP and what type of assistance you were requesting?

Jaye O’Donnell  23:47

Sure. So just backing up a little bit when the pandemic first hit. The first thing we did was shift a number of our city employees who were working in our libraries, park, Parks and Rec department, arts and cultural department and put them on a call center, if you will. And we really kind of rallied our troops around doing a needs assessment assessment for the business community, as well as our residents. So we we went in and asked with phone calls, with surveys, 450 businesses, what they needed, because we knew that we wanted to use data to drive any decisions we were making, with how we were going to help the business community. So we had the bulk of the businesses tell us we need money. We need cash grants. We need help with PPE, with signage. We need help with customers and learning how to market in this new environment and we need to know How to get ,how to get reopened quickly. So our intent when we conceived this initial, we called it, Mesa Cares Small Business Reemergence Program was really to provide relief, but also to provide recovery assistance so that the businesses could not only reopen, but that they could come out of this and thrive in a in a more full and robust, robust manner. So we concepted kind of this triad where we had a grant program that was a reimbursement program for utilities, and, and rent. And then we also had the Technical Assistance Program, and a marketing program that would drive business into, into merchants and into stores. So that the technical assistance program we looked at as a way to not just help businesses kind of get through that gap, and get through this low period, but to retrain the businesses to be even better and more sustainable long term so that they could weather another downturn, they could weather another storm, and really function better in this new environment, whatever that was going to look like. We also knew that by surveying all these businesses, this problem was humongous. And the challenge was not going to be able to be solved with the city. And we wanted to engage our nonprofits, and our business partners, our service providers, because we knew that they were also suffering in ways. And so we wanted to really develop this, this idea or this, this program, that would be a win for the businesses, a win for the nonprofits and the service providers, and a win for the city. So that’s how we develop this request for proposals. And honestly, the scope of work was quite broad, and and not terribly constraining. It was, here’s our problem. Here’s what we’re thinking. We think we want to have webinars in these categories. We think we want to have some one on one consulting in those same categories. We think that there might be a demand for other services like websites and PPE and signage. Obviously, we’re in the, the, the time of pandemic, so your delivery service is going to have to be non traditional, please respond. And, and they responded, and we were very impressed with what what CO+HOOTS put together as well as the other nonprofits that we wound up working with.

Lauren Palmer  28:05

So yeah, I want to hear about that. So Jenny, you read this RFP with this kind of loosely constructed scope of work. What did you think when you read it? And how did you frame your response? 

Jenny Poon  28:17

Yeah, I, I was, I was super excited. It came across our desk. And I remember telling my team, this could be a game changer. We’ve always worked closely with cities and, and worked under CDBG type programs and economic development programs. And, you know, we’re a small organization, we have limited staff, and they’ve always, those kinds of programs have been always difficult to manage administration wise and being able to deliver the level of reporting that’s needed. And and how a city wants that reporting done is is challenging. So the example I can give is, in the city of Phoenix, we ran a program, a technical assistance program, and everything was required to be delivered on paper, hand signed by the participant, and bound, right. And so whenever we delivered, we would deliver it physically to the to the office, to the city hall, and drop it on somebody’s desk. And there’s this level of anxiety of like, is this actually going to get to who it’s supposed to get to? And then a year later, the paperwork would be lost, or there’d be questions on it. And all of these things that, I guess built, like added up to what we were seeing in this RFP, there wasn’t the requirement for that. And there was an open ended question of like, how would you do this? How would you do this better? And so I give huge props to Jaye and the team to being open to thinking about it. That also led to a lot of questions, right, I kept I kept calling Jaye being like, can we do this? And, and then being very open to pitching, right. And so those like when I read that I said, Okay, we’re not going to do The same way that it’s always been done because it’s not going to work, this is an opportunity to completely reinvent the system, and actually have a better impact. And so we responded with, well, let me backtrack, and 2019. Before the pandemic, at the end of 2019, we were working on building a platform for our own community, our co working community, our entrepreneur community, we were seeing that people were accessing our resources, or the people that could access our resources were the people that were close in proximity to our physical space. But that left out a lot of people who couldn’t take an hour out of their day to attend some of our events or our webinar, not webinars are in person events, right? webinars weren’t even a thing before the pandemic. And so we started to, to shift and at the end of 2019, to work on making our, our educational programming accessible via live stream. And so we bought this equipment and we were investing into a tool and a technology building this tool to, to be able to stream our, our live sessions so that anybody 30, an hour away, across the nation could actually attend and learn from these great experts that we were bringing in. And then we also have seen over time with what we’ve been doing with the Co-working community is that it’s really important for us to have connection between other entrepreneurs, the peer to peer piece of it was really, really important. And that was something that was called out in Jaye’s RFP was, how are you going to bring up peer to peer component to it. So I don’t know where that came from Jaye, or how you how you realized that that was important. But that we also realized that that was important. We were building a system to allow businesses to connect with each other, almost in like a LinkedIn Facebook type thing where people can, a support group, where people can post on what they’re struggling with. And that is like co-working in the digital world for us, right. So we were building that into it. And we were really building it for our own grassroots community. So when this RFP came in, and also a digital library, with the idea that, like, if you if you’re not dealing with this problem, right now, you’re not going to, it’s not going to be an important piece for you to attend for this for this live session. Right. So let’s put it in a library when it’s time for you to deal with staffing issues or, or understanding P&Ls. And those kinds of things, you can find it versus waiting for another one of those sessions to be run every six months to a year, you know, so a digital library was really important to us, too. And so we started putting all these pieces together at the end of 2019. And we’re working slowly on it because we’re also running an operating a physical space. And then the pandemic hit. And we we saw this this RFP from Jaye and said, You know, we’ve always wanted to help more people. And it’s not just more people, it’s our most underrepresented communities. And this has always been in alignment with cities. What if we partnered with the city? What if? What if we gave this tool to a city and it became something that was universal to all entrepreneurs across that city? And there weren’t these other barriers for it? And so we pitched this idea. Askd Jaye several times, like, Is this okay, like, this isn’t exactly what you’re asking for and let me explain it. I know, it’s hard to understand. And so we put this this pitch together. It’s not just Digital Library, it’s not just webinars, it’s not just one on one assistance, it’s data driven resources that we can track and better serve and essentially create better customer service to our entrepreneurs in our community consistently ongoing. So the key word there is resiliency, how do we how do we continue to help our entrepreneurs and, you know, traditionally, it’s Let’s run one program, that program gets run, you file the paperwork for it, it goes in a box somewhere in some storage area, and nobody ever looks at it again. But our hub system tracks all of that information. And every month, we can deliver data, we can see it in real time, they can jump on a platform or on our dashboard and see where businesses are at. And also see the impact. So that then led to better collaboration with partners too, because the data can be shared more publicly and universally. As we move forward with what we’re working on, we’re seeing you know, like chambers and other collectives, if we what everybody is looking for is how do we show the results and so if we can show the results and have it not just be Hey, this was like CO+HOOTS, CO+HOOTS touched them on this journey. And local first touch them on this one and the black chamber touched them on this one, and we all contributed to their success. That means all of us are the reason that you know, these jobs are created and that this business didn’t go under they actually thrived and and together then we we can share in that success. And that’s kind of where we’re going with it. And I guess that’s a long I get really excited about it. So I get long winded about it. But that’s that’s what how we saw it and imagine if it wasn’t just our community, imagine if it was an entire city that we could systemically shift. So that’s how we we saw this opportunity.

Lauren Palmer  35:16

Jaye, so Jenny has just described how they responded with a little alternative approach that was maybe broader than what you had initially envisioned in your RFP. How did you evaluate that in the selection process? 

Jaye O’Donnell  35:29

Well, that’s a great question. And I will tell you, first of all, we were thrilled at what CO+HOOTS had put together. And I remember holding up their proposal as an example, to a couple of other groups who were struggling just from a formatting perspective to say, can you organize it like this. So it’s very easy to understand and makes sense. I will tell you from the onset, we were very open and transparent with any potential vendors who were thinking about submitting. And what we had said was that we are expecting to award multiple contracts, because we know the volume will likely be high in terms of the number of businesses, and that the demand for services and the types of services will also be high. So we felt very strongly that we needed to communicate to all of the potential vendors who were thinking about submitting, that it was important that you know, you might, you might not be the only Chamber of Commerce offering website development services, there might be one or two other vendors that we contract with, because we need a Spanish speaking website development company through this other nonprofit. So I think that was really important that we did that, to sort of set the stage. And to help the vendors understand that, if they were going to be submitting, there would be strong communication flow, kind of back and forth. And we did hold vendor forums throughout the service contract, which was basically six months, and we wound up serving 250 businesses over the course of six months. And we delivered 3300 hours of one on one consulting time, we produced 70 webinars, as Jenny mentioned, they are now housed on the hub platform that CO+HOOTS has developed for us. And I think that the biggest thing that impressed us with the CO+HOOTS proposal was the data analytics piece. We we were struggling somewhat on our side initially about how are we going to track all of this? And how do we get everybody into the same space, we had our application process. But that was basically our database for kind of assigning and then monitoring what what our, what our clients were taking. But with the hub platform, it allowed us so much more functionality, to ask questions, take polls or surveys, find out the demographic data about these businesses, and then really be able to customize down the road, more services and programs to help them kind of at their at the appropriate time of need. So that was one of the things we were just so impressed with is the the data analytics that were available that they had baked into the system itself.

Lauren Palmer  38:56

Jenny, tell us more about that. What kinds of performance measures are you tracking to share with your partners? And do you have any interesting initial insights that you could share?

Jenny Poon  39:06

Yeah. So we, when we onboard all of the participants, entrepreneurs, they do like a demographic survey. And that’s positioned in the way of like, our future goal is to build this into like an AI machine learning chat bot type thing where, when they come on, if you’re struggling with this challenge, we’ll feed you up, here’s the webinar you should watch. And here’s the advisor you should talk to and here are your next steps. Right, so a personalized approach that often comes from having a case manager, right, an actual human being, being there to help them along. But in the future, when we look at economic development teams, that’s not the best use of their time. And so we’re looking at if we can better understand what the entrepreneur is struggling with there are ways for us to still serve them with very little effort. So tracking mechanism in the beginning is just like how do we help an entrepreneur? What are you actually struggling with? So we take in demographics information to understand some of like, does does our population of entrepreneur represent our community? If it doesn’t, right now, we better do some work around that, right? Like, we better be reaching out to the other community members. So it gives us information that we can then use to adjust our approach. And then once they’re on in the system, we have regular surveying and, and tracking, questionnaires that check, you know, did you lower expenses? Did you raise revenues? Did you create a job, whatever metrics we want to measure, we’ve, we’ve set a standard of those, those three, four metrics. And we track that over time. And so we were able to see over time, like in the very beginning of the program, as people were just getting adjusted, there was little growth in that area. As soon as the you know, small business grants came out, we saw, we saw that those were impactful because the survey came back and said that they were right. Like they said that they took advantage of that that helped them maintain jobs, right. And then as more technical assistance was rolled out, we were seeing better and higher success rates around, you know, staying in business, but also improving revenues. And then we also measure general sentiment, which is our our personal measurement wasn’t something that actually Mesa asked for, but it’s something that I think about all the time in entrepreneurship is like, how are you feeling today? Do you feel like you’re about to close? Or do you feel like this is the best day ever, right? And not just days, this month? Generally, how are you feeling? And this was important through the pandemic, because this shows us where we need to direct support. And so we we checked, we call it the general sentiment score, they rank themselves in a one to 10. It is self assessment. But that is tied to their actual account. So we can see people who rank themselves as a one or two, how can we, how can we better prioritize support there. And then we also track one other big piece that I threw in there was tracking that the trust relation between businesses and the city. Again, growing up in an immigrant family, there was this, there’s this huge mistrust with the government, local government, federal government, any level of government, there was this fear of like, they’re just here to shut us down. They’re here to create barriers. And like, as I’ve worked more and more with government, I also see the other side of it, have the true intentions of people like Jaye and people who are in economic development that really are trying to help small businesses. And and there’s just this, this disconnect, or this, this barrier, right, in terms of trust, and in how to get through to some businesses. And there’s also a huge opportunity there, there’s these great programs that exist in every city. Might not be technical assistance, it might be something else, but they exist, there’s resources there, it’s truly just getting it to the entrepreneur. And, and so I see this, like, both sides really trying hard to be successful. But there’s a miss in the middle. And and so one of the questions we asked in our surveying, regular surveying is, do you understand the resources that are available to you from the city? Yes or no? And do you feel comfortable asking the city for support? And you have to understand that the city staff people are on this platform, right? We had case managers we had, you know, people who can answer questions around permitting or anything that’s related to the city. And I think that builds that trust, right, like when you traditionally can only reach the city by phone call Monday through Thursday, 8am till 5pm. Like there’s very rare time that that that overlaps with a normal business owner. And so being available via chat created this, like trust and this relationship between a business owner and the city. I mean, I think it I think I just associated this big organization that feels like very heavy, heavily bureaucratic, something that is like faceless, to an actual face, right? Like you can actually see Kelly, who’s, who’s on the team, responding to things and posting things, right. Like, that’s a human being. And I think if you can get people to relate at that level, that trust starts to build. So we, we measure that in the beginning, most businesses came in at around like 50-60% trust level, towards the end of the program that was around 80-90%. They felt very comfortable talking to the city about what they needed, and felt very comfortable that things were going to be delivered. And so that’s, that’s another big piece of tracking and measuring. And then there’s open field response, right? So if, if, if you need something, go fill out, answer right, tell us exactly what you need. And we can do like a cloud map we can see what are the common things that people are asking for so then this next month, we saw patterns right? Like everybody wants PPP help. So let’s make sure we do a webinar on PPP. And let’s make sure that everybody is tagged on it so they can see it and that we send it directly to those business owners. Whenever there’s a new grant that applies to that business, let’s make sure that that’s sent out to those specific businesses that can qualify for that. So really targeted, personalized support can be done without, without a ton of legwork. Right, there’s a little bit of training upfront. But through systems and technology, we can actually create efficiencies and capacity at the city level for us to really focus on who needs the most help and, and move from there. So those are some of the metrics.

Lauren Palmer  45:47

Thanks for sharing that. You mentioned earlier, and I want to go back to it, just the work that you’ve done to make sure underrepresented entrepreneurs are served for the resources and services that you’re providing. Can you just talk more about how you’re approaching that? 

Jenny Poon  46:05

Yeah, this is a very important topic for me personally, seeing how my parents have struggled with this. And, and so and we’re constantly learning. So I’ll say that, you know, we don’t have it down perfectly. We do a lot. So we know that a lot of underrepresented entrepreneurs function very well, using their phone via SMS. And so we integrated a lot of SMS text messaging into the system. So whenever that they opt into it, but whenever a grant is, is added to the system, they get text message notification. In our on-boarding process, we have an automated on-boarding process, it goes through many channels, emails and things like that. But then it leads to SMS and then follow up with phone calls as well. I know that at the city level, too, they added in a bunch of there’s how many was there Jaye, like six or eight case managers.

Jaye O’Donnell  46:59

We had 12 at one time, and then it dropped down to 10. Yes,

Jenny Poon  47:03

and those case managers were responsible for actually calling business owners right and, and chasing them down. And I know it’s exhausting to think about that, like, who wants to be on the phone all the time, doing this kind of stuff. But we’ve done it on our end too. And the response is overwhelming. Like to get a call from the city is this organization that has always been like faceless, like I was saying, and I think that means a lot. And so we’ve integrated a lot of that just on our end, from the learnings with working with Mesa is now we have a chat support, we have live chat support, so businesses can come on and immediately talk with our team on what they could get help with. So again, it’s that immediate, immediacy, and then SMS, and we do a lot of partner work. This was also very clear with the partnerships that the city of Mesa brought in as part of this program, right, there was a black chamber that was involved, the Asian chamber, Hispanic Chamber, a lot of CDFIs that work with small businesses, those kinds of collaborations are key. And I think we’ve always stood in the position of like, we can’t solve everybody’s problem. But between the many different partners that we have alongside the city, we can really do a lot of great work. And so bringing in those partners that also have their own community, that that is in the underrepresented communities, right. Like our first focus is those those communities, we know, the data shows that they’re the hardest hit right now. So really, not just not just saying, Hey, we’re doing this, like looping them into being advocates for this, I think was huge. And then I think that taking the time to deeply understand the challenges, right, the nuances, the resources aren’t that different from underrepresented entrepreneurs, to your counter, but it’s the access to those resources that’s different, right? Like, I think all entrepreneurs need help with financial support. But some entrepreneurs can get through through the PPP loan application totally fine. And some have a mess of documents that that have not been organized for 40 years. I’m speaking personally because I looked at my dad’s documents. And that’s what I saw. How do you how do you go 40 years in business operating this way, because they’ve never had access to other people that can tell them how to do it more efficiently. And so being and knowing that, knowing that, that’s an inherent challenge, then comes with like, okay, they’re immigrants. So we need to also think about the language barrier. We also need to think about how like they, my parents don’t have a computer. They only work off of their iPad and the tools they use our Gmail and Facebook. So how are we going to reach them? Maybe we need to think about Facebook messaging, right. So it’s truly understanding that that character, that person, that The community that you’re serving, and I don’t think you can do that unless you’re truly tapped into to to that background as well as those partners that serve those communities.

Lauren Palmer  50:12

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Lauren Palmer  50

I’m really impressed at just the multiple layers of services that you’re providing. And so I want to go back to you, Jaye, you know, Mesa is a big city. And I think the traditional notion of economic development is cutting big deals with major employers that create hundreds of jobs. But you all have made a pretty significant investment in your small businesses. So how do you balance the services that you provide to small businesses with doing the big deals?

Jaye O’Donnell  51:40

That it is, it is hard to compete, sometimes with those, those big flashy deals that come to town. And, you know, those big announcements are super sexy, and oftentimes, really take the glory away from what’s happening with small businesses. And I think that, you know, the good news is the pandemic was a strong reminder to us that small businesses are the backbone of the local economy, the national economy. Small businesses employ a significant percentage of our residents. So even losing a small percentage of small businesses makes a very large economic impact to our communities. So we need to make sure we are serving them and trying to help them as best we can. One of our lines of service in the Office of Economic Development has has always included entrepreneurship and small business development. It’s kind of baked into our strategic plan and our program of work. In the in the recent past, we have created some additional products and services to better support entrepreneurs. We do have launch points, Mesa’s technology accelerator that’s been around for several years, we also offer services to the entrepreneurship community and small business community called Mesa Size Up, which is a market analysis tool that we provide free of charge to any business who wants to use it. We also have Site Search Mesa, which is an online site search tool, also free of charge. And then we have our Business Resource Guide. We have an a small business ombudsman in development services that helps walk businesses through the development services process, along with staff on our team. So those particular services have have been around for a while now. But I think what what has changed over this last year is really the emphasis on how we aid small businesses. And by small businesses, I do want to clarify because small businesses in in our world that we’ve been working with primarily means very small businesses like less than five employees, less than 10 employees. And so our our mission now moving forward into this next generation of small business assistance is really to help build the the business competency of those small businesses and help them increase their competitiveness and then promote resiliency so that they not just survive, but thrive in Mesa. and that in turn will create expansion opportunities, create additional job growth, create maybe additional businesses that spin out, create additional products and services. So it will be a win long term for the City of Mesa. And so I just I think it’s a positive change. And, and, and again, it’s it’s not that we’ve never done this before we’ve had these these services. But I think the whole feeling now has changed. And it’s, it’s almost this all hands in the middle, it’s game time, and we got to get after it. And it’s, it’s been so rewarding to lead this team, a gigantic team of department employees, from Information Technology, to library to Mesa Arts Center, to Parks and Rec and the city manager’s office, to help these small businesses and really try and not just save as many as possible, but to really get them to graduate, if you will, to the next level. And that’s the kind of energy that I think we’re taking to, you know, into 2021, and then into fiscal year 22, to make sure that we can continue the momentum that we’ve created with, with the initial Mesa CARES Act funding.

Lauren Palmer  56:20

Well, I really applaud the effort, you all are doing some impressive work, we are just about out of time. So as we wind down, I want to give each of you the opportunity to answer this question, what is the single best piece of advice that you would give to economic developers to best support underrepresented small businesses in their communities? Jaye, why don’t you go first? 

Jaye O’Donnell  56:45

Sure, I think the biggest thing is communication. And asking a lot of questions. We admitted very early on that we did not know everything there is to know about small businesses, particularly in those underrepresented communities. So we asked for partnerships with the Asian Chamber of Commerce with the East Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, with the Black Chamber of Commerce, we asked them for their help. And we learned a lot, we learned that the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce communicates with their members and their clients via text, they, they will also call them but they don’t email, they don’t use Facebook. And these are generalizations, obviously, but I was I was completely surprised. You know, we’re we’re doing all of these amazing posts on LinkedIn, and Twitter, and those audiences, those those populations we’re really trying to reach aren’t interested in those platforms at all. So just realize that we all have a lot to learn. And the best thing you can do is ask the questions ahead of time and, and prepare, as best as you can and be sincere. If you if you really want to help businesses, this should come easy to you. And if if the the desire isn’t really there, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Lauren Palmer  58:18

Jenny, what about you? 

Jenny Poon  58:19

Yeah, I would say that, that you’re going to need to approach this with patience. I think this is the same with anything that has to do with race right now. That there’s a lot of learning that needs to happen. And I think it’s really easy to go into this into the space of helping underrepresented communities as white savior, right, like, I know how to change and, and save everything from from disaster. But it really does take a change internally, in in your team and yourself and your organization, to to be a listener versus bringing all of your years of experience, because all of your years of experience, and helping these, helping communities in general have been built off of experience in helping traditionally white small businesses, right. And so you kind of need to throw that out the window, and, and start over and take the time to listen. And I think it can be frustrating because we operate differently. There’s also an inherent an inherent wall built there that needs to be taken down. There’s mistrust and so it’s going to be difficult to build that trust. But that’s a hard work that needs to be done right now. And you would and you should lean on partners, you should lean on people who are trusted in those communities and just listen. So that would be my my big piece of advice in economic development and in anything related to race and equity and inclusion right now.

Lauren Palmer  1:00:02

Okay, well, we appreciate your insights so much. As we wind down our closer question, Jenny, we’re gonna let you take this one. If you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode?

Jenny Poon  1:00:17

That’s a good one. I really want to say something like rowdy and I want to say like something from Rage Against the Machine. But I will, I’ll say I want I would put something like, from Sam Cooke a change, A Change is Gonna Come I really like that one. So I, I would keep it uplifting. But if I had two episodes to DJ, I would do one with Rage Against the Machine and rock out at the end of this. But then let’s, let’s do Sam Cooke for ours.

Lauren Palmer  1:00:44

Okay, those are very diverse ideas, and we’ll see what we can do with that. So this concludes our episode for the day. I want to thank so much our guest, Jenny Poon and Jaye O’Donnell  for coming on and visiting with me about small businesses and entrepreneurship. Gov Love is brought to you by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network, you can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter at @GovLovePodcast. Subscribe to Gov Love on your favorite podcast app. And if you are already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague about this podcast. help us spread the word that Gov Love is the go to place for local government stories. Thanks for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.


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