The Greenville News: “SC small businesses need a louder voice”

The following guest column by Laurens Group CEO & Founder Wesley Donehue appeared in the Sunday print issue of The Greenville News on February 21, 2021.

As a political consultant, I’ve written the line, ‘Small business is the backbone of our economy’ for countless organizations, candidates and officeholders.

What could be seen as a meaningless cliché by some is absolutely true.

As proof, prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Small Business Administration estimated that there were more than 431,000 small firms in South Carolina in early 2020, representing more than 99% of all businesses. At that time, more than 40% of our state’s workforce was employed by small businesses.

However, COVID-19 has been disastrous for small businesses, many of which were devastated in the early days of the pandemic. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences reported that 43% of small firms closed at least temporarily by late April 2020. A survey conducted by CBIZ last fall found that 37% of businesses with 20-49 employees noted a significant or severe impact on finances due to COVID-19.

A year into the pandemic, the fear hasn’t gone away, even with vaccines being distributed. According to the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index for January 2021, small business owners are increasingly worried. Owners who expect better business conditions over the next six months declined seven points to a net negative 23%, the lowest level since November 2013.

But during this time when so many small businesses need someone — anyone — to stand up for them, too many of the individuals and organizations like those I have worked for over the years have been silent.

One CEO, at least, has put his money where his mouth is. Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports, has now helped raise more than $33 million from more than 200,000 contributors for countless small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Portnoy began his mission to save these mom-and-pop shops, bars, and restaurants after the government made it clear it had no plans to step up.

This is the kind of initiative we need to see right here in South Carolina. While I applaud the great work the Barstool Fund has been able to do on behalf of small businesses, it is still disheartening to see these business owners forced to turn to such drastic measures as submitting long-shot proposals to a private entrepreneur for support, rather than being able to rely on the groups that should have had their backs.

Where have our state and local business groups been? Where are our political leaders? While the large economic engines of our state surely needed support during this time, why has supporting big business been the sole focus of many of our public officials and commerce groups?

Don’t get me wrong. We must support the Boeings, Michelins and Volvos of South Carolina. But why are we ignoring small business while watching too many of them shut their doors for good?

As an entrepreneur myself, I innately understand the stress and uncertainty that my fellow business owners are experiencing. Many of us have felt abandoned by the organizations that should have been looking out for us. Local small businesses need a louder voice in these organizations and at the South Carolina State House. We need to work together to make sure small businesses are as much a priority as large corporations when it comes to decision making.

In addition to lobbying for more financial aid and fewer regulations, I also urge all business owners to connect with their neighbors and fellow entrepreneurs. We need to work together to develop solutions for the common challenges we are all struggling to address. We need to start standing up for ourselves and raising our voices.

As small business owners and community leaders, we must continue to ask ourselves, what can we do today to make sure we’re all better off tomorrow instead of relying on business organizations that obviously don’t care about us? By banding together, I know we can ensure small businesses thrive and prosper across our state for decades to come.

Wesley Donehue is founder and CEO of Push Digital, a creative and advertising firm, and Laurens Group, a strategic communications firm, both based in Charleston.