According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, between February and April 2020, the number of active Black-owned businesses declined by 41%, Latinx-owned businesses declined by 32%, and Asian-owned businesses dropped by 25%, versus just 21% for the general population. To help combat this trend, Comcast announced the creation of the Comcast RISE program, which provides marketing support, technology services or grant funding to eligible small businesses owned by People of Color. On May 20, Mary Huss, publisher of the San Francisco Business Times, sat down with a group of entrepreneurs to discuss how Comcast RISE – which stands for Representation, Investment, Strength, and Empowerment – is making a difference.
Mary was joined by Judi Townsend, founder of Mannequin Madness, one of the leading mannequin vendors in the country; Dominic Valdez, founder of Fresno-based Valley Workforce Compliance & Training (VWC&T), which offers occupational compliance services for Central Valley businesses; and Monisha Edwards, a brand strategist and marketer from Fresno who launched candle company Scent & Fire in 2019. Regan Yeldell, the Executive Director of Program Management for Comcast RISE, helped guide the discussion.
Mary Huss: Comcast RISE was created to invest in the success of small businesses owned by People of Color by providing valuable and practical support. Recipients receive benefits including marketing consulting services, media, creative production, technology makeover, or a monetary grant. This discussion highlights some of the amazing Comcast RISE recipients, and showcases how they are faring given the current challenges, some of the experiences they have had, and how they’re bouncing back – and how Comcast RISE grants have contributed to their rebounds.
Monisha Edwards: Over the past 13 months, it’s been an incredible ride. I started out in 2019 doing all pop-ups. I did have a website, but 95% of my sales came from in-person events. When COVID hit, for the first three months I literally had no income with my candle company, but I decided to redesign my website. We created a quarantine line of candles which ended up going viral, and it landed me on Fox and the Today Show; I was even mentioned by Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities, from which our sales skyrocketed. Sales are steadily coming in, but it’s been a rough ride because we suffered a lot of delays from our vendors thanks to the pandemic. We couldn’t get a lot of supplies and materials, so we had to scramble to meet customers’ demands, and shipping is still an issue even today. But so far, we’ve been doing pretty well.
Dominic Valdez: After working around the world, I came home to Fresno to be part of our community again and to be near my family. I decided to open up a business about three years ago called Valley Workforce Compliance and Training. Being such a new company right around the time that the pandemic hit, the first three or four months it was disastrous because I rely on other businesses. I needed to evolve and look into a different service to keep my business afloat. That was COVID testing. We tested more than 3,000 community members, and after the fires hit in the Sierra Nevadas we tested over 8,000 first responders, fire crews, and tree crews. So my business evolved when the pandemic hit. I saw this program and I happened to be chosen and it was perfect timing. It’s actually pushing me to go into the avenue of social media. I’m an old dinosaur when it comes to that stuff. I don’t know it. I don’t touch it. Never had a Facebook account, Instagram, none of that. Now I’m learning and I see the value of it when it comes to business. I know how social media can support my business. That’s the direction I’m going with all the new technology that Comcast is providing us with.
Mary Huss: That’s great. We’re going to get a little bit more into exactly what being a RISE recipient means to you. Now we will meet somebody who I’ve known for a long time. I remember when you started your business, Judi Townsend. I thought, Mannequin Madness…what is that? You showed me, and you’ve done so well with it.
Judi Townsend: Thank you. What started as a side hustle out of my backyard 20 years ago has grown into a national business. We are a mannequin vendor located in Oakland. I have a 3,200 square foot warehouse but most of my business is online. We sell used mannequins that we recycle from department stores when they close or remodel. We also have new mannequins that we sell from various mannequin distributors across the country. A lot of people like using mannequins as a canvas for art projects. We have all these mannequin heads here, and we thought, why not have classes where women can come in and make a floral crown headdress to go to Coachella, to go to Burning Man, all these kinds of activities, which of course disappeared in 2020. But early in the year it seemed great. Walmart had even hired us. The Black Joy Parade was in February 2020, and they hired us to do a booth where people could make headdresses there. They were interested in bringing us in to do corporate team building training with the headdresses. It was blue sky in February, but come March, everything changed. We had to close for a month. The retail industry then just imploded. Certainly, there were no in-person events, even once we were able to reopen. We had to really dig deep to do some reinvention.
Because we have this warehouse, we asked ourselves, “How can we better monetize our space here?” We have a photo studio where we take pictures of our products, and we realized a lot of people are now having to go online for the first time, because they were only selling in a retail store, they need a place to photograph their goods. We have plenty of mannequins for them to use free of charge. So we started really pumping our photo studio as a place people could rent. Secondly, the other thing people started doing, they were adopting dogs last year. So we thought, why not have a FURtography studio where several times a month, people could come in and take pictures with their fur baby? We have all these great props that we’ve recycled from stores, as well as some that we made on our own. That was something that I never saw coming, but it really was a way to take advantage of what’s happening right now.
Mary Huss: That was a great way of adapting. So before we get into talking about what the RISE Award has meant to you, I’m going to ask Regan Yeldell, who is executive director of program management at Comcast, to really describe the RISE program, what it means, how it works, and why it started in the first place.
Regan Yeldell: RISE is Comcast’s multi-year commitment to support small businesses owned by people of color. It actually stands for representation, investment, strength, and empowerment, because those are what we want to help these businesses achieve. RISE was born out of the circumstances that we found ourselves in about a year ago with the pandemic, with the social unrest, with all of the economic and technological disparities that we see in communities of color; both individually and from a business perspective. Comcast realizes that as goes the health of small businesses, so too goes the health of our nation. So we wanted to look within and see what resources and assets we could leverage across the Comcast family of companies, to not only help these small businesses rebuild, but to prosper and foster long-term sustainable wealth.
Comcast Business’ expertise is business technology for businesses of all sizes, but we lean heavily into the small business space. On the EffecTV side, which is our ad sales division, the expertise is in marketing and creative. Then you wrap around that the financial resources of Comcast corporate, and this is the program that was designed. We actually pressure tested this and spoke to many of the local small business chambers of commerce and asked them, “Tell us what you’re hearing from your constituents?” We heard that many small businesses want help with marketing and technology— even more so in the age of COVID.
We talk about the digital divide from an individual perspective, or from a student’s perspective. But let’s be clear: there is a digital divide when it comes to small businesses, and particularly small businesses of color. We heard that loud and clear from many different chambers of commerce. So the program was put together very deliberately, saying, “How can we help small businesses with the foundation to be successful, even when they come out of the pandemic?” That’s how the program was born. As far as what types of businesses are eligible, we encourage all small businesses owned by people of color to apply. There are a few eligibility requirements; for example, you have to be in business for at least one year, you have to be at least a 51% owner of said business. But for the most part, it’s pretty widespread. We did not want this to be like applying for a PPP loan, and having to navigate so many hurdles: grant writing, justifications, etc. We deliberately wanted it to be “easy” to apply because small businesses are already going through enough. The application was built more around “Tell us about your business and tell us your story.” We’ve had phenomenal success with it, and it really is Comcast’s honor to support these businesses. Because again, a lot of these businesses are in the communities that we, Comcast, operate in. So we see it as a duty to give back to the very communities in which we serve and who serve our customers.
Judi Townsend: I just want to just cosign on that, Regan. You guys really made it easy for small businesses to apply. I just can’t emphasize that enough, that someone who has applied for a lot of grants during this period, yours was one of the best in terms of access. Thank you so much for making that possible.
Regan Yeldell: The RISE program operates quarterly, so that we can award winners in phases. But to be clear, it is open 24/7, meaning that the RISE program will be here through 2022.
Mary Huss: I really want to hear the stories of how you’ve used it, the different types of RISE awards. What did you apply for and how did you use it? Monisha, what was your award and tell us how you used it?
Monisha Edwards: I won a technology makeover. Our new warehouse has two really huge office spaces, and we’re going to use one of them as a room where we create a variety of digital content for our marketing. I needed a new computer to replace an old MacBook I’ve been using for about five years. Because I do all of the graphics for the brand, this outdated computer has required me to erase a lot of content and upload it to the cloud, so that I can free up space. But now that I’m getting a new computer and Internet services, I’ll be set to do all of my graphics. We’re also diving into a lot more video content creation where the new computers, technology, and fast internet will enable us to upload and stream our videos effectively. I’m really excited about having iPads, so my team can get to work easily versus having to use their own cell phones to create content. Then when we do pop-ups in California and in Dallas, we can take the iPads out and get content while we’re there. We can get customer reviews right on the spot. We’ll be able to record footage and collect data. We like to have surveys and customer feedback when we’re at pop-ups, and those iPads will help us out tremendously.
Mary Huss: Judi, tell us more about the type of award you applied for and some tips. Let’s hear what you’ve done with your award.
Judi Townsend: I received the media award because I had advertised with Comcast a few years ago and I knew this had the best value for our needs. I didn’t have the time to create a new media piece, so I’m so happy that all I needed to do was send over some images to Comcast. They put together a video and did the voiceover. I chose media because we needed to let people here know that we have new services. No one knew us as Mannequin Madness also dog photographer, or Mannequin Madness where you could come in and do a photoshoot.
Mary Huss: So you have the actual ad itself and you have some placements, right?
Judi Townsend: Yes, they run the ad for three months.
Mary Huss: That’s fabulous. Give us a few tips about what you think sets apart somebody that might be selected, something that maybe you learned in that process about applying.
Judi Townsend: This may seem obvious, but read all of the instructions upfront. I had a friend who applied for it and she didn’t have an Instagram account. One of the questions that Comcast had was to list your Instagram account, if you have one. So, it encouraged her to start doing Instagram so she’d have something to include. I’d say to read over things up front so you’re clear on what the requirements are, what the deadlines are. And then tell a story about how you’re unique, and what’s the value you’re going to be bringing when you receive these awards.
Regan Yeldell: Judi, I just want to jump in and agree with what you just said about making sure you provide all the information. It’s disheartening how a lot of businesses actually disqualified themselves because they didn’t complete the application. I want to underscore that we actually look: did you complete the full application before hitting submit?
Mary Huss: Dominic, I’d love to hear more about the “tech makeover” you received and how it’s helped you.
Dominic Valdez: Well, to begin with, I’m able to Zoom with you right now with the technology grant on the laptop. I can now hold my meetings live with you via the internet with my own equipment, so thank you for that. The other thing is that I have about three or four contractors that come with me onsite when I have a big testing event. Now I have iPads where we can connect directly to the virtual portal where my clients, the owners of the businesses, can actually see who is being tested at what time. They get real-time results, to see who didn’t show up or who did. When the results come back, it’s real-time directly to their inbox because we moved away from paper-based — chains of custody is what we call them. Now it’s mostly electronic, and with these pieces of equipment and internet service, I’m able to do that onsite.
Mary Huss: So I’m curious if, for each of you, you’ve adapted and added new elements to your businesses out of response to the pandemic plus getting access to these great RISE resources. I’m curious what you think will change going forward for your business as a result.
Monisha Edwards: We just started doing pop-ups again because outside is starting to open back up. I had always wanted my team to be able to leave the booth and go talk to people like, “Hey, can I create a scent profile for you?” And that’s collecting data where I didn’t really want them to have to do all of that on their phones. Additional iPads have actually allowed me to create a strategy for collecting data, not only at work at the warehouse, but outside when we are facing our customers.
Mary Huss: I’m going to ask you another question. How did you first hear about the Comcast RISE program?
Monisha Edwards: I’m a part of the New Voices family. I had been in the 1863 Ventures accelerator, which is a prestigious venture capital accelerator to help small businesses scale. They are a part of the New Voices family owned by Richelieu Dennis, the owner of Essence, as well as the New Voices Foundation. They send out a lot of opportunities for grants, programs, accelerators, cohorts, and more. The Comcast RISE program was actually introduced to me last year.
Mary Huss: Dominic, how did you hear about it?
Dominic Valdez: Similar to Monisha. I’m on a couple of newsletters here in Fresno such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation. And then I have Comcast myself and I’m a member of the Small Business Alliance, so I get bombarded by a lot of information. Then, all of a sudden, I just put two and two together while I was watching the San Francisco Giants and flipping through the stations. I see Comcast RISE there and I’m like, “Wait, wait. Someone’s sending me some information about Comcast RISE through the internet, as well. What is this program?”
Mary Huss: That was a great answer. Judi, I don’t know how you came across the RISE opportunity.
Judi Townsend: As I mentioned, I’d already advertised on Comcast a few years ago so they were always on my radar. But I heard about this particular program through the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce. And when I saw Comcast, I immediately zeroed in: “Oh, what is Comcast doing?” So I probably paid more attention because I already had a prior history and good experience with them. Fortunately I already had a background in technology, and living right here in Oakland close to technology centers, we’ve always incorporated a lot of technology with our business.
Mary Huss: Regan, you must get so much joy out of being able to bestow this and I’m hearing all the great stories. Why do you think programs like Comcast RISE are so important and especially now?
Regan Yeldell: I think because it helps to fill a critical need, especially hearing all of these great stories from businesses that we are honored to support. A lot of businesses were looking for assistance: “I’m applying for a PPP loan, I’m applying for a grant, I’m applying for this.” This is just one more avenue of support that I would hope is an easier hurdle. And with the times we are in now, businesses need simplicity, they need support, and we feel that we can provide that through the Comcast RISE program.
Mary Huss: What are other ways you’re getting the word out and where does somebody come for this information?
Regan Yeldell: So we’re doing all we can to pound the pavement. We have advertising in key markets. I think what Dominic was saying about if you’re a Comcast customer, if you’re in your Xfinity guide, you can actually see a little clickable banner that says Comcast RISE right in the TV guide screen. So we’re promoting it to our existing customers. The same types of channels that Judi mentioned – there’s social media, newsletters, all of those things. We are working with the local Asian-American, Hispanic, and Black Chambers of Commerce, plus partnering with a lot of small business organizations on the ground. They have been instrumental in helping us get the word out because there’s only so much we can do at corporate. From where I sit we have the TV spots, we have the national social media, we have the radio spots, we have the print ads, but we really lean on our local Comcast regions to partner with the communities to get the word out. And I will say, the largest amplification tactic is actually word of mouth. And I know this because we have on the application, “How did you hear about Comcast RISE?” Word of mouth from a colleague or friend is the second most popular response in how people are hearing about it. Winners themselves and even people who hear about it, they are our biggest ambassadors. So when I speak about the Comcast RISE program, I’m always very thankful and appreciative, because again, it is through a lot of word of mouth that the program is being amplified. Every single one of us can be an ambassador of the program and we’re very thankful for that.
Mary Huss: Getting back to when I was opening and the thing that I think is at the heart of this program is equity and giving support to the communities that were hit the hardest. We’re certainly seeing the kind of impact an investment like this can have on a small business. So I’m going to ask our whole panel to speak to that equity conversation and why it’s important, how programs like this really, really contribute to helping make a more level playing field and more opportunity.
Judi Townsend: Well, I’ll be happy to speak to that. Once again, being closer here to Silicon Valley, sometimes it’s so disheartening when you see the venture capital money that gets distributed to companies, and we know there are very few women and even fewer people of color who get any of that money. And if you look at the small amount of resources that we got from Comcast, what these three businesses here have been able to do, just imagine what we could do if we were actually given greater access to resources. I think this was such a great example, and I hope there’s some way the San Francisco Business Times can profile these kinds of stories. I really think that smaller businesses who aren’t in the tech field get overlooked in the Bay Area, both in terms of publicity and their impact. But also, when you see the level of resourcefulness that it takes for us to succeed, it’s a much better return on the investment because we’re closer to our customers. We’re closer to the products. Sometimes when you’re talking about a company that’s trying to scale to reach thousands or millions of people, they lose touch with things. I really feel like we’re having such a big impact in our direct community. We know that small businesses employ more people locally, and the money tends to stay in our community longer. I think that more companies stepped up to the plate to offer assistance; we’re not talking about a handout. We’re talking about giving us a hand, that whole idea of teaching someone to fish.
Mary Huss: I have to tell you, the three of you showing the levels of creativity and risk-taking and inventiveness, and just pour a little fuel on that fire with some added resources that help you rise up. So it’s very heartening to hear these stories from all of you.
Regan Yeldell: This is going to sound rehearsed, but it’s the truth: I wake up every day in gratitude that this is my job, that I get paid to be an ambassador of such a program like this, that I can hear these stories. I take that personally and it warms my soul. Now to be clear, there’s a lot of credit due to the people on my team and all the Comcast regions and all the operational pieces of it. But think about the magnitude of what we’re doing. We’re awarding thousands of businesses across the company with multiple services, whether they’re technology, marketing, or other services that will help them. We’ve had to build all of this from scratch in a short amount of time. And all of the processes have to work, because we want the customer experience to be flawless. I tell my team all the time, with everything we do, this is our why. You, Monisha, you, Judi, you, Dominic. You are our why. I can’t say it any other way.
To learn more about Comcast RISE, or to apply for services, please visit comcastrise.com.