CHICO — The likelihood of finding three women business counselors who have some connection to the Camp Fire can be appreciated in Chico.
Sophie Konuwa is the executive director of the Small Business Development Center at Butte College. Chelsea Irvine is with 3CORE, a private nonprofit dedicated to economic development in the north state. Eva Shepherd-Nicoll is a counselor with Chicostart and Growtech.
Nearly since day one Konuwa has been working to help businesses destroyed by the wildfire.
Irvine was the public information officer for the U.S. Small Business Administration and assigned to the Camp Fire recovery, arriving in Chico on Nov. 14. She also worked in Redding after the Carr Fire.
Shepherd-Nicoll had moved to Magalia two years ago from the Bay Area, and found herself made homeless by the wildfire.
Each has a different take on what businesses should do to be prepared for disaster, and what comes after.
For Eva Shepherd-Nicoll, her time at Chicostart before Nov. 8 was about helping entrepreneurs and start-ups figure out the next steps. After Nov. 8, it was the same thing, but for fire victims.
She found helping others helped lessen the pain of her own situation.
Located in a portion of the Chico Municipal Center on Main Street, Chicostart opened its doors to businesses needing a place to land. The program has a business incubator aspect, with office space, communication and internet capabilities. The space was reconfigured to accommodate dozens of businesses after the Camp Fire, as well as the business people, and even their dogs.
“In a sense, it was about normalcy. Someone commented it was nice to have a kitchen.” The space includes a small kitchen that can be used by incubator member businesses.
Some businesses are still using the office space, while others have been able to move on. She credits her fellow counselors Wendy Porter and Tim Sharkey for reassuring small businesses and helping them find the way.
Many of the business owners had nothing to start again.
ONE: “Make sure you have your business documents and important information in the cloud, backing up everything every 24 hours.”
Many of the business owners had nothing to start their rebuilding with, so having the basics is essential to overcoming disaster.
Shepherd-Nicoll also suggests having a physical copy of important paperwork, obviously not to be kept at the business. Use a safe deposit box or a storage unit to keep the documents. Make sure they are saved in a fire-proof box. While the documents may get charred, they will still be readable.
TWO: Get that business go-bag put together. Promoted for residents to have a go-bag, it’s a priceless tool for small business owners as well. It could include documents, phone numbers, addresses, contacts and suppliers and more.
ONE: “Make sure your financials are in order, and not just in order but preserved in a way that you can access them at any time.”
Konuwa said her office found there was immediate help through the U.S. Small Business Administration for businesses, but they had to have some kind of documentation proof. “To get access to loans, we need the financials to identify and assess the damage.”
Proof of what was before the disaster is the bottom line for assistance, she said.
While tax records can be pulled up from the federal government, if they are not accurate, the assistance from the federal or state government won’t be up to par.
TWO: Ask for help. Konuwa said in her 21 years counseling businesses, she’s found businesses have a reluctance to ask for help.
“Help is there, and there is nothing shameful about asking for help. It’s made to use.”
On the plus side, what Konuwa has found in the businesses that have come to her office is that they are able to regroup, even change.
“We can help them look at their businesses differently, see if the market has changed, and how their business needs to change.
The office can help a small business understand insurance, financing and other aspects of business both from one-to-one counseling and at workshops.
Chelsea Irvine was sent to Redding to help in the aftermath of the Carr Fire by the SBA. On Nov. 15, 2018, she arrived in Chico, assigned to the Camp Fire recovery. While small business assistance was part of her outlook, she also helped renters, homeowners and nonprofits with assistance programs. She worked at the Disaster Recovery Center in the former Sears building for months, and she spoke to various groups and regularly visited the burned area.
“I felt my job was there to understand what there was and to explain to people what could help them.”
Since May she has been with 3CORE, which has a role in small business loans and economic development.
ONE: On her list of “most needed” from what she saw was business interruption insurance.
“That’s my number one suggestion to businesses.”
What Irvine found through counseling was that it isn’t only the ones in the Camp Fire footprint that have been hurt. A supplier might have been impacted by the fire or a service provider, and that impacts the business.
TWO: Know what business resources are out there. Chico and Butte County abound in business resources, many of which are free. But if the businesses don’t know what’s out there, help is nil.
Among the resources Irvine mentions are the chambers, Small Business Development Center, 3CORE, Butte College, Chico State; SCORE and others.
“The more active and integrated with other business people and organizations, the easier it is to bounce back.”
Also in networking and talking, people share ideas and what works for them. They can cut through unnecessary processes and share shortcuts — and could work for others.
“I want people to talk more and reach out more. Create those networks and don’t think you’re alone.”