Small business owners Jirzia Blackman and Kimblyn Gilyard faced dire times during the pandemic, being forced to close their doors not knowing when or if they’d be able to open them again.

At Rhapsody Counseling and Wellness Center in Live Oak, Blackman, a trained social worker, provides in-person treatment for anxiety, depression, anger and marriage counseling. Gilyard, a registered nurse and certified medical massage practitioner, owns Gilyard Medical and Oncology Massage in Castle Hills.

Jirzia Blackman

At the height of the pandemic, both Blackman and Gilyard were unable to provide their services since their clients followed governmental guidelines to avoid in-person contact with other people.

“We had to close the business,” Gilyard recalled. “When we finally came out of it, we realized that we needed some help.”

Luckily, they found it. Both women turned to a new funding opportunity created with small business owners like them in mind. 

They applied for and were approved for grants from LiftFund’s new Financial Equity Fund (FEF), a $1.75 million program launched in 2022 supporting Black-owned small businesses in Bexar County. Funding for the three-year program comes from Corporate Partners for Racial Equity (CPRE), a partnership created by local business leaders and managed by the San Antonio Area Foundation

“This is nothing short of a monumental win-win,” said Lisa Brunsvold, Vice President for Marketing and Development at the Area Foundation. “CPRE is providing an unprecedented investment in our community and its success is reflected in game-changing programs such as LiftFund’s FEF.”

Even as a new program just getting ready to launch its second round of grants, FEF has already had a palpable impact in the local African American community.

“Things were really tight financially during the pandemic,” Blackman noted. “[The FEF] helped me by giving me a cushion, so I could feel comfortable when payroll came around. The funds also gave me the ability to market the business more online.” 

Indeed, FEF offers much more than just a funding stream. The program also provides Black-owned businesses an opportunity to get training on a range of employer essentials, from taxes to purchasing health insurance for their employees. 

Gilyard said workshops and mentorship proved to be just as valuable as the funding.

“We had a business coach and one-on-one sessions,” Gilyard explained. “The workshops helped me rethink my business and analyze it deeper. It helped us see our business from a different point of view. I got a lot of tips on how to protect my business. The education and information I received gave me a lot of peace of mind.”

That goes a long way in the community, which isn’t proportionally reflected in terms of business ownership demographics. According to a recent report commissioned by the Area Foundation’s San Antonio Area African American Community Fund, there are an estimated 485 Black-owned businesses in the San Antonio metro area – comprising just 1.4 percent of total businesses. In comparison, 61 percent are white-owned.

It‘s a stark reminder that much work remains to be done in terms of uplifting San Antonio’s Black community, in particular in supporting entrepreneurship and business ownership.

Margaret Wilson-Anaglia, Director of LiftFund Women’s Business Center, has seen first-hand how FEF benefited the first round of 18 grantees last year. As a Black small business owner herself, she’s overjoyed to see that racial equity is being addressed in such an impactful way.

“Last year, we clearly saw the return on the investment from the clients that we had,” Wilson-Anaglia said. “It’s great to see more African Americans engaged in entrepreneurship throughout San Antonio.”

LiftFund is still taking applications for the FEF 2023 program – the deadline is Feb. 22.

Francisco “Kiko” Martinez is a member of the San Antonio Area Foundation’s Marketing & Communications Storytelling Ambassador Contributor network.