When the coronavirus pandemic forced Lowcountry Local First to move its Community Business Academy course from weekly in-person sessions to a virtual format, instructor Raquel Padgett thought she was going to lose most of the class.
Knowing what the group of entrepreneurs was up against — operating or trying to launch a new business in the midst of perhaps the most difficult economic period small business owners have faced, all while many juggled full-time jobs, homeschooling kids and other stressors — finishing the demanding course seemed like a big ask.
But her prediction was wrong. Of the 22 people enrolled in the class, 19 of them completed it.
"Turning passion into profit can be a scary journey, but look how far you've come," Padgett told the graduates during a virtual graduation ceremony.
She described the grads as "unrelenting," saying that their ability to stick with the course through this time was a signal that they "have what it takes" to be successful business owners.
The group of 19 entrepreneurs are the second graduating class of the Good Enterprises program, an initiative the nonprofit Lowcountry Local First launched in the fall to provide accessible and equitable opportunities for local entrepreneurs to get training, access resources and connect with local mentors.
The program starts with the 12-week business course. Graduates of that program can then move into a phase of mentorship, networking and advanced seminars. The last phase helps them access financing.
All experience levels are welcome to apply, so some members come to the first day of class with a fully functioning business while others start with an idea. Of the spring session's 19 graduates, more than half of them are currently in business making sales. Most of the businesses coming out of the program will be minority-owned, woman-owned or both.
And, much like the very first class in the fall, the graduates represent a mix of life experiences. Their ages spanned from 27 to 67.
One of the graduates, Emma Cromedy, took the class while operating her catering business, Carolimas, and navigating how to pivot because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Being in the class did help with that strategy, she said. Taking deep dives into business planning allowed her to think creatively about what the business could do to adjust. Now, every Wednesday afternoon, they host a cooking demo on Instagram, which has attracted new followers and customers.
They're also taking online orders and shipping some of their goods, like Charleston Chewies and red velvet cheesecake brownies, worldwide.
The most interesting part of the course, Cromedy said, was when they had to evaluate their competition and pinpoint what makes them different.
"For us, we're local to this area and truly know Gullah cuisine," Cromedy said. "A lot of the recipes we have are family recipes."
Family connections were also key to another business concept in the class, Black Expressions, a tour company formed by the mother-daughter duo of Lisa and Laci Robinson. A lot of their ancestors are from Charleston, Lisa explained, and family was what prompted their recent move from West Palm Beach to the Lowcountry.
Their focus with Black Expressions will be telling the stories of the enslaved and their descendants in Charleston.
"Some tours now, you go downtown and maybe they talk about slavery," Lisa said. "Slavery will be our focus."
Lisa said they also want their tours to "embrace all of the descendants who are doing amazing things." They envision bringing tour groups to local Black-owned restaurants, stopping by a church for a worship service and facilitating conversations about race and social justice issues.
While the coronavirus has made it much more difficult for them to figure out how to launch the business, the current surge of Black Lives Matter protests and calls for racial equality have been an affirmation that people want to hear the stories they're trying to tell.
One of their classmates, Lydia Bracken, has also found that this point in time, while challenging, has made her more confident that her business concept fills a need.
Bracken, who is the mother of three young children, developed a concept she calls Five Minutes Peace, a place where mothers can come and pursue the interests they never have the time or the quiet to do at home.
Caring for restless kids during COVID-19 lockdown has "thrown into focus" the need for that kind of space, she said.
"It's made it even more vividly real why this should exist," Bracken said.
The business is still in its early stages, but Bracken said the class was that push she needed to start making moves with the idea, which she's had in her back pocket for years. Assignments had her calling places to estimate costs for renting space and planning the logistics of how to provide child care for mothers while they use the creative space.
Even though the course had to go virtual several weeks in, Bracken said there was still a rapport that came through over video chats. After the last class session, she said, they all stayed on for an extra 45 minutes just to talk. Classmates' comments at the end of the virtual graduation were all some variation of, "Let's stay in touch."
"Continue to hang in there," Padgett said in her closing comments to the graduates. "I know these are not easy times, but you guys already proved that you can to this."