In the face of unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurs like Ivan Rogel of Waukegan demonstrated resilience and innovation by launching new ventures. Rogel, a seasoned fitness coach for a decade, faced a shift in circumstances during the pandemic and seized the opportunity to establish Energy Fire Fitness in 2020. Now, the state of Illinois is extending a helping hand to businesses born amidst the pandemic, offering grants through the Back to Business NewBiz grant program.
Navigating Challenges: The Birth of Energy Fire Fitness
For Rogel, the journey began with the stark reality of the pandemic posing challenges to his established career as a fitness coach. Faced with the need to adapt and continue earning a living, he founded Energy Fire Fitness, offering Zumba and CrossFit classes along with personalised coaching online. The business also utilised outdoor locations when conditions allowed.
“I needed to work. I had to keep going, and I started the business,” shared Rogel, encapsulating the spirit of countless entrepreneurs who forged ahead despite uncertainties.
Back to Business NewBiz Grant Program: A Lifeline for Pandemic-Born Ventures
Recognising the unique struggles of businesses that emerged in 2020 or 2021, Illinois initiated the Back to Business NewBiz grant program. This initiative aims to provide financial assistance to enterprises that were not operational before the pandemic and were ineligible for various federal or state relief programs. The program, funded with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars, allocates $25 million in grants ranging from $5,000 to $30,000.
Businesses, both home-based and brick-and-mortar, have the opportunity to apply for these grants until the deadline on Thursday. The eligibility criteria include having launched in 2020 or 2021 and still being operational.
Ivan Rogel’s Entrepreneurial Journey: A Testament to Tenacity
Rogel’s story exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit that perseveres in the face of adversity. Starting as an online business conducting Zumba and CrossFit sessions, Energy Fire Fitness evolved. Rogel engaged with clients in Waukegan parks, leveraging social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to expand his reach.
With the easing of pandemic restrictions in August 2021, Rogel seized the opportunity to establish a physical gym on Washington Street in Waukegan. The challenges were formidable, but Rogel’s strategic use of online platforms to attract clients showcases the agility and adaptability inherent in entrepreneurial ventures.
DCEO’s Efforts and Lendistry’s Role: Facilitating Financial Support
The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), spearheading the Back to Business NewBiz grant program, collaborated with Lendistry, a small business lending firm, to manage the program. Lendistry, having played a crucial role in distributing Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans during the pandemic, brings its expertise to assist with application reviews, technical support, and payment processing.
Everett Sands, CEO of Lendistry, emphasised the prolonged nature of the pandemic and the need to recognise businesses that could not benefit from earlier relief programs. The grant program serves as a crucial resource for businesses that closed temporarily and later reopened, facilitating a resurgence in various sectors.
DCEO-Certified Navigators: Guiding Entrepreneurs Through the Process*
Entrepreneurs like Rogel received support from DCEO-certified navigators, including Eddie Soto, a technical business adviser in Waukegan. Soto assisted numerous entrepreneurs in Lake County, helping them navigate the application process.
The response to the grant program was robust, with word-of-mouth spreading awareness among small business owners who had initiated ventures between January 2020 and December 31, 2021. The program’s design priorities inclusivity, ensuring that all eligible applicants meeting the requirements receive grants.
Supporting the Heart of the Economy
As businesses across Illinois continue their path to recovery, the Back to Business NewBiz grant program stands as a testament to the state’s commitment to supporting its entrepreneurs. Eliza Glezer, Deputy Assistant Director for Communications at DCEO, emphasised the program’s significance in aiding businesses that started after the pandemic’s onset, filling a crucial gap in relief efforts.
DCEO Director Kristin Richards expressed support for the courageous entrepreneurs who launched businesses amid the height of the pandemic. Small businesses, she noted, form the heart of the state’s economy, and providing them with the necessary support is pivotal for sustained economic recovery.
In the spirit of resilience and collaboration, Illinois showcases a model for empowering entrepreneurs, acknowledging their role as drivers of economic vitality. The Back to Business NewBiz grant program not only provides financial assistance but also symbolises a collective commitment to rebuilding and fortifying the entrepreneurial landscape in the post-pandemic era.