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The WIR’ED project, led by NEOSTEM, aims to strengthen local communities by enabling marketing and technology access to small business owners. Bringing together local businesses, high school students, and marketing professionals, WIR’ED’s pilot project focused on the Old Brooklyn neighborhood of Cleveland where many brick and mortar stores were strongly affected by COVID crisis. Student Mira Getrost describes her experience in the article below.

I have lived in Old Brooklyn for nearly a decade, and the hairdressers, grocers, and restaurants that line the streets are a familiar sight to me. I never thought twice about a lot of these places, driving past them and considering them part of the scenery. Now, however, with the new Coronavirus pandemic, I’ve noticed a lot of these businesses closing doors, shutting windows, and stopping allowing customers in. While obviously everyone is hard hit by the new economic reality, small businesses are often hit the hardest. That’s one of the reasons why I was excited to work with the WIR’ED project, so I could help a lot of these businesses transition into online space to help them get through the pandemic.

“[The goals of WIR’ED are for] students to have meaningful experiences and business owners to improve their online presence.” –Alyssa Briggs, Director of NeoSTEM

In March 2020 as most of the world shut down, the WIR’ED project was just getting started. With their in-person clientele severely dwindling, the only way local businesses would survive would be through adapting to online services, but many either did not have access or did not know how to adjust. The tech gap in businesses was not caused by COVID, however, the pandemic only made matters harder for business owners, many of whom did not know how or were unable to apply for resources and funds that could help them through this difficult time. 

One of the leads on the project that I talked to, Jayme Bauer of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation described it as “heartbreaking and frankly unjust,” to see many of these businesses struggle to get funding that they deserved due to technology gaps.

As a result of these issues and in a hope to both educate students and help business owners, the WIR’ED project sprung up. The project’s goals are simple but valuable: to help business owners while empowering and teaching students. 

Alyssa Briggs, director of the NeoSTEM Ecosystem, said the goals of the project are for “Students to have meaningful experiences and business owners to improve their online presence.”

In addition, the match between the students and business owners made sense. While many small businesses are run by owners who might not be familiar with new technology, working online and with social media is something many teenagers excel at. One of the easiest and simplest steps a business can take to increase profit and customers is to make sure it has a viable online presence, and that’s where students come in. 

Working with marketing professionals, supervisors, and business owners, students drafted and executed a plan to help small businesses, including increasing their online presence, selling ability, marketing, and social media. Some steps are as simple as creating a Facebook page, while others are much more involved and entail revamping an entire website. However, each business owner received a personal work plan tailored to them and a team willing to help every step of the way.

“Make[ing] sure that the participating students feel empowered, feel heard, taken care of, and feel that their participation made a difference for themselves and for the business owners.” — Jayme Lucas Bauer, Old Brooklyn CDC

I am not working with one specific business, instead, I am working between them to help with anything that the student assigned to the business needed or to aid with any overall project goals. While doing this, I got to sit in on many Zoom calls organizing the plan of action for these businesses. The steps taken and goals were similar: increase customers, help online sales, make sure people know they’re still open for business. The way in which this worked for each business, however, was vastly different.

I got to see Legoheadz, a barbershop deeply embedded in the Old Brooklyn community who wanted to expand their clientele, Something Fishy, an aquarium retailer interested in updating their website, and Grever Mower Marine Sales Service, a lawn mowing company looking to expand its online presence.  

WIR’ED Participating Businesses

Each of the businesses I saw had their own unique story, mission, and challenges that needed to be addressed, and each team working with them responded accordingly. Students drafted unique plans of action for each business and worked closely with the owners to form an individualized approach to how to help them through the pandemic. These individualized plans not only helped the businesses get the best help students could offer but allowed program participants to develop relationships with these businesses they might not otherwise have thought about.

Jayme said one of the most important things about the project was that it “helped OBCDC create deeper relationships with these businesses, that we hope will be long-lasting and productive,” allowing not only intrapersonal ties but greater community engagement and involvement. This engagement helped students to express businesses’ needs, as one of the best qualities many of these businesses have is one that is extremely hard to replicate: authenticity.

Small businesses have a way of creating a community around them and sharing their message that no chain could hope to imitate, and it’s this quality that students had to find a way to bring over into the digital space. By engaging and actually looking into their message students were able to bring many of these businesses into the digital space without losing the community feel they had.  

The people being helped weren’t just businesses, however. A second important aspect of the project was to help students develop skills they could use in the real world. Jayme described this goal as “Make[ing] sure that the participating students feel empowered, feel heard, taken care of, and feel that their participation made a difference for themselves and for the business owners,” which can be a tall ask but one more easily achieved through the hands-on learning that the program provides.

I can’t speak for anyone else on the project, but I know that it has challenged me and forced me to develop skills I would not have otherwise used. Sitting in on marketing meetings with everyone required me to keep track of the schedule and coordinate when I was free. To write this blog post I had to learn how to research this project and find out what its mission is. 

I worked online to figure out how to use WordPress and other online tools in order to help people with websites and other online material, and much more. All of these skills are ones I would not have developed through any other program, and ones that I’m sure will stick with me beyond the end of this one. I know other students had to develop leadership skills and organizational tactics to manage helping a business, getting on Zoom calls, and drafting plans. While businesses gained valuable help with online technology, students equally gained new knowledge in how to organize, lead, and what it actually takes for these owners to run a business. 

As a result of this project,  I’ve begun to look at some of the businesses I pass on the streets of Old Brooklyn a different way. I’ve come to appreciate the vibrant community we have supported by a wealth of different people. The familiar shops I’m used to passing on the street now serve not as a background but a colorful collage, and I’m reminded of the unique stories of a lot of the businesses I’ve helped work with on this project.

Author, Mira Getrost, is a high school junior attending Hawken Upper School.