Technology bridges equitable access in Va., by Shara Gibson

3/23/2023, 6 p.m.
Access to technology is a vital step in ensuring equitable opportunities for everyone, specifically when it comes to minority small …

Access to technology is a vital step in ensuring equitable oppor- tunities for everyone, specifically when it comes to minority small business owners. Our country relies on the entrepreneurial spirit that the “American Dream” has inspired in all of us, and access to technology is the backbone of creating successful and sustainable businesses.

To continue the upward trajectory in innovation, however, business owners and startup founders must be able to rely on the resources we have available without stopgaps placed by Congress. Stifling innovation slows economic growth and harms small businesses by depriving entrepreneurs’ access to vital revenue streams in this digital age. These laws under consideration by D.C. policy makers are masked to protect competition but would instead hurt our most vulnerable populations.

Tech innovation has been a bridge between business owners and their customers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without the ability to easily access resources such as online marketplaces and consumer bases, countless businesses would not be here today. Tech access is a driver of equity and minority business owners will be deeply affected if access to digital tools are taken away.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to over 500,000 small businesses. Unique in their mission, product, and goal, each innovator has their own story. However, the onset of COVID-19 seemed to leave every business owner in the same position—in a world where customers were shopping from their phones and marketplaces needed to shift online overnight. Most importantly, a deep sense of unknown for the future was felt across the world. During that time, access to technology is what kept us connected.

In 2021, Virginia lawmakers did the right thing by investing in our state’s broadband access. Sen. Mark Warner and Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the Commonwealth would receive $700 million to boost broadband access and close the digital divide for our most underserved communities.

This decision was partly based on the findings that in Virginia, Black and Latinx students are twice as likely to not have a computer in the home compared to their white counterparts. As many of us already know, lack of access to tech education does not happen in a vacuum.

As the program director of the Women’s Business Center of Richmond, I have seen first hand the vast effects the past few years have had on our local woman-owned businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs. With supply chain issues, inflation, and lasting effects from a global pandemic, these groups rely on major digital platforms to conduct business and uncover opportunities. A small businessowner can use major platforms such as Meta, Google, and Amazon (all targets of anti-innovation laws) to build a brand, maintain customers, and drive sales thanks to their many resources available at our fingertips.

In the two years since the start of the Women’s Business Center of Richmond, we have assisted over 700 clients and hosted more than 131 training workshops. Among many resources available, these individuals receive 1-on-1 business counseling, small business loan preparation, and access to an online learning lab, which includes marketing, accounting, finance, and leadership training all free of cost.

Most recently, the Women’s Business Center participated in a campaign to help underserved business owners survive the post-pandemic economy by providing access to digital resource tools and low-cost internet services. These services aimed to enable digital readiness and drive digital transformation through a customized curriculum that accounts for industry, size, and interests. Access to these online resources give small businesses the tools they need to thrive in today’s digital economy as more customers go online to make buying decisions.

With over one-third of American small businesses closing due to the pandemic, with a disproportionate impact on Black and Lantinx-owned small businesses, reliable internet access for entrepreneurs is important now more than ever.

Legislation that stifles tech growth ultimately hurt small business owners. Policy makers must use a critical eye at the unintended consequences that anti-innovation laws have on small, women and minority-owned businesses across the Commonwealth.

The writer is program director of The Women’s Business Center of Richmond where she leads strategic initiatives and manages key partnerships.