— by Jennifer Hawkins
Nearly two decades ago, I launched Hawkins International – it was only me, a part-time account executive, and a freelance writer, but it was a start. I didn’t realize at that time what being an entrepreneur and small business owner truly entailed. Today, I feel grateful to be amongst the raft of small business owners that, together, account for more than 99% of all business conducted in the US. Honestly, though, my membership in this “club” was the furthest thing from my mind back then.
Instead, I spent the early days of 2002 engrossed in working away with a few special international hotels and adventure tour operators to make their PR dreams come true by arranging press trips and media tours, throwing events and pitching stories all from my cramped — some would call “cozy” — office. Maybe I’d hire staff someday if things went well. Meantime, my focus was on getting my nimble company off the ground and making sure my clients were successful and happy. I had worked with Orient-Express Hotels in-house in their PR department before starting out on my own, so I had not only corporate work ethic training, but I also had had the privilege to work with incredible world-class hotels. I learned from some of the best hoteliers — it was a fortunate foundation.
Turns out, transitioning from corporate life to running a small business can also have its set of challenges. Being a skilled and connected PR pro didn’t necessarily mean I intuitively knew how to grow the business, hire staff, supply benefits, and excel operationally. I am a very curious person so I always seek out experts and ask a lot of questions, and I did tap into amazing advisors and experts to help grow and manage the businesses. But the fact remained, I was a woman who graduated from a UC school with a Social Ecology degree. Even though it might have prepared me with other people skills, that didn’t necessarily make me great at accounting.
But that is the story of a lot of small business owners – people who are good at what they do, are seekers and risk-takers but need to hone other operational skills. When I realized Hawkins International was more than just a good PR firm for hotels to hire but that we were operating a well-run profitable business, it changed the whole trajectory of our company. That opened us up to more opportunities immediately. Successful entrepreneurs, I have found, strive to always be better and build better.
Through my endless seeking and striving to learn more and challenge our own norms, I came across a unique opportunity allotted to small businesses who were not start-ups and not in distress — this educational program that is gratis to the just-right business owner. The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program is a highly interactive educational program sponsored by Goldman Sachs designed to elevate seasoned entrepreneurs to grow their revenue, create jobs and economic opportunity.
Rolled out in 2009, GS10KSB is geared toward entrepreneurs who are eyeing growth, and it isn’t suitable for startups or companies in distress. More than 9,700 small business owners across the US have graduated to date. Through practical business education, a network of support, and access to capital, graduates are shown methods and given opportunities to grow their revenues and create jobs at rates that outperform the broader economy.
The application process was rigorous, including in-person interviews and review of company financials and data. Enrollees are expected to attend all classes, which for those of us in New York City ran weekly over full days at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens, where Goldman Sachs has donated an entire floor. I was initially accepted for fall 2019. But when I couldn’t commit to all classes due to travel plans, I was deferred until the following spring. The timing turned out to be everything because mid-way through the program, COVID hit and hit the small businesses hard.
No Theory, Just Action
The beauty of GS10KSB is the opportunity it offers entrepreneurs to learn from other entrepreneurs as well as experts in various fields. The “teachers” are amazing experts in accounting, and marketing; management and human resources, legal and real estate. It was quite a treasure trove of practical experts who offered a tangible and tactical curriculum. The experts afforded us through the GS10KSB focused on action, not theory. Modules were offered on accounting, sales and marketing, bank funding, and more. A full audit of every company was included, as were tailored plans for growth. Overall, I found the programming very pragmatic, proceeding step-by-step through myriad details of building and funding expansion for the greater good of job creation and economic opportunity.
Like everyone, my focus was on growth, with plans to follow Hawkins International’s 2019 launch of Maverick Creative by expanding our digital and social media division to include a more robust owned and paid content option.
It was exciting to be given the resources to make this goal come alive and allot the time I needed to make it happen. I realized early on having my own company that I wasn’t afraid of change, but so long as there was a plan in place. I never wanted to make reckless decisions but always wanted to take calculated and educated risks. The Goldman Sachs teachers were there to help lead the way.
There was one hitch, however: the coronavirus. With the arrival of COVID-19 in March, New York became the epicenter of the global pandemic, and the city locked down to flatten the curve. Like every school and nearly every business, in-person classes were canceled and we switched to distance learning via Zoom for the final five weeks of the program.
Meanwhile, I was scrambling to shore up Hawkins International to ride out the downturn, including temporarily closing our headquarters, setting up our team to work from home offices across the country, and consulting to help clients preserve their businesses. Being in the travel industry during a global health pandemic is beyond challenging. No small irony: The module for the week classes were canceled was on talent recruitment when I had the heart-breaking task of laying off several of my long-standing and loyal team. It was a dark time.
With everyone pivoting, my classmates and I needed the GS10KSB teachers to pivot as well and help us weather the economy. We pushed for curriculum changes to focus on running a business in crisis. The program responded by guiding us through timely issues, not least securing funding from the Small Business Administration via the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) – both as time-consuming as they were complex. Luckily Hawkins International secured both to help us get through the difficult months that lay ahead.
The support of my fellow entrepreneurs proved invaluable in getting me personally and professionally through the early days of the pandemic, as we swapped strategies, shared stories, and boosted each other’s morale in real-time. Small business owners really are resilient and innovative – and generous. People were swapping strategies and banker information, contract advice, and marketing tactics. It made me proud to be part of such an interesting and resourceful, kind and savvy group.
The Future Looks Bright
The spring session of GS10KSB wrapped up in mid-June and then with a huge alumni collective, I participated in a “Virtual Hill Week” coordinated by Goldman Sachs to lobby congress about key issues affecting small businesses nationwide. More than 2,100 program graduates joined in over 400 virtual meetings with members of Congress and policymakers to discuss a range of timely issues.
Our GS10KSB alumni group in New York virtually lobbied Senator Kristen Gillibrand and senior aides of Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Carolyn Maloney for more clarity about the SBA programs, legislation on liability laws affecting small businesses during the pandemic, and other issues affecting small businesses. Hopefully next year, we will be in Washington DC in-person lobbying for yet more support and funds for small businesses.
I look back at my turn in GS10KSB as a privilege, as well as another step in the continued success of the small business I founded in 2002. It is also a gift that keeps on giving, as my cohorts and I remain close, share resources and strategies, and encourage each other to do better – indeed, do our best – to grow jobs and help aid the economy amid the unprecedented challenges of our time. Being an entrepreneur isn’t just about being good at one thing, I have learned, it is about resourcefulness, flexibility, and acceptance. And with a little help from my GS10SKB friends, I just might get through this year and be all the better for it. Having that path forward, as much as it might have veered, is all I need to make sure that we won’t just survive but thrive — and always remain curious.