Jeff Bartos didn’t want to start a rescue fund for small businesses.
His real estate company, ESB Holdings, was recovering from a round of pandemic-induced layoffs through a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan on April 18 when he received a call from Pete Snyder.
Snyder, a childhood friend, had started the Virginia 30 Day Fund to help small businesses in his state and wanted Bartos to do the same in Pennsylvania.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Bartos recalled.
Snyder reminded him that he could use his business connections to help people in need.
“He knew me well and got right to my heart,” Bartos said.
Now, Bartos is a founding board member of Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, an organization whose project to provide $3,000 forgivable loans to small businesses impacted by the coronavirus economic shutdowns has attracted attention across the state, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to the Reading Eagle to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
After his initial discussion with Snyder, Bartos began assembling an advisory board. He reached out to Michael Knoll, a professor of tax law at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to assemble a team of approximately 30 volunteer J.D. and MBA candidates who would screen applications.
“They’ve built, without input from us, an entire front-end application review process,” Bartos said.
Two or more volunteers review each loan application before passing it on to the board.
“The volunteers from Penn are amazing. They’re really putting in a lot of effort, hours and hours a day, some of them while they’re studying for the bar, to be the initial funnel,” said Roger Braunfeld, founder of the law firm Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld and a board member of PA 30 Day Fund.
The board meets seven days a week to review applications. In addition to Bartos and Braunfeld, initial founding members include Cassandra Bailey, Maia Comeau, Thomas P. Nerney, Richard Phillips, Mustafa Rashed and Tony Payton Jr.
They have funded more than 250 small businesses since their first meeting on May 8.
The application process is designed to be simple and streamlined. To qualify for the loans, small businesses must be owned by a Pennsylvania resident, based and operated in Pennsylvania for at least one year and employ between three and 30 people.
Applications consist of a video addressing how funds will be used and how the business supports the community.
The board evaluates whether businesses have pivoted to adapt to the crisis. For example, a retail outlet might take business online rather than in-person.
“It’s blown my mind the way that these small businesses are finding ways to pivot and turn this negative thing into a positive,” Braunfeld said.
Bartos said the loans are forgiven as long as business owners keep in touch and let the organization know how they’re doing.
“If you’re in a position down the road where things are doing OK again and you’d like to pay it forward, consider sending it back so we can invest in another small business in the community,” he said.
After the lootings that occurred during protests in late May and early June, the fund decided to commit at least $100,000 to women and minority-owned businesses that were impacted.
Ira Lubert and Pam Estadt donated a $1 million matching grant.
“It’s overwhelming what Pam and Ira are doing. I’m still kind of in awe of watching this unfold,” Bartos said.
PA 30 Day Fund has also raised funds from individual donors in amounts ranging from $3 to $25,000.
The money has funded kosher businesses, including Shalom Pizzeria and Star of David Kosher Grill, as well as women and minority-owned businesses.
Ryan Haywood and his mother, Debbie, submitted an application video for their Germantown business, Wild Styles Barbershop. In the video, they rapped about the pandemic shutdown before discussing the serious business of how they would use the funds. They were approved.
“If granted the money, we’ll go ahead and use some of it to pay our employees who have been out of work and pay some of our bills here,” Ryan Haywood said.
Sherrie Walker, owner of the hair salon Sherri Latae’s Salon Couture in Overbrook Park, also applied for the loan.
“It’s trying times right now, especially for hair salons, because it’s a little harder for us. We work by commission, we work for the client and there’s not a lot we can do besides servicing clients,” she explained.
She said the application was easy.
“The process was great. I heard back maybe three days after I submitted it. I was really surprised because I knew there were going to be a lot of people applying for this,” she said.
Jeff Brown, president and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores and another founding board member, decided to get involved with the fund because he feared small businesses like Walker’s and Haywood’s wouldn’t be able to open up again after the coronavirus shutdown and looting.
He said many small businesses were prevented from getting funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program because owners didn’t have the resources to fill out an application.
“Larger programs applied for the Paycheck Protection Program from the government and got it, but for some reason a lot of minority-owned businesses got turned down,” he said.
Braunfeld and Bartos were both inspired to take action by the philanthropy of Mark Fishman, who funds Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Men’s Mission to Israel.
“Because of Mark’s generosity, I was able to go on that first Men’s Mission, which got me more involved in Jewish Federation,” Bartos said. “I’ve learned so much from Mark and his open heart.”
Braunfeld participated in the program in 2016 and went on to lead it in 2019.
“We all have our different ways, we all have our different political agendas, and [Fishman] just says, ‘Make it better.’ It’s such a simple statement, such a beautiful statement. He inspired me and he’s a great friend,” Braunfeld said.