By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
While Vicky Schiantarelli was going to college in the 1970s, she was the only Latina woman working construction sites in and around Seattle. Her grandmother, a serf from the border of Mongolia and Russia who had escaped Siberia in 1902, had taught her carpentry. And Schiantarelli, who was born in Peru, of mixed descent with an Italian surname, had no other way to pay her tuition.
Now secretary of the Washington state chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC), she wanted to make sure that other immigrant and minority construction workers could continue working during the pandemic.
So she teamed up with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to distribute masks, hand sanitizers, thermometers, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to them.
“There were sites opening back up, and without the PPE, they couldn’t go back to work,” she said.
Schiantarelli represented just one of dozens of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) organizations that worked with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to distribute PPE during the pandemic. The distribution was part of a pivot by the chamber to expand its support for small businesses while bolstering its services to minority-owned businesses.
Darlene Ung, owner of Phnom Penh Noodle House, told a local television station that the face masks had helped her save money while reopening.
During the pandemic, the chamber provided pro bono accounting services for businesses needing to tackle the complicated hurdles of obtaining federal aid through such programs as the payroll protection program (PPP). The free service is continuing and is open to BIPOC-owned businesses as well.
Other services, such as providing access to capital and loans, as well as technical support, will be “significantly” expanded in the near future with an emphasis on minority-owned businesses, said Rachel Smith, president and CEO of the chamber.
“During the pandemic, it was all hands on deck doing everything we could to help businesses stay afloat, so that everyone could come to work safely. For recovery, it is about focusing on BIPOC and minority-owned businesses,” she said in an interview.
The chamber will hire a new position to oversee expansion of its program that helps businesses stay in the area.
“We will be posting a job description and starting the hiring process very soon,” said Smith in a follow-up email. It will also continue to work with policy makers to create an environment in which business can thrive.
“The goal is to make sure there is a continuum of support for businesses so that they survive, recover, and thrive in King County, especially BIPOC-owned businesses that have historically been under-resourced and faced barriers due to racism,” Smith said. “This new direction and way of organizing to help business remain and expand will require more resources, so we are also talking to public, private, and philanthropic funders.”
Initially, the chamber helped businesses in King County through one-on-one consultation, providing information and serving as a “matchmaker” with other businesses that could potentially supply financial or other resources. During the pandemic, it has also served as a grant administrator for emergency grants from the Washington State Department of Commerce.
The chamber also recently endorsed an increase in sales tax in King County that will create $65 million in revenue to help people experiencing homelessness by converting emergency shelters into long-term affordable housing and funding community organizations.
Smith, who has extensive experience in government and the nonprofit sector, recently co-authored an op-ed in the Seattle Times calling for an expansion of public transportation reaching downtown, a safer environment for Black residents of the city, and more help for people experiencing homelessness.
“The prerequisite for reopening is a broader environment,” she said in the interview. “This includes fighting racism and gun violence, as well as providing public safety.”
Last year, the chamber partnered with King County to distribute 2.5 million mostly-cloth masks, along with hand sanitizer, gloves, thermometers, and other PPE.
Some of the organizations and businesses that obtained them included the African Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Minority Contractors, Washington Chapter, the Seattle Latino Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), and Tabor 100, according to the Seattle Chamber. Many of these organizations then redistributed them to their own members.
For instance, SEED said it distributed them to multiple minority-owned businesses.
In some cases, the PPE may have made the difference between a business staying open or not.
Schiantarelli, the secretary of the Washington chapter of the NAMC, also heads a consulting firm, Schiantarelli and Associates, that focuses on equity and inclusion for the corporate world and government, as well as small business development.
When a local hair salon was at risk of closing down, she helped the owner apply for PPE.
“She’s a single shingle like me, so the loss of income would have been devastating to her household,” said Schiantarelli. With Schiantarelli’s help, the hair stylist arranged for the PPE to be delivered to her front doorstep.
“It arrived the next day,” said Schiantarelli.
The PPE was crucial because it allowed her to remain in compliance with the state’s guidelines.
Another, much larger salon in the neighborhood that apparently did not take advantage of the same program, closed down during the time, said Schiantarelli.
The Seattle Chamber is sponsoring accounting services for small businesses in need of Paycheck Protection Program and/or Employee Retention Tax Credit assistance. These services are available to any business in the region with 100 employees or less that needs accounting assistance for either of those two programs. Interested businesses may email Leigh Jacobson at email@example.com.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.