Rebirth Community Corporation, city of Birmingham team up to boost small business owners’ mental health

Birmingham, Ala. — Erica Bryant has worked as a fashion artist all her adult life — sometimes as a hobby, sometimes a side hustle and sometimes a full-time vocation.

In 2018, she decided to stop dabbling with other jobs and go all in with Erica B Airbrush Designer, her Birmingham-based business known not just for creating classic beach-style tees but also unique wedding dresses, athletic shoes, and more.

Bolstered by word of mouth, social media and online sales, Bryant’s business was bustling when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, sending Bryant home from her studio, shutting down the classes she taught, then claiming the life of a cousin.

“I took it really hard,” she said. “People were still ordering, but I didn’t have the unction to create anything.”

As the pandemic played out, Bryant met her customers’ needs, but she continued to struggle with isolation, financial anxiety, and the logistical challenges of working from home.

When she heard about a new program this year that offers entrepreneurs business tips and mental health support, Bryant was quick to sign up. “I just felt like I need to be a part of this,” she said. “The mental health part was what really brought me into it.”

The Reboot course is being offered by Rebirth Community Corporation as part of a partnership with the city of Birmingham.

Over the past four years, the city has invested more than $3 million in BOLD — short for Building Opportunity for Lasting Development — to support small businesses and expand economic opportunity for city residents. The BOLD program works by partnering with existing community organizations that have a proven track record of success.

Rebirth Community Corporation has years of experience with helpful programs to promote employment, entrepreneurship, education, emotional wholeness and economic empowerment, said Pastor Doug Taylor, whose church, Rebirth Christian Fellowship, created the community organization.

But while Rebirth has offered programs to help people start or scale businesses, and it has offered mental health services, this is the first year it has paired the two to meet what Taylor sees as a searing need among entrepreneurs.

The pandemic created unprecedented pressures on many small businesses. Some experienced serious financial setbacks. Others were beset by worries about material shortages, supply chain disruptions, rising costs, or keeping their employees working and well. One COVID case at a small business, Taylor said, could mean sending an entire staff home to quarantine.

Sometimes, the biggest worries never materialized. Still, they fed anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that many business owners simply weren’t equipped to address.

“I’m talking to people every day who are not having financial issues, but emotional issues,” Taylor said. “They may actually have more money, but much less peace.”

Rebirth initially hoped its new program — which includes equal parts business advice and mental health services — would serve a total of 150 entrepreneurs this year. But the first cohort, which began in January, drew more than 50 small business owners. Since the program is virtual, the larger number could be accommodated.

The emotional support provided during group mental health sessions is having an impact.

“It helps to be in a community who can identify with what you’re going through,” Bryant said. “Sometimes the worst place you can be in is to feel like you’re by yourself. I’m glad that people can understand what I’m feeling. It’s tremendously helpful.”

The program has been equally valuable for entrepreneurs who are just starting out.

Marquetta and Jeremy Jones are just launching Endorsed by the Father, a Christian clothing business. They are moving ahead while holding down jobs and raising three children between the ages of 10 and 2.

Managing stress, she said, will be critical to their success.

“We believe that God placed it in us to start this business to inspire and encourage others through our apparel,” Mrs. Jones said. “But we understand that our mental health is important, and that we need to make sure we are not so stressed out that we are affecting other parts of our life. The Rebirth Community Corporation has definitely been a blessing. It’s a wealth of information about helping small businesses grow but also making sure you find that balance.”

The next cohort begins April 4. Applicants can register at www.rebirthcc.org/rbintake.

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