Home Business Virtual business expo offers opportunity to network remotely – News-Press

Virtual business expo offers opportunity to network remotely – News-Press

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Laura Layden
Fort Myers News-Press

Published 7:00 AM EDT Jun 26, 2020

Networking isn’t easy these days amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

But it’s not impossible.

Case in point: The Emerge SWFL Virtual Expo offered a new kind of networking opportunity in the region on Thursday through the online platform Remo. 

Besides making new business contacts at virtual tables in three virtual rooms, participants got a chance to learn about some of the ways they can get — or provide — a helping hand in this time of great financial disruption.

More: Southwest Florida Black business owners see outpouring of support after George Floyd protests

Between networking sessions the event included 10-minute fact-filled, fast-paced presentations by representatives with the Lee County Economic Development Office, Lee Health, Florida Gulf Coast University, the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Counties, the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce and Florida Southwestern State University.

Speakers covered a variety of topics focused on Southwest Florida’s recovery.

Tatum Walker, a business developer with Lee County’s Economic Development Office, for example, shared information about a county program expiring at the end of this week that offers $5,000 grants to qualifying companies with 25 or fewer employees hurt by the pandemic. Businesses can apply here until 8 p.m. Friday: portal.neighborlysoftware.com/leecountyfl/Participant/Login. 

The grants can help cover the costs of reopening or relaunching a business affected by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Safer at Home order, which encouraged Floridians to stay home and shuttered many businesses for weeks — primarily those considered nonessential.

While the deadline is quickly approaching to take advantage of the grant program for smaller businesses, another one will launch July 6 to help businesses with fewer than 250 employees rehire employees or refill positions they were forced to cut because of COVID-19. Grants of $5,000 will be available to qualifying companies for each job they bring back.

Lee County is also offering up to $2,000 to area residents who have lost income due to COVID-19, which can be used to directly pay their mortgage and utility bills.

“We are going to operate it until we have no more funds,” Walker said.

All of the county’s financial assistance programs are being funded with money the county received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. More info on the county’s program can be found here: leeflcares.com.

Other helpful tidbits shared at the virtual expo? 

Christopher Westley, an economics professor and dean of FGCU’s Lutgert College of Business, provided information on Restart SWFL, the university’s economic recovery initiative. 

Under the initiative, FGCU has launched a Seal of Confidence campaign, in which it’s certifying the safety of area employers based on four standards involving health and business and ethical practices. Companies must participate in two business- or health-related discussions to earn the seal. More information can be found here: fgcu.edu/restart.

“Consumer confidence always falls during a recession and as the economy recovers it usually comes back. But this time it’s different,” Westley said.

More: Majority of Southwest Florida businesses lost more than half their demand in May, survey says

Once approved for a Seal of Confidence businesses can put up signage in their stores and offices to show off their achievement — as well as playing it up on their websites and social media platforms, such as Facebook.

So far, 35 businesses have applied for the seal, Westley said. 

Jeannine Joy, president and CEO of the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee, first assured participants she wasn’t at the virtual expo to ask for money.

Instead, she focused her talk on how her organization is helping the community — and how local business owners and residents can get involved in its programs.

Her organization is helping needy residents in many ways. It has partnered with Lee County, for example, to distribute scholarships for childcare to hurting families in the community.

The scholarship program will run through Aug. 14, or until the funds have been exhausted. It’s providing money to children whose parents can show the loss of a job or income due to COVID-19. 

Families interested in benefiting from the program must complete an application with their chosen childcare provider. Funding is capped at $1,250.

“It’s a really fantastic program and it can help people get back on their feet,” Joy said.

For more information, go here: unitedwaylee.org/featured/childcare.

Through its 2-1-1 emergency hotline the United Way now gets hundreds of calls a day from locals wanting to know how and where they can get tested for the coronavirus and where they can go for financial help to put food on the table and cover their monthly bills.

“We are seeing a lot of people who are needing service for the first time in their life,” Joy said.

United Way’s hotline is answered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Resources can also be found through the 211 database at unitedwaylee.org/211-data-base, although those resources are constantly changing due to the coronavirus.

For anyone who wants to get involved in the community through the United Way, Joy said there are plenty of opportunities out there.

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One such opportunity? Sewing buttons on face masks for health care workers to get rid of the extreme irritation the elastic straps cause behind their ears. 

The United Way is working overtime to make the most of its volunteers and its other resources during this crisis, Joy said.

Rather than focusing his talk on the coronavirus, Bryan Blackwell, chairman of the Greater Naples Chamber, discussed ways to ensure success in the business world —and the importance of networking, especially in these hard times. He started his presentation with a slide showing a young girl writing calculus on a chalkboard.

“This is not calculus,” he said. 

His tips and tricks included everything from making sure you’re always learning, setting goals and acting professional on the job.

His more unusual advice? 

Don’t endlessly hand out your business cards at meetings or events as a way to promote yourself or your business, explaining that they usually end up in the garbage anyway.

“If you are not moving forward, you are moving backward,” he said. “There’s no in the middle. So if you are not developing, you are shrinking.”

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Emerge SWFL hosted the expo. Through the organization, a group of local technology companies, businesses and community organizations have teamed up to help other businesses in the region navigate their way through the pandemic.

More information can be found here: emergeswfl.com.

Kyle Hartman, development director at Florida SouthWestern, said in an online chat during the expo that he was a fan of the event, but he noted it took some time for him to navigate his way through it since it was all new to him.

“How nice it is to network during this time,” he said.

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