As the COVID-19 pandemic brought regular life to a halt, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, which is implemented by Winrock International, launched a task force of independent makers and manufacturers to produce personal protective equipment (PPE). Using tools such as laser-cutters and 3D printers, the Hub’s task force produced face shields, acrylic barriers and other PPE to distribute as needed around the state and country.
Some of the beneficiaries included clients of the Arkansas Women’s Business Center (AWBC), which is also implemented by Winrock International. The Hub had funded the second cohort of Momentum, the AWBC’s five-week small business accelerator for 10 early-stage, minority women-owned businesses, which concluded in March. For the AWBC clients, the Hub manufactured face shields and acrylic screens using 3D printers at its North Little Rock headquarters, as well as with staff working remotely that used their own sewing machines and 3D printers.
“As soon as we realized the shortage of PPE in Arkansas, we decided that we had the capability to help those in need,” said Innovation Hub Deputy Director Errin Stanger. “COVID-19 does not understand barriers, it is spreading throughout our state and our nation. The opportunity to provide masks and face shields to help protect our community is part of our mission and vision, and we are honored to support AWBC business owners.”
Economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic is particularly challenging for disenfranchised entrepreneurs, including low-to-moderate income business owners, said AWBC Director Chauncey Pettis. “Businesses that were able to pivot quickly during COVID-19 had to have the resources to do that — screens, face shields, all these things that state regulations required,” Pettis said. “A lot of our minority-owned businesses didn’t have that reserve in hand. Even if they did have the ability to stay open, they didn’t necessarily have the funds to meet the regulations to be allowed to reopen.”
One of the recipients of PPE from the Hub was Rayvern Lewis, who won $1,000 as part of a pitch competition during the Momentum small business accelerator in March. Years of caring for her diabetic father inspired Lewis to open an assisted living facility, called Parkwood Senior Care Living Community, and during the fast-paced accelerator she soaked up lessons about how to make a small business succeed.
The three face shields and three acrylic dividers that Lewis received from the Hub — commonly seen now at the checkout lines of grocery stores and other businesses — allowed her to meet state regulations for her clients’ family members to safely visit the assisted living facility. Lewis has three clients who live in her facility, a five-bedroom home in southwest Little Rock.
“I can’t take any chances,” Lewis said. “I have an area set up for visitors, and I have my residents wear the shields on their face, with a divider between them and the visitors. When they talk, they’re separated.”
This kind of support goes a long way with small businesses. “I’ve been able to weather this thing and wade through the storm,” Lewis said, noting that she’s even looking to expand her business.
Another PPE recipient was Victor’s Photography, a family business run by experienced Little Rock photographer Victor Coates and his wife Charrisse. Together, the couple photographs youth sports games, birthdays, family reunions and other events. But like many businesses, the pandemic had an effect on the Coates’ work. “For safety and health issues, we couldn’t respond to the number of requests we received,” Charrisse Coates said. “We had to close shop.”
The Coateses received four facemasks from the Hub, which enabled them to safely photograph events, as well as an acrylic safety shield that could be set up onsite to handle money and credit card transactions while adhering to safety standards. The Coates family recently photographed a woman’s 80th birthday party, with attendees driving by in cars.
“It was as if she was royalty, it was very well attended,” Charrisse Coates said. “The face masks allowed us to take pictures of people in their cars and against the backdrop. With the face masks, it’s been great, it’s been awesome having this opportunity. We had to scale back because of the pandemic and the health issues, but we’re grateful we can still serve as much as we can — and the PPE has allowed us to do so.”