I spend a lot of time talking to local business owners. I am fascinated by learning about what motivated them to start their business, the victories and challenges they face and how they view their role in the community. Regardless of what industry they are in, they seem to share a common set of qualities: courage, tenacity, passion and generosity.
Since starting seedership, my interactions with the businesses I regularly support have certainly changed. It's no longer just a transaction. My relationships with the owners and employees have deepened, our conversations broadened, and I sense they genuinely appreciate my support.
This gave me an idea — why not set aside one day to perform an unscientific study to learn how and why local businesses give back to their community? So, I did just that. Join me as I revisit what happened during my day.
• 6:30 a.m. at the gym. The gym is two years old and rapidly expanding with three new locations. The owner shared that he’s building a community where members can feel welcomed and inspired to reach their health goals. He wants it to be a place where members feel connected to the staff as well as one another. So when members have charitable causes that they care about, he likes to show support by donating memberships or hosting fundraising workouts.
• 9 a.m. morning coffee. There is a new coffee shop in town that I haven’t tried. As I paid for my order, I asked for a few minutes to speak with the owner. Turns out the cashier was one of the founders, and she offered to sit down with me. She told me that 80 percent of people with intellectual and development disabilities are unemployed or underemployed, her 21-year-old daughter Meg is one of them. Opportunities for Meg are scarce, so she created a place where she and others like her could gain skills, be valued and have purpose. The shop gives back by providing a place where everyone belongs and serving as a beacon for other businesses to foster inclusive work environments. My observation is that customers equally get a lot out of the experience. Seeing the camaraderie among co-workers and how they interact with customers, one can’t help but slow down, smile and get a boost of optimism.
• Noon getting lunch. I don’t usually eat out, but today was a special occasion — research! I went to lunch at a café with a friend who owns a tax and financial planning firm. Two interviews in one shot. While waiting for our order at the counter, I caught up with the owner. He was excited to start planning his one year anniversary event. I asked if he’s had a chance to give back yet, and he shared how he’s still ramping up hiring staff, building supplier relationships and establishing systems. But for him, giving back can involve simple things. Like giving a sandwich to someone who doesn’t have enough to pay for it, spending a few extra minutes talking to a customer eating alone or modifying menu items for customers with food allergies. It’s the little things that show you listen, take notice and care.
I sat down to eat with my friend. Her business is more than 30-years old. She has a stable customer base, a strong reputation and is not actively seeking to grow. Her firm sponsors a business mentoring program with the local chamber of commerce. She runs the program and her employees volunteer their expertise in finance and accounting as well as branding, marketing, sales and any other areas in which they have first-hand experience. She said it gives her immense satisfaction to share her lifelong experience as a business owner with others starting the journey.
• 5 p.m. gift shopping. My wedding anniversary was approaching, so I decided to gift my husband (and business partner) some time away from me at a spa. The owner told me he offers discounts and gift certificates to causes he’s personally connected with – military, law enforcement and children. His brother-in-law served in Afghanistan, his cousin is a police officer and he has two young children. The spa also donates their time. The owner’s wife is a marathon runner and passionately believes in the healing power of massage. Their therapists volunteer by giving free massages at local races. While it helps them get additional exposure, it also is a fun way for employees to mingle with the community and create new relationships.
• 6 p.m. buying dinner items.On my way home, I made one final stop for groceries at a meat market. The market has been around for more than five years and always has plenty of foot traffic. I spoke to the manager as she was grilling some take-out orders. She said they like to support kids and families, so they direct giving toward youth, sports and pet organizations. Being a small business with finite dollars to give, they often give of their specialty: food. They’ve donated in-kind products and gift certificates for silent-auction baskets and catered a few local PTO meetings. They also like to support local microbusinesses and farms by offering them shelf space. It’s personally one of the reasons I like to shop there as they have unique assortment of baked goods, breads, yogurts, ice creams and cheeses.
For these businesses, being part of a local community means more than just providing goods or services. It also means supporting their customers and other businesses. I was excited to see that no matter where they were in their journey as a business, all the places I visited gave back in one way or another.
Take a day for yourself, any day — and look closer at the local businesses you support. It’s likely your experience will be similar to mine. You will find business owners who fill a valuable role and make a real difference in their community.