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Supporting Small Businesses with Chrissy Houlahan

Podcast published: June 12, 2020

As Pennsylvania begins to open up following the relaxing of lock-down orders, we had the opportunity to sit down with U.S. Representative Chrissy Houlahan. We discuss how the federal government has been supporting small businesses and how local business owners and leaders can engage with Rep. Houlahan and her office, to get assistance and to drive legislation.



How is the Federal government supporting small and mid-size businesses?

  • “We are all trying to build a good business – hard in the best of times.”
  • The Federal Government has done a number of things:
    • Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), to enable small and medium businesses to keep staff on payroll
    • Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance Program (EIDL)
    • Paycheck Protection Flexibility Act – fixes some issues with PPP
      • Extends timeline for using the loan or grant funding
      • Provides for a better split on what money that has to be used for payroll, versus for other businesses expenses
      • Loan period has been extended to 5-years (from 2)
  • Business in Chester County and Berks County also have different loan and grant programs
  • As of the recording of this show, there is $100 billion still available in the above programs

How can businesses re-open safely?

  • Follow the locally suggested practices for social distancing, wearing of masks, and other guidelines for limiting the risk of spreading COVD-19
  • Be flexible and innovative in exploring ways to sustain businesses

How can business owners and leaders get involved?

  • There are a number of task forces working on preparing for the reopening of business
  • There is a task force in Rep. Houlahan’s office for small businesses; it’s email address is pa06.smallbusiness@mail.house.gov
  • The task force can provide both individualized assistance, but also access to resources and valuable content
  • The feedback of local business owners is the way that the Federal government drives new legislation

Intro: Hey, everybody. And welcome to another episode of Start Local, a podcast focused on helping small businesses in Chester County and the surrounding Philadelphia area as we work through this COVID-19 economy. 

Joe Casabona: My name is Joe Casabona. I’m here with my co-host, Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you? 

Liam Dempsey: Very well, sir. Thanks for having me yet again. 

Joe Casabona: Always a pleasure, sir. And we are honored to have today representative, Chrissy Houlahan. Representative Houlahan represents Pennsylvania’s 6th district in Congress. She’s a veteran, a former small business leader in the community, and an educator. Representative Houlahan, how are you today?

Chrissy Houlahan: I’m just fine. Thank you. Thank you very much for having me today. 

Joe Casabona: Thanks so much for being on the show. We appreciate you taking the time. We know that it must be very busy, where you are. 

Chrissy Houlahan: I think it’s busy for everybody right now. 

Joe Casabona: Well, before we jump into the standard questions around COVID-19, why don’t you give a quick introduction, a little bit about who you are and what you’ve been doing in Congress?

Chrissy Houlahan: Of course. And thank you once again for having me. My name is Chrissy and I represent the Pennsylvania 6th and as you mentioned, it is the entirety of Chester County. So, you’re listening population, all of Chester County is part of the Pennsylvania 6th. And then it’s also the lower portion of parts of Berks County, so inclusive of the city of Reading as an example. And so it’s a really cool, eclectic community, a lot of suburbs, very rural in the kind of western parts of Chester County and parts of Berks as you know. And then of course pretty urban with the city of Reading as well. 

Also, it’s a really, really terrific place to represent, and I’ve been in office now for about 18 months. I’m a freshman. So this is the first term that I serve. We serve two year terms. And as you mentioned, my background before joining congress is pretty eclectic. I served as a person in the military as an air force officer right out of school. I’m an engineer by training. I’ve also as you mentioned been an entrepreneur in this community in the greater Philadelphia area for the last 25 years growing businesses from startup effectively to scale and in some cases into sale.

And i’ve also as you mentioned been an educator and specifically taught Chemistry in North Philadelphia. And then finally ran a non profit that focused on early childhood literacy, which is sort of education equity issues. And that was my background before joining congress. 

And in congress, I’m very fortunate to be part of a variety of the only Pennsylvanian on both sides of the aisle on the Armed Services Committee. I serve, fortunately on the Foreign Affairs Committee as well. And then relevant to my background as well, I’m very, very fortunate to be on the Small Business Committee, which is certainly part of our conversation today.

Liam Dempsey: Thank you for the introduction. I wonder if you could share with our listeners just a little bit more about your business background. That was very interesting. I wonder if you could spend a minute or two talking a little bit more about what you did and where, what kind of industry you’re in and the business side of things.

CChrissy Houlahan: Sure. Of course. I came down to this community in the mid nineties with my husband and my two small kids at the time. They were three and one. My educational background is Industrial Engineering and inventory management and kind of production and capacity planning. And my graduate work is in exactly that supply chain management specific. 

Actually to the airframe industry, interestingly enough, but I came down here to this community to join a startup company that was making at the time, – shirts. Out of the back of somebody’s car some college friends of mine had started up something called and one basketball. \Aand it was a very very tiny t-shirt company. When my husband and I joined them again as classmates and dorm mates of theirs, we helped grow that company into a couple hundred million dollar international entity. We sold basketball apparel and footwear, and we also had a pretty big media presence with something called the Mixtape. I don’t know if you guys remember that. and we’re very, very fortunate to build not only a pretty darn big company, but, and a successful, one successful financial company, but also a company that really took care of community, our employees and team members, the environment. 

We tried to build a really special organization that was very much ahead of its time in terms of the benefits that we extended. We all had 40 hours of community service as an example. We paid the vast, vast majority of healthcare for everybody, including families. You know, we have dogs at work and kids at work, and we had your dry cleaning and prescriptions dropped off at work and just kind of a really, I hope, good place to be. And I served there as the chief operating officer. 

So my job was to create the infrastructure that allowed those ideas of great t-shirts and great shoes to make it to customers, you know, feet and bodies. But profitably in our time. But also, as I mentioned with kind of that corporate ethos of taking good care of people and planet.

In addition to the bottom line, after that company was sold about 15 years or so ago, I served again in the Chief Operating Officer capacity, with another startup that’s called Benefit Corporation, or BCorp. And this is a movement for profit businesses are recognizing that businesses like [Inaudible 5:32.06] should be, if they’d like to be able to consider more than just their bottom line or their shareholders when they’re making decisions. The way that our corporate law worked up until this,  the idea of the benefit corporation was, is that you were mandated by your corporate structure and your corporate governance to maximize shareholder value instead of considering, as I mentioned, things like your community or your employees or the planet. And this idea of the benefit corporation now is a legal corporate entity or a corporate form in more than 30 different states across our country and in several different countries as well. And I served as their founding chief operating officer to get that idea that there’s a better way to be a for profit capitalist business. And if business owners and operators would like to do business that way, then they can opt into that. So I did that for a time.

And then as I mentioned lastly in my journey, career, I ran a non profit. And the non profit was called Springboard Collaborative, and it is a non profit that focuses on early childhood literacy, pre K through fourth grade, in the communities that are most affected by social, I’m sorry, educational inequities. And so the kids that I taught Chemistry to were 11th graders, but they were reading largely at the 3rd and 4th grade level. And so I quickly realized that it was not going to be terribly successful to give them Chemistry skills and hope that they would be able to absorb them if reading and literacy skills were or not accompanying that. And so helped to scale that organization as well from kind of a startup idea to a national entity as well. So that’s kind of my business background. 

Liam Dempsey: Our listeners can’t see this, but Joe and I are just nodding our heads and dropping our jaws in awe. 

Joe Casabona: Can I just say, I wore And1 stuff like all the time.

Chrissy Houlahan: I’m glad you wore And1 stuff. That’s good. That’s good. I’m happy about that. 

Joe Casabona: Liam, I know you have I think you have a few questions regarding COVID-19 and what small businesses can do. Is that right? 

Liam Dempsey: Absolutely. And so representative, I’d like to kind of flag up or discuss really that as we see the country relaxing stay at home orders, mostly at a state by state level, and even within the state, different state, county by county certainly in Pennsylvania, that’s how it’s been. What is the federal government doing, or what is the small business administration doing to help businesses that are still under lockdown or still under a more restrictive lockdown than other partial portions of the state or the country to help them stay competitive, particularly as our country really has learned the value of e-commerce and online business in the recent economy,  over because of COVID 19? 

Chrissy Houlahan: That’s an excellent question. and we all, we are all trying as a former entrepreneur, myself, it’s hard enough in the best of times to build a good business when everything’s going your way and the economy’s going the right way.  And right now, I can completely empathize with just how difficult, if not impossible it might be for a lot of our small and mid sized businesses to be able to keep their heads above water.

And so the federal government has done a number of things through the various packages that we have passed over the last, I guess, two months or so to try to respond to small businesses and midsize businesses and their particularly unique needs. One thing, and I think people probably are familiar with this concept was called the paycheck protection program, a very, very innovative program that basically allows for small and midsize businesses, kind of under 500 folks to be able to apply for loans that will turn into grants iIf they follow certain guidelines that the small business administration outlines for them. And those loans were intended to be used to kind of be a placeholder, to allow largely for those businesses to be able to keep their employees on payroll, to be able to effectively keep the lights on, you know, press pause for a while, so that when we return back to something that looks closer to normal, we’re able to enter back in as safely and quickly as possible to the economy.

But this PPP program which we funded in a couple hundred billion dollar level twice, is an opportunity where I would encourage people who are worried about how to stay, you know, with their heads above water to take a look at because it is as I mentioned pretty darn flexible and innovative. There is also money that’s called the idle program, which is kind of an emergency loan program as well that I would encourage people to look at as ally if they’re looking for help from a small business perspective. So these programs initially were pretty darn broad because we were looking really, bipartisanly to try and do something as quickly as we could to get aid to nonprofits.

I’m sorry to, actually nonprofits are part of the solution as well to businesses of one form or another, but they were flawed. So, in the beginning they were maybe too broad. You saw probably that people who were not, should not have been eligible for them applied for them. You saw that people were having, were struggling, maybe small and minority owned businesses, maybe rural businesses to be able to apply for these grants and loans. We, in the federal government saw that and tried to provide solutions to that in the subsequent legislation. 

And what I’ll also say is yesterday, the Senate passed something called the Paycheck Protection and Flexibility Act, which we in the house also passed about a week and a half ago or so that does some fixes to the Paycheck Protection Program that we’re hoping will be able to address some of the concerns that you’re talking about with small businesses as some people emerge from their cocoon and other people are still in their cocoons. 

So this flexibility act basically expands the timeline that people have to use the loan or the grant. It also allows for a different split of how that money is used. In the old definition, 75% of the money used for payroll related items. Now, it’s 60%, so you have a little bit more flexibility there. It also has  loan. The loan period has moved from what was two years now to five years, so that’s a lot more time, of course, to get our legs back under us.

And so, I guess the bottom line I’m trying to say is I would encourage those small business owners and operators to look at these opportunities that are available to them through the federal government. But I also would say here in Chester County and up in Berks County, both of those counties also have loan programs as well that I would encourage people to look into because as you mentioned, different states are doing different things. Pennsylvania is certainly doing a different planning plan. Other states are and different counties are also of course doing different things at different times. So, take a look at the county work that’s intern too.

Liam Dempsey: Thank you. That was a great answer, and it addressed a follow up question we were going to ask about, the implementation of the PPP program and how some of the businesses weren’t able to take advantage of it, as you noted, as intended or hoped by the federal government, or at least by their representatives who passed the bills. Thank you for that. 

Chrissy Houlahan: Of course. And there are I think more than a hundred billion dollars still available for people to access in those programs. A hundred billion with a B. I know that sometimes I swallow my words. 

Joe Casabona: That’s really great to know. So we’ll definitely have links to the PPP loan program and some of the other things that we talk about over in our show notes at [startlocal.co].

Liam Dempsey: I wanted to talk to you about these stay at home orders and lockdown orders begin to become relaxed and businesses begin to open up with a variety of, kind of minimum distancing, social distancing and wearing face masks and other forms of protection to keep our communities and our families safe. I wonder if you have some kind of advice or guidance that we might want to share with the local business community.

Anecdotally, Joe and I hear a lot about businesses who are excited and eager to reopen, but are particularly worried about what if we reopen and there’s a health spike, or a, you know, the COVID-19 isn’t as well managed as we hoped it might be. What would you say to those businesses concerned about that? Do you have any thoughts or guidance to share? 

Chrissy Houlahan: I do. But only sort of anecdotal as well with you. You know, I don’t think there’s at this point, any best practices that I, or my office has to be able to share with you. Although I think you’ve given me an idea of trying to kind of think that through. 

There certainly are ways that we can keep each other safe. And we’ve all unfortunately had to learn them the hard way over the last couple of months. You know, you mentioned masks and distancing gloves and handwashing. These are all just things that we should be doing to take care of each other. And hopefully that will prevent the spread of the disease and reduce, you know, what the technical term is that are not, you know, how many people get it for how many people have it. So we all, you know, hold a responsibility that when tomorrow in Chester County, we open to the yellow phase that we try to remember all the lessons that we’ve learned and we don’t do too much too fast with one another.

But there definitely are lessons that we’ve seen in terms of those businesses that have been open over the, you know, last six or eight weeks where they have learned how to manage the flow into in and out of their, you know, workspaces, how to manage their customers, how to, you know, be thoughtful and innovative. 

If there’s one thing we all know as entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs are the most creative and innovative people on the planet. And they will find a way. And you have definitely seen people finding a way to keep their business up and going over this period of time. So I guess I would say, look around, look at what has, you know, best practices have worked in either your industry or an industry similar to yours. Not every industry is customer facing, as you know, some are just B to B,  thinking about how you might be able to roll your employees into the workplace if you’d like to do that, or if you’d like to continue to work at home.  I think that there’s a lot of different innovative ideas of how would that work to all of us.

Joe Casabona: So you mentioned here that this might’ve given you an idea and we have the benefit of being able to speak to you on this podcast. is there a way that listeners can get in touch, provide feedback or ask questions, get involved in general? 

Chrissy Houlahan: Absolutely. One of the things from my military background is when you have a problem, you know, stand up a task first. You stand up a task first to address a problem and then you hope that you’re able to, you know, take it down when you’ve fixed the problem.

So, we’ve stood up a bunch of task forces about this issue of Covid. One of them is a small business task force. We’ve reoriented our team completely so that some of us are focused on some, on potentially things like unemployment, things like our rebate process and program that was put into place so that we can be as agile as possible and as accessible as possible to people who are calling us.

And so if you have questions and ideas, or if you want help from us in the congressional office and you are a constituent of the sixth congressional district, we would absolutely encourage you to contact us. We have a new, not a new, I guess it’s probably, you know, two and a half, three months old now, an email that is pa06, because we’re the sixth congressional district, pa06.smallbusiness@mail.house.gov. And so I’ll say that again, and I know it sounds like you guys have notes for the show too. It’s PA like Pennsylvania, 06 like the congressional pa06.smallbusiness@mail.house.gov, and that will get you to our task force,  crack team of people who’ve been working on this tirelessly.  

And you’ll also be able to not only get individualized help and advice from our team, but we also send out, you know, emails. We’ve done a ton of different podcasts of our own and online Facebook lives of our own that are focused specifically on small business with experts to talk to our community who are from the small business administration as an example. So, it’ll also get you access to the content that we’re trying to make sure that we can provide to people, and newsletters and that sort of thing. So please do reach out to us so that we can be helpful.

Oh, and the last thing that I will say is your your feedback. You in the small business and Community in our area is the way that we drive this legislation. You know, the paycheck protection flexibility act fixed a lot of the things that we were hearing from our community such as the fact that it was too short of a time to pay it back. That it was too short of a time to be able to spend the money, that the money didn’t, shouldn’t all be spent on, you know Payroll as an example, all of those ideas came from feedback that we got from our community. And of course, other members of congress were getting similar feedback. So that’s the way our, you know, our government works for us that we represent each other is to feed that information up to your representatives so that they can be helpful in legislation.

Joe Casabona: Awesome. Thank you for that. And yeah. We’ll definitely have that email address in the show notes. And that’s great. As you were talking about the Paycheck Protection Flexibility Act, the things that you mentioned were the exact pieces of feedback that I was hearing from other friends as well. So,  thank you for that. 

Chrissy Houlahan: Ofcourse. And we’re not done, you know, unfortunately, one of the reasons why I wanted to run for congress back in the very beginning of all of this was that I have an engineering STEM background and a real interest in things, science and engineering. And so I actually was quite interested in biosecurity long before it was fashionable and very interested in supply chain issues because that’s my background. And so I don’t think that we have heard the last of covid. And we, probably sadly haven’t heard the last of disease and infectious disease. And hopefully, you know, not. But maybe even another future pandemic. And so what this office is also working on in addition to finding our way out of this situation is making sure we’re never again in this situation. 

Liam Dempsey: Thank you for that. Not just on behalf of me and my business, and Joe and his, but on the business community. I, certainly Joe and I hear often from local businesses that if we can get the support from government and particularly big government where, you know, if hundreds of billions of dollars become available, that makes a huge or can make a really significant difference in the very minute to minute and day to day lives of folks, not just in Chester County, Pennsylvania, but everywhere. So, I love that you’re planning for the future. I love your thinking that COVID-19 is not over and that when it is, there will be something else. And that’s not a doomsday mindset, but a planning. And I’m very grateful for that. 

You’ve very kindly shared quite a bit of your time today. And we are coming up on our limits of our show. And I want to thank you for joining us. But before we all say goodbye, you were kind enough to share the email address that we’re going to include in the show notes. Are there any other links or websites that you want to share with us now representative, that we can be sure to add so that folks can follow up with you, contact you and learn more about you.

Chrissy Houlahan: I’m trying to figure out what a good one would be. I mean, I would assume that you’re, if you’re from my community, probably that my main email which is the houlahan@mail.house.gov. I’m trying to find the the link for it because I don’t visit my own website very frequently. 

Yeah, I got it. I just googled it because I have that it’s houlahan. And interestingly, my last name is spelled untraditionally, it’s H O U L A H A N.house.gov. And there, actually, when you go to our landing page, you’ll see a banner at the very, very top, and the very, very top has red buttons for each one of those task forces that i’ve talked to you guys about. So if you’d like to kind of accelerate your journey through our website, you can look there. 

But there’s also quite a lot to see. Please sign up for all of our social media. We have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Please also sign up for our email because we can then send you out newsletters that are not necessarily just Covid related or just small business related that are just kind of good government related 

Joe Casabona: Great. Thank you so much again, representative Houlahan for joining us this week. We really appreciate you taking the time.

Again, everything that we talked about will be over at [startlocal.co], and thanks again.

Chrissy Houlahan: Thank you guys.

Liam Dempsey: Thank you.

Joe Casabona: And thank you to everybody who is listening. 

Liam, thanks for your time, of course. And, until next time.. Stay safe out there.

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