The success of any small retail business often depends on many factors, from sweat equity to market research to a certain amount of luck. But for most, ample access to financial and social support from coaches, the community, and mentors are necessary ingredients to make their hard work pay off. Unfortunately, the road to success is riddled with inequities, impacting who enters the space and how successful they become. For women and/or people of color, whose communities were also hardest hit by the pandemic, this is a painful reality. These small business owners typically lack access to the tools, funding, and resources they need to take their storefront businesses online, let alone support a successful business plan long term.

Even before the global health crisis sent the world into lockdown, e-commerce and digital technology had expanded retail’s reach exponentially. That growth accelerated during the pandemic when more consumers began shopping online out of necessity. In fact, e-commerce volumes grew by 33 percent last year, according to the research firm eMarketer, and that upward trend is likely to continue.

But the lack of access to funding and digital resources was also amplified during the height of the pandemic. For those without the knowledge, cashflow or technical support to build and host a website and navigate online fulfillment and shipping, the leap to online retail was and remains daunting. That is why Accion Opportunity Fund (AOF) and FedEx are pooling our extensive resources to give these women and/or people of color hit hardest by the pandemic tools to establish a strong e-commerce presence—throughout the best of times and the worst. The FedEx E-Commerce Learning Lab, developed with Accion Opportunity Fund, launched in May works to provide small business owners with the opportunity to rebuild and expand their e-commerce skills, navigate online sales post-COVID-19, and forge a new path to growth. The program is tailored to those who already have a shelf-stable product in their retail stores but don’t yet have a website to sell them online. Through intensive hands-on learning, an accepted cohort of 106 small business owners across the U.S. participate in a series of workshops and one-on-one coaching by e-commerce experts. They will receive free technical support in setting up and maintaining their virtual stores, as well as support with marketing, managing promotions, customer service, managing orders and fulfillments, and product photography. They will also receive a $2,000 business grant to launch and grow their e-commerce business upon completion of the program. 37 Oaks, founded by Chicago entrepreneur Terrand Smith, will provide the technical and design support and host the new websites.

The challenges our potential applicants faced during, and post-pandemic are sobering. A special report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that in May 2020, 78% of entrepreneurs of color were concerned about their businesses permanently closing, compared to 52% of white entrepreneurs. Businesses in hospitality and retail, where people of color make up a large portion of owners and employees, were the hardest hit by closures, sales declines, and workforce reductions, according to a Facebook and Small Business Roundtable report. Despite these odds, women of color who own small businesses remain undeterred. More of them own businesses in the U.S. than ever before. A record number of small businesses were also launched during the pandemic and nearly half of those started by women are owned by women of color. And more diversity within startups, led by millennial women—the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history—will directly lead to more equitable economic opportunities, if we equitably invest the funding and resources all small businesses need to thrive.

With the support of the FedEx E-Commerce Learning Lab, we are confident that determined entrepreneurs will transform their businesses into the profitable enterprises their communities deserve. Accion Opportunity Fund and FedEx are committed to the small business community, and this is just one example of our work together to address accessibility and equity in this increasingly important retail sector. In Colombia, FedEx is funding a program through Accion to give low-income, low-literacy female entrepreneurs the skills necessary to earn a living through business ownership.

We believe the combination of creative input and exchange from our partners and participants will provide a valuable set of resources these entrepreneurs can rely on for years to come. The four-month program is also timed to conclude during the busy holiday shopping season. By then, we think our participants will be better prepared to meet the increase in demand, both in store and online.

It’s time to elevate the voices of the entrepreneurs that often go unheard, and in turn, strengthen communities that expand beyond their original bricks-and-mortar shops. And it all begins with access. The FedEx E-Commerce Learning Lab kicks off in September and runs through December. To learn more, visit: www.aofund.org/program/fedex/.

Luz Urrutia is CEO of Accion Opportunity Fund, the nation’s leading nonprofit providing small businesses with access to capital, networks, and coaching.

Jenny D. Robertson is the Senior Vice President of Integrated Marketing and Communications at FedEx Services. In this role, she is responsible for managing the global FedEx brand and reputation as well as driving revenue growth through strategic communications, customer engagement marketing, public affairs, citizenship, sponsorships, media relations, social media, and advertising.

Women of color stock photo by Josep Suria/Shutterstock