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SBU looks to offer 'Pandemic Shift' workshops for small businesses

Shift Group's Stefan Doering, along with Thomas Moebus,

Shift Group's Stefan Doering, along with Thomas Moebus, drafted the curriculum. Credit: Stefan Doering

Stony Brook University is hoping to raise enough funding to usher 300 small business owners through a free workshop designed to help their firms survive the pandemic.

Suffolk County and Stony Brook tapped Shift Group, a Brooklyn-based online education company, to design the digital course for restaurants, retailers and home contractors, according to Thomas Moebus and Stefan Doering, Shift Group leaders who drafted the curriculum. During a workshop pilot that concluded in early June, business owners took solace in seeing that their struggles were not unique and helping one another identify survival strategies, Moebus and Doering said.

Now, the Pandemic Shift Workshop is seeking funding from banks in the region, according to the director of Stony Brook College of Business' Innovation Center, Gerrit Wolf, who is coordinating the workshop and the school's other COVID-19 assistance resources for local businesses. He said each round would cost about $7,000, and the university hopes to offer 10 more workshops, with 30 students each, before the end of 2020.  

"There’s a lot of businesses who could use this help," said Moebus.

Moebus and Doering envision launching a second session in mid-July for those in the food business and reserving some of the future courses for specific industries and affinity groups. Any Long Island business with 20 or fewer employees may apply to the program at https://bit.ly/3eQsszG.  

The workshop involves four 90-minute Zoom sessions, where business owners are broken into groups of four or five and work with a facilitator from the Shift Group or Stony Brook. The facilitators also connect participants with resources available from the larger community, including interns who are studying business and technology at Stony Brook and advice from the school's experts. 

Moebus and Doering decided to focus on peer mentorship because that tactic worked so well when they were involved with an entrepreneurship course New York City rolled out in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009.

"It's kind of nice for [participants] to not worry about their problems and help somebody else with their problems," said Doering, who grew up in Setauket. "That's where the power and magic happens."

Maria Camassa, who runs Lucky Lou's Gourmet Rice Pudding, said she felt less alone after seeing that many businesses in several industries were struggling amid COVID-19. The workshop helped her feel confident about new tactics she plans to try with the rice pudding manufacturing firm she runs out of Stony Brook's food business incubator in Calverton. Those include launching an online subscription service and distributing products for other small businesses that need to deliver goods near routes her company already makes. 

"They talk about how the basketball player, when he pivots, he keeps one foot grounded, and the other foot moves around to make the shot," said Camassa, a Lake Grove resident. "What that continually reminds me is: You got to be grounded, but take those risks."

The workshop bolstered Lidia Cortina Karras' plans to expand private shopping at her Shan resort-wear franchise in East Hampton.  She also credited the program with helping her land nearly $6,000 in assistance under the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 

Cortina Karras said she struggled to get guidance on government assistance opportunities from her bank and  unsuccessfully sought PPP aid through a firm recommended by her payroll administrator. Then the CEO of Bridgehampton National Bank, Kevin M. O'Connor,  was slated to attend one of the workshops, but could not due to technical difficulties, according to Cortina Karras, a Montauk resident. She said she wrote to O'Connor on LinkedIn, and he had an employee reach out to her and help her through the PPP application. 

"Now I have a relationship with the local bank, and if I need more funding in the future, I’ll have that relationship," said Cortina Karras. "It was good to go through the pandemic with some kind of weekly meeting with like-minded people, and just knowing that everybody’s really in the same boat."

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