For nine years, the Southwest Florida Goodwill’s MicroEnterprise class has helped hundreds of people from Charlotte, Lee, Hendry and Glades counties either start a small business or learn the tools they need to make it run more smoothly.

Year 10 has seen the entire enterprise go through its own learning curve.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the class in March, Sandra Plazas had to retool the six-week program and move it online. Of the 18 or 20 individuals involved in the interrupted class, five were able to complete the series online. The first attempt at conducting the entire course online this summer yielded nine graduates.

“Normally our classes at the different home sites, we try to work with the colleges in the different communities and different counties,” said Plazas, the program manager. “Unfortunately right now, not a lot of those colleges are open to outside agencies at the moment. We didn’t know what would happen, but we kept getting phone calls.

“There was a need and there were people interested in starting businesses or sustaining those they had started,” Plazas added.

MicroEnterprise is a term for any small business that has fewer than five employees and requires $35,000 or less to start up. Many, in fact, require far less than that. Such businesses comprise 90% of all business in Southwest Florida, and one of every six private sector employees in the country works for one.

In retooling the class for online, Plazas discovered there were some advantages to the format.

“We changed the hours from three hours to two hours because being on screens for three hours is hard and we all need a little break before too long,” Plazas said. “But Zoom is nice in that you can have breakout rooms, so we’ll have a speaker for the first 30-45 minutes, then the class can go into breakout rooms for further discussion. Zoom is perfect for that.”

Plazas said roughly 70% of those who take the class are those who have a particular hobby or passion they want to turn into a money-making proposition or a second career.

“A lot of those businesses are food businesses,” Plazas said. “Their family tells them they are the best chef, no one has ever tasted food like this before, so they want to open up a restaurant.

“Part of our goal is not just getting that person to the class, but really understanding how to open a business on a lean budget,” Plazas continued. “Using the money you already have. That’s part of the process of the class. Get them the information they need to know ahead of time so they can plan and use their existing budget.”

Plazas said while the classes meet twice weekly, there is a flexibility built in to aid those who might need extra access or aid in between meetings.

In all, 874 people have graduated the course since its inception in 2010. Of those, 461 have either started or strengthened their businesses. Positive word of mouth over the years has kept the class among Goodwill’s most popular offerings.

The next six-week course begins Monday. Anyone interested in enrolling can find more information at www.goodwillswfl.org/microenterprise.

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