By Lorrie DeFrank

JAX Chamber was ahead of the game in virtual training. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down most businesses and other in-person engagements in Northeast Florida in March 2020, the Chamber’s Entrepreneurial Growth Division (EGD) had already begun offering online options for its JAX Bridges business development program.

The application period for JAX Bridges Cohort 14 opens January 15-29. Register here for a hybrid program with opportunities to engage with entrepreneurs and participate in new business opportunities.

“We had started working on it but COVID definitely accelerated it,” said Anamaria Contreras, programs coordinator, Jacksonville Women’s Business Center (JWBC).

JAX Bridges’ Cohort 11 was winding down when Contreras joined the Chamber in November 2019. “People were coming in once a week for three-hour sessions. We started talking about a digital transformation because the world was moving more digital,” she said.

When Cohort 12 started in spring 2020 with virtual as well as physical options, two women chose to interact entirely online. “We did a couple of sessions with them then everything shut down because of COVID,” Contreras said. “Within a week we picked up with everyone what we had done with those two ladies and were able to successfully complete Cohort 12.”

But they weren’t just more Zoom phone calls, she said.

Brainstorming along the way with Chief Innovation Officer Carlton Robinson and Entrepreneurial Growth Programs Manager Evone Pina, Contreras oversaw a complex transformation that includes educational sessions and workshops for the JWBC and JAX Chamber Foundation as well as JAX Bridges. The technology provides the essential peer-to-peer interaction that had become vital to the in-person training as well as speaker platforms, virtual classrooms and online mentoring.

“This is a time when a lot of small business owners really need us,” said Contreras. “With uncertainty so high right now, we want to be there for entrepreneurs.”

Not anticipating the pandemic to last this long, they planned a more hybrid approach for Cohort 13 that ended in early December. Instead, they continued with a completely digital format. Incorporating lessons learned from Cohort 12, they created online classrooms and provided participants with virtual canvases that they could access any time to add additional resources and read about such topics as how to build a business model.  

“More than 40 people pitched their businesses to a group of eight judges completely live with a camera. It was very exciting,” Contreras said. 

“If JAX Chamber was not prepared to go digital, I would not have had the support in 2020 that I had,” said Joanne Kazmierski, CEO, Global Business Logistix, LLC, who completed Cohort 13. “A lot of businesses were not able to sustain themselves during the pandemic. Mine grew a small percentage because of the backing and support of the JAX Bridges program. If you are not comfortable in the digital environment there are opportunities to reach out to the Chamber to get personal help.”

Conceding that she missed the in-person interaction of peers and is hopeful for more hybrid sessions in safer times, Kazmierski said she appreciated the availability of online feedback and the other interactive pieces of the training. “This digital format ensures that you are not alone out there, especially in the world of the pandemic,” she said.

Familiar with JAX Bridges, Kazmierski participated in Cohort 2 in spring 2015 when she started her business, and again in Cohort 12 to stretch herself professionally. With a background in marketing and transportation, she created Global Business Logistix to provide project leadership in the international trade and logistics industry with a focus on workforce and economic development. Customers include nonprofits and educational institutions.

“The Chamber is doing a good job of keeping up with technology and adjusting to the situations that are at hand by utilizing technology to its best advantage in helping small business owners,” said Sam Harding, a member of Cohort 13.

Harding, who volunteers as communications chair of the Chamber’s Jacksonville Information Technology Council, also was accepted in Cohort 10 in spring 2019 just after he founded INTENT Sales and Marketing, which helps small businesses succeed by focusing on marketing strategies and technology.

In his first cohort, Harding found sitting around with other small business owners—and potential clients—who were going through the same things particularly helpful. Although he missed that personal interaction, he praised Cohort 13 for its creativity in keeping folks engaged technologically. He said he went through JAX Bridges the second time to enhance messaging for new products. “It was good to be able to get in front of groups, even if digitally,” he said. “You pick something up every time you do it.”

Acknowledging the value of face-to-face interaction, Contreras doesn’t foresee JAX Bridges and other Chamber training remaining fully digital after the pandemic. “We’ll continue doing online because it’s easier for people to log onto their computers than drive downtown, but we’ll add a blended aspect where people can come in and meet with other entrepreneurs in person.”

Technology also allows the Chamber to reach out to prospects beyond its seven-county service area.

“Technology has no boundaries. We can expand anywhere we want. Literally with a click of a button, we’re right there,” said Contreras, who participated in Cohort 8 in spring 2018 when she was freelancing as a copywriter.

“A lot of people cannot take time to drive to the Chamber and home. The most important thing for a small business is time. Give them the same value for less time,” said Kazmierski, who served as a mentor for JWBC’s Marketing Matters program. “JAX Bridges is absolutely a must for any entrepreneur at any stage. In every cohort, I walked out with something different to improve my business.”

Adopting some of JAX Bridges’ digital tools such as business model, customer journey and value proposition canvases helps him better serve clients, said Harding, INTENT’s chief strategy officer. And because it’s digital, he has been able to expand services beyond Northeast Florida.

“We are proud of being on the cutting edge of digital transformation and want to help other communities by teaching them what we are doing,” Contreras said. “We have the tools and worked out a lot of the kinks in the last year. We enjoyed the process, even though it was very complicated, and are proud of what we have been able to achieve.”