Mar 13, 2019
by Will Carruthers
Elizabeth Gore has traveled the world espousing the economic advantages of entrepreneurship. Now, the globetrotting businesswoman from Houston is hosting two upcoming events for entrepreneurs in Sonoma County.
Hello Alice, Gore’s latest project, is an electronic “sidekick” that helps guide entrepreneurs through the process of founding and growing a business.
On March 27, Hello Alice will host an event meant to connect local small business owners with the technology, personal connections and small business lessons.
Registration is free. Any proceeds will benefit the Rebuild Northbay Foundation, a nonprofit meant to help guide North Bay counties through the recovery from the 2017 fires. Gore serves as the President of Rebuild's board of directors.
The second event, a networking event known as the Circular Summit, will bring entrepreneurs from around the world to Sonoma County in May.
Gore’s husband, James Gore, is a Sonoma County supervisor representing the northern county.
On March 5, the Sonoma County Gazette sat down with Elizabeth Gore for an interview about Hello Alice, the company’s upcoming events in Sonoma County and the future of the North Bay’s economy.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sonoma County Gazette – Several of your previous job titles have included “entrepreneur-in-residence.” Can you tell me how you became interested in entrepreneurship and what your role at United Nations Foundation was?
Elizabeth Gore – I got into entrepreneurship actually through the United Nations, which isn’t really a normal track. My job was to work with the most marginalized people in the world. Whether it was representing them in big campaigns or taking reporters and writers into refugee camps to tell the residents’ stories.
I just kept seeing that it was small business owners – and in some countries it was very small business owners – who tend to set up commerce and set up business when the UN picks up and leaves or when a disaster gets cleaned up or in a refugee camp. It really is, I think, the most sustainable way to build a strong infrastructure in a society and I just saw it over and over.
I was with the UN for about nine years. In the last few years of that we started to see the power of getting new minds around the UN. So, what I would call “Modern Economy” entrepreneurs. Really high-growth folks from G20 and G30 countries who could give advice and council to the UN particularly with digital transformation happen and social media happening. You know, how do we use the new best tools in a humanitarian environment?
SCG – Can you explain what Hello Alice does?
EG – Our goal is to help four million business owners by 2021 either launch or scale their business.
Alice is built on top of machine learning so she gets smarter every year. Our objective is to lead entrepreneurs – or even pull them – through the path that is unique to them. So, if I am a female founder of a financial technology company and I’m African American and I live in Detroit, what I need is very different than a veteran, white male in San Antonio who’s opening a bakery. Whether we’re talking about a difference in geography, stage of growth, type of business industry, we’re trying to get smarter and smarter about helping people grow their companies.
We made a commitment very early on that we would prioritize what we call the New Majority. Collectively, the next majority of business owners will be women, people of color, people in smaller towns, the LGBT community, U.S. veterans, and military spouses. Really it’s the folks who are not as connected as their white male peers.
That said, Hello Alice is open to everyone and we have wonderful white males on our site, but what we wanted to do is ensure that, instead of launching a software and then catching up later with increasing diversity, that we made that commitment up front.
SCG – Do you have any new features you’re excited about?
EG - If you think of an area where business owners are being marginalized, we usually step in.
Disaster response is one area. We had no idea we’d be in that arena but we are based in Houston, San Francisco and Sonoma County, so our team went through Hurricane Harvey in Houston and then we went through the fires here and now floods. So we looked back and said, “How can we use our technology to help business owners navigate post-disaster?”
Some businesses might have damaged property or they’ve lost significant receipts and revenue. How do they navigate the SBA and the FEMA process?
What are other tools in an environment that is frankly really hard to navigate and find. So, we have been diligently mapping the same thing, utilizing AI, how do I find every resource that I can to help my business survive or thrive in a post-disaster environment?
SCG – One of the challenges of operating a small business at a local level can be permits and interacting with city and county agencies. It sounds like an Alice user would say “I want to start a bakery” and Alice would respond “you need permission from these agencies” and so forth.
EG – In some cities we’re as granular as providing the website and the phone number of the agency. We’re still mapping other cities. It’ll have a tool to help you get there. So, some cities, we don’t have it yet and the business owner will tell me, “Hey, this isn’t on your site. Here’s what I found.” And we’ll pop it up within a day.
There are things that every business, no matter what industry, where they’re located, have to do. They have to register, they have to do their taxes, they have to pay somebody. So, you’ll see even at the March 27 event, we’ll have somebody talking about accounting and finances. We’ll always have someone who will talk about customer acquisition since it’s our biggest question. We always have government there to hear what those owners need.
Sometimes that’s in the form of the SBA, sometimes in the form of city or state agencies, sometimes it’s federal. If you don’t have access or understanding of those fundamental basics, it’s very hard to go from there. And sometimes it’s a two-way conversation. For this event there was a lot of interest in how do I retain, not just achieve new customers but retain them?
SCG – You mentioned earlier the location of small businesses as a factor and I wanted to transition into talking about your role at the Rebuild Northbay Foundation. In interviews, Jennifer Gray Thompson, Rebuild’s executive director, has framed the organization’s mission around looking at a “new regional reality” for the five-county North Bay. To my knowledge, that’s a relatively new framing. In terms of the North Bay, how do you think of it as a distinct entity and the challenges small business owners face up here?
EG - The post-disaster environment has created this exchange of ideas almost out of necessity between Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Marin and the whole area. I think also business owners have had to be smarter about where are their customers going and coming from.I think the days that a small business stays in the same place for 25 or 30 years are gone, whether I’m a barber shop, dry cleaner, whether I’m a new business.
But, so where are your customers? You’ve got this massive flow of what I would call really critical mid-level professionals – nurses, electricians, construction workers – folks that are critical but they are a little more transient than in the past. Small business owners have to ask, “am I losing those customers or am I going to find a way to keep them”?
The last thing I’ll say is, this is nothing to do with disasters, but the expense and the extremeness of San Francisco.
I think you are seeing the value of business owners understanding, even if I had a small business brand, the farther North I go, the cheaper the rent is, the more space I have, the more access to customers I have and so on.
SCG – What has Rebuild Northbay been working on for the past year?
EG – Oh, man, we’re working hard. Rebuild Northbay is a body of volunteer board of directors and very deliberately coming from different counties and different sectors. Some nonprofit, some small business, some large business and what I would call some networks and advocacy folks.
The goal is to look at and advocate for what are the long-term needs of the region. We decided to look at three things: advocacy, communication and supporting local recovery projects.
Number one is advocacy, which includes taking business owners, families, and local policy makers to Washington DC and Sacramento to advocate for the funds needed to rebuild.
We organized families around the block captain program. Each 50 to 100 houses has a block captain. They are elected by the community to really represent the needs of that community. It’s been adopted in Larkfield-Wikiup and other areas. District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins is thinking of doing it post-floods with different businesses.
The second objective was to become a communication and convener system. So, we ended up pulling groupings together of all the community foundations in the region. We hosted meetings to talk with each other. It was how the block captains thing blossomed how is that communications going. It was this whole “how are we communicating on advocacy.” So we ended up building a website that’s very dynamic. If you’re a community leader, a family or a contractor, you can push or pull information through the site.
And the third area has been these episodic projects that live nowhere. It’s projects that aren’t covered by insurance or government. Maybe it crosses a county border so it’s not just one community foundation.
For instance, the wall in Coffey Park is owned by hundreds and hundreds of people. There’s a bridge in Larkfield that no one technically owned. There’s a ton in Lake and Mendocino counties as well that are just quiet, critical $50,000 here, $100,000 there projects that we meet with the five community foundations and say, “ok, is someone taking the lead?” If not, they’ll ask us to and then pull money for whatever. And we do all that and don’t take any administrative fee and so on.
SCG – In terms of the struggles for the regional economy, North Bay Jobs With Justice, a local labor nonprofit, came out with a report in November that highlights the big economic divergence in the local economy and all of the problems that causes, including causing workers to commute long distances. The report also predicts that it’s going to keep getting worse. About three quarters of the new jobs created in the next five or ten years are going to pay less than $20 an hour. Is Rebuild Northbay talking about things like that as well?
EG – We’re not. We’re not saying that’s not important by any means. Right now we’re focused first on the families and what do they need to rebuild their homes. Second, is helping existing businesses to survive the three-year hump which statistics show post-disasters are the hardest for these businesses. It’s not just the first six weeks after a disaster, it’s the first three years. So, we’re looking at things that are right here, right now. We also have a lot of employers on the board who are living that every single day and trying to figure it out themselves too.
SCG – I noticed that you also have the fourth annual Circular Summit coming up in May. That seems like a different group of attendees. What is the Circular Summit?
EG – Yes, it’s a totally different world. This actually pre-dated Alice. The Circular Summit is for women entrepreneurs who have companies that are destined to grow past that small business marker and how do we support them, educate them and ensure that they are getting the right connections.
So, what you’ll see is we have banks there, venture capitalists, a lot of national media to help tell the stories of the businesses and then, most importantly, they have each other. And so women leave very connected to having a support system to grow their business.
We made a commitment not long after the fires to try to bring it here because it’s a big partnership between a lot of groups and foundations. So, I hope it will bring a lot of revenue to Sonoma County because it’s folks from all over the country and the world flying in for it. And also just show that we are open for business, we have a lot of stuff going on, we also have a lot of talented founders ourselves in this environment. So, I’m excited to showcase our home here.
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