Erica Higgins was ready to get her life started.
Just a few months out of chiropractic school in Dallas, the Glenrock native was just starting to see everything come together. After graduating last August, Higgins got married, moved back home and began planning to make her dream — an affordable, family-focused and neurologically centered chiropractic practice — into a reality.
In the fall, she’d begun the long and arduous process of touring vacant buildings around the city, and in February, she thought she’d found the one. She prepared herself to sign a lease, begin remodeling the space and get to work applying her trade on her terms.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Higgins suddenly saw her plans upended. After deciding to wait several weeks before signing a lease, the real estate firm that was ready to lease the space out to her stopped responding. The bank she planned to use to finance the business pulled out, citing a need to commit itself to its existing clients struggling under the stresses of a global pandemic.
And across the country, new business owners like herself wondered when things would ever return to normal.
“We were wondering if we were even going to be able to leave our homes, whether people were even going to be able to come to my business,” she said. “What’s the point of opening if people cannot come in? At that point, that’s just money that we’re spending.”
After a few weeks, things seemed to begin returning to normal in Wyoming. As restrictions on businesses were lifted, Higgins found a new space and, after leaving her bank, she found financial services locally that were able to facilitate her needs in town and at interest rates that worked. However, months out from opening, Higgins found herself facing one problem that just wouldn’t go away: the challenge of opening a business and getting the word out amid a pandemic that continues to infect hundreds of Wyoming residents every week.
“We wanted to build relationships within our four walls but also outside of our four walls,” Higgins said. “We wanted to empower people not only in their health, but in their lifestyles and their families and their relationships. And so that’s what our marketing was geared towards. We planned on doing a lot of in-person events, like street fairs and farmers markets and holistic health fairs. … It was kind of hard to even get people to know what we were offering.”
The world — and the economy — was dramatically different from the one Higgins hoped to be working in. And she wasn’t ready to engage in it. While businesses have begun to reopen their doors, they now find themselves accelerated to a world where ordering happens online, walk-in appointments are discouraged and stumbling upon something often means finding it on Google rather than spotting it from the sidewalk. In that world, marketing is a completely different language, one best understood by a class of marketing professionals, photographers and videographers.
But those creatives — many of whom tend to work on a freelance or client-by-client basis — were struggling too, with few prospects lining up to spend money on websites or advertising help.
As it turns out, the businesses struggling to pay their bills to begin with may have needed their help more than ever.
“One of the things we found when COVID-19 happened was that a lot of our clients just were not prepared to transition their business online,” said Christine Langley, Business Counselor and COVID-19 Director for the Wyoming Women’s Business Center, a microlending program for women-owned businesses based out of Laramie. “We mean everything down to how we communicate with our clients, what we’re doing and what our plan is going forward. If you don’t have an online communication tool, then that makes it really hard.
“If you can’t post on Facebook what your new hours are, what your new requirements are or what your health policies are going to be when they come in to your location, if your only platform to communicate with your customers was when they came in and saw you, then it’s going to be difficult going forward in this new era,” she added.
Where some would see that as a challenge, the Wyoming Women’s Business Center saw an opportunity.
Earlier this year, the federal government passed a multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief bill with billions of dollars set aside for small business. At the state level, the Legislature set to work distributing those funds to businesses around the state through a number of grants intended to offset losses, pay people’s wages and keep the pump primed on the economy.
Through the process, some of those funds found their way to the Wyoming Women’s Business Center with the mission to find a way to stretch those dollars as far as possible — not only to keep businesses alive, but help them adapt to the changing times.
What they came up with was a program to not just put money in people’s pockets and put people back to work but also help entrepreneurs adapt their business models to the conditions of a global health crisis.
Here are the basics: Businesses needing help getting the word out apply to the Wyoming Women’s Business Center for assistance. Then, the business center plays matchmaker, finding that business the creative talent they need — whether it’s photography, marketing, videography or web design — to help them build a plan to promote their business amid a pandemic. Knowing that the businesses likely are unable to pay for the services, the business center then gives grant money directly to the creative businesses which, in turn, give their clients — who can then receive e-commerce support from the center — the ability to earn money in a pandemic economy.
For Higgins — who’s hoping to open for business sometime this fall — the service was exactly what she needed to build her brand at a time when a large part of the population is still anxious about large crowds and public gatherings, which she said minimizes her ability to get the word out. By hiring experts to help, Higgins is able to not only tap into that audience, but also do so with a message and professionalism only professionals are able to curate.
“Everyone’s on social media,” she said. “I’m on social media, my friends, my family. But being personally on social media and having a business social media page are just vastly different. Because you’re reaching more people, you want to do it in more of a professional manner than just like, showing me hanging out with my niece and my parents’ house. It’s just different. … Even just learning to be consistent is a huge thing.”
The program is quickly growing in popularity. Since launching on June 10, the Wyoming Women’s Business Center has amassed more than 150 clients statewide, with approximately 45 creative service providers in towns from Sheridan to Wheatland. And while the payoff has been immediate, Langley said the business-to-business relationships cultivated by the program could have even greater benefits down the road: a greater level of economic resiliency for Wyoming’s business community.
“My hope is that some of these business relationships can continue or blossom in the future,” Langley said. “So if you were able to select a vendor in your local area to develop your website, maybe a year or two years from now, you may be ready for another update or you may be ready for new headshots from a photographer. If you had a great experience with a photographer that you got matched up with through the Women’s Business Center, what’s the likelihood you’re going to call them again a couple years from now? Probably pretty high. And so now we’ve developed kind of a strategic alliance between these businesses in Wyoming where they can support each other.”
The concept has already left an impression on Higgins, who said the entire process has encouraged her to be more intentional in how she participates in the economy, even if it’s more challenging at times.
“It might be cheaper for me to just order chairs from Amazon or from some big company,” she said. “But I think after COVID happened, it’s caused us to be more intentional and to think, ‘OK, can we get our office chairs here? Can I get something similar for a similar price here and support someone’s business here?’ We always like to say we support local, and I think that my family does. But we’ve been way more intentional now.”
As Monika Leininger sought to complete her master’s degree, she dreamed of combining her dual majors of social work and natural resources into a career. She found that opportunity working for the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
“I’ve always had a real deep connection and care for people,” the 2018 University of Wyoming graduate said. “All of my work and everything I do is driven out of care and concern and recognizing the humanity of people.”
She credits her parents for helping direct her path. Both work in the psychology field.
“They steered me in the direction of social work,” Leininger said. “I always wanted to find a way to incorporate some sort of environmental aspect into my work and my education. I ended up declaring a dual major in environment and natural resources after I’d taken a class in environmental justice through the political science school.”
She views that as a missing link in social work.
“Most of my educational focus … has been on environmental justice issues and, in particular, putting them under a lens of social work and how social workers can be more aware, screen and assess their clients for issues like pollution,” Leininger said.
Social workers think about “all the factors contributing to people’s lives” but pollution isn’t “ever taken account,” she added.
“It’s not really something I felt was in the main discourse of social work education, educating around environmental justice issues. I made that the horse I was riding on.”
This is a new realm in social work, according to Dr. Kirsten Havig, associate professor of social work at the University of Wyoming.
“Research tells us over the last few decades that impoverished and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental pollutants of all sorts (and they) have less political power,” she said. “If our environments affect our lives … we have to make sure all people have the same access to clean water, air, etc. It all comes down to fairness and protection and uncovering vulnerability and oppression and trying to do something about that.”
A publication centered on Leininger’s thesis, Promoting Environmental Justice Research and Practice for Social Workers in a Rural State: Methodology and Findings of a Pilot Qualitative Study was published in Murray State’s Contemporary Rural Social Work Journal.
“That was original research with data she collected right here in Wyoming — the first of its kind,” said Havig, who served as Leininger’s thesis chair and co-authored the publication.
“Monika is kind of a trailblazer, not only in Wyoming, but nationally,” she said. “She’s one of the few social workers doing environmental justice work. Monika is making a career of it, and that’s quite rare. She’s truly a leader in that.”
Leininger began her work as an organizer with Powder River Basin Resource Council while in Laramie. Her primary focus was agricultural but then more projects were added.
“We had some Laramie members … wanting to try to work toward carbon emission reduction,” the Natrona County High School graduate said.
Working with those members, city officials and others, she helped a “carbon-neutral by 2050” resolution pass in March 2020.
On June 1, she relocated to Lander.
“There’s interest in Lander following in the footsteps of Laramie,” she said.
Her work involves meeting with community leaders and residents as well as speaking with legislators, and tackling various issues affecting communities, such as groundwater contamination near Pavillion. Much of her work ties back to her education.
“When I wrote my thesis on social workers’ awareness of environmental justice issues in Wyoming, I learned about a lot of these issues that I work on today, such as the groundwater contamination in Pavillion, air quality problems in Pinedale, issues in the center of the state … regarding releasing fracking wastewater,” Leininger said.
“She is committed, passionate and resourceful, and all within the context of being a really committed Wyomingite,” Havig said. “Monika is determined to better her home state.”
Leininger speaks to the professor’s graduate and undergraduate students at times.
“They call her a ‘rock star,’” Havig said.
Leininger said she’s “passionate” about encouraging young people, including in the realm of politics and policymaking.
“I’d like to see more young people learn and engage with their government and with the policies that trickle down and impact us all,” she said. “Being a young woman at the legislature and at these different regulatory body meetings, I look around and I don’t see young people represented. It makes me feel in those spaces that I’m not welcome there, that I don’t belong there. The only way we’ll ever see the change that I believe my generation wants to see is if we show up and we start making those rooms somewhere where we belong.”
She added, “I feel deeply attached and connected to Wyoming as my home. I appreciate my roots and being from this state and proudly want to help make this state better and help provide a sustainable future and economic and energy landscape for those to come. My ability to connect with humans and to want to serve and make the society and the world better for all of us drives my work and keeps me going.”
Many have helped her along her journey thus far, she said, including her parents, colleagues, faculty and friends.
“I’ve had really awesome support and role models throughout my life, including … a myriad of strong, (tough) women,” Leininger said. “I just feel so supported, and it’s a real privilege to have that in my life.”
“I believe she’s a rising star,” Havig said, “and I believe she will continue her commitment to Wyoming … and improve life for all of us.”