Main streets devoid of foot traffic. Clubs and concert venues with no performers or crowds. Restaurants only allowed to bring food to cars by the curb. These are just a few of the challenges small businesses have faced since the novel coronavirus pandemic spurred unprecedented public health and safety regulations.

To help them survive, the University of Maryland and the Maryland Small Business Development Center (SBDC) are launching a “Small Business Policy Hack-A-Thon” to bring together people from across the state to brainstorm new initiatives.

“We are in an unprecedented situation here,” said Julie Lenzer, chief innovation officer at the University of Maryland. “The answer is in our innovative entrepreneurs and small businesses.”
 
UMD students, faculty and staff are invited to fill out this registration form, and then take part in a Sept. 17 kickoff meeting where everyone will be divided into teams with at least one small business and student representative, and pick a specific policy area focus: new and small minority- and women-owned businesses; fostering the small business support ecosystem; child care for working families; workforce development; and supporting nonprofits.
 
Teams will spend the next several weeks researching and producing policy proposals and present them to a bipartisan group of legislators from the Maryland General Assembly in a virtual event on Oct. 21, potentially influencing what bills are considered in the annual 90-day session that begins in January.

“With so much at stake, we can’t afford to work in silos,” said state Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard), who originally envisioned the concept. “I’m excited for this effort to engage with the community to come up with real solutions, and unleash the creativity and innovation that is possible when unlikely partners come together.”
 
Since March, the SBDC, which is affiliated with UMD, has provided counseling to 2,700 small businesses and training to nearly 11,000 people, in addition to securing tens of millions of dollars in new investments and disaster-related financing for them.

Lenzer hopes that bringing new groups of people together can stimulate not only creative policy ideas, but also stress the need for community support of struggling small businesses.

“Small businesses in general are pretty resilient,” she said. “(But) it’s taken a toll. Their life savings are at stake.”