Help and Hope for Virginia’s Small Businesses

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, business owners have faced difficult questions — how can we continue to conduct business if our physical location is closed? Can we afford to keep paying our employees? Will we be able to reopen when all this is over — and when will that be?

To help Virginia’s small businesses during the crisis, Pete Snyder ’94 and his wife Burson Snyder created the nonprofit Virginia 30 Day Fund. The fund provides $3,000 forgivable loans to Virginia-based businesses that have operated for at least a year and have between three and 30 employees. Businesses who receive loans from the Virginia 30 Day Fund do not need to pay them back, but they are asked to pay it forward to help others in need when they are able.

The Snyders have partnered with fellow alumni and members of the William & Mary, Williamsburg and greater Virginia communities to grow this fund quickly. In just three weeks, they have raised more than $1 million and helped more than 150 businesses. The fund has also become a model for similar efforts in other states and municipalities. 

“The Virginia 30 Day Fund simply would not exist without William & Mary,” says Snyder. “The ideas, help and much of the initial core group came directly from our friendships through William & Mary and the network in greater Williamsburg. During this really horrible time for our commonwealth, our country and the world, William & Mary alumni have rolled up their sleeves to pitch in.”

When the crisis began, Snyder, an angel investor and self-described serial entrepreneur, knew he wanted to do something to help. He and Burson also knew they couldn’t do it alone. Pete Snyder’s first call was to his friend and “big brother,” former W&M rector Todd Stottlemyer ’85, to start kicking around ideas.

“This is like a two-fronted war. On one front is health and wellness, and you have the heroes who are saving lives every day. But then you have an economic front of the war that is ravaging our small businesses,” says Snyder. “We know a bit about business, so we enlisted in that war.” 

They saw two key issues: First, small businesses, many of which need a physical presence in storefronts to operate, would be hit hard by stay-at-home orders and mandated business closures, and many would not have enough savings to continue paying employees. Second, the federal $484 billion relief package signed into law on April 24 would take time to reach these businesses.

They decided to address these issues by offering funding of their own. They called it the Virginia 30 Day Fund, in the hope that it would help cover the estimated 30-day gap for small businesses between when they applied for federal funding and when they received it.

Snyder and Stottlemyer, who previously served together on the W&M Board of Visitors and W&M Foundation Board, enlisted the help of current Vice Rector Will Payne ’01, as well as alumnus Curtis Gordinier ’92, Virginia Senators Mark Obenshain and Chap Peterson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark and many other business leaders and philanthropists. What started with an initial $100,000 in seed funding from the Snyders has grown to more than $1 million. 

On May 4, the Virginia 30 Day Fund announced its first public-private partnership — a collaboration with the Greater Williamsburg Partnership and Williamsburg Community Foundation to create the Greater Williamsburg Small Business Relief Fund. Resources will be transferred to the Virginia 30 Day Fund to provide loans to small businesses in the region. 

It was established with $10,000 in seed money from the Economic Development Authorities of the City of Williamsburg, James City County and York County, and has already raised an additional $23,500 — enough to help 11 businesses.

“Todd and I are thrilled and proud to help the community that means just so much to both of us,” says Snyder. “Here is where some of America’s first entrepreneurs founded the most successful start-up in the history of the world — the United States. Hope and optimism springs eternal in Williamsburg, and that’s where we get our inspiration.”

Williamsburg City Council Member Barb Ramsey ’75 helped conceptualize the partnership and is encouraging the community to help support this initiative and apply for funds as needed. Inspired by the success of challenge matches for initiatives like William & Mary’s One Tribe One Day, the university’s annual giving day, Ramsey has challenged the community to match her pledge to the fund. Fellow council member Benny Zhang ’16 also helped with the project and has contributed to the fund.

“It’s not just that businesses are closed because of the virus, it’s also what will happen when they reopen. In a tourism-based economy, we are particularly sensitive to changes in how and when people travel and the effects of social distancing,” Ramsey says. “Before the pandemic, Williamsburg saw significant growth in new businesses, especially in dining and entertainment, and we want to be sure they are retained — and that the businesses W&M students frequent are still here for them in the fall.”

She sees the fund as not only financial assistance for businesses but a symbol of the community coming together to help all members thrive.

“It’s important to show our future business leaders, the next generation, how we work together in the spirit of community to build the resilience of our businesses,” she says. “We want a robust economy for all residents — including the 4000 alumni who live in the area, our students and the many visitors we welcome each year.”

The Virginia 30 Day Fund has also partnered with the Raymond A. Mason School of Business to help process the more than 2,000 applications they have received from businesses so far. MBA students from both William & Mary and University of Virginia assist in sorting and qualifying applications for funding, part of the Virginia 30 Day Fund’s mission to ensure applications are processed swiftly so funding can be used as soon as possible.

For Snyder and Stottlemyer, the fund is about more than providing financial assistance: it’s also about providing hope to business owners.

“It’s easy to feel pretty down in this environment, especially if you’ve put your life savings into starting your own business and now everything is collapsing around you,” says Stottlemyer. “But when you get a phone call from a stranger saying ‘We really think your business has value and worth, and we are going to help’ — it provides you with energy, confidence and optimism that you can fight for your business to survive.” 

Although Snyder hoped the fund would not need to be around for more than a matter of weeks — “you can’t be an entrepreneur without being optimistic,” he says — as the crisis progresses, he plans to keep Virginia 30 Day Fund operating as long as it is needed. 

“Every dollar that’s raised goes directly to help someone else and bring hope in a very difficult time,” says Stottlemyer. “I give Pete and Burson all the credit for demonstrating great servant leadership that is every bit in keeping with William & Mary’s history of service to others and service to the community.”