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Opportunity Zones: A chance to do good

(BUSINESS MARKETING) Opportunity zones offer a chance to breathe new life into economically-distressed communities.

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opportunity zones

Opportunity Zones are a beautiful mechanism for growing communities that are struggling, but some critics have put this process in a negative light. The following is an expert’s perspective on just this topic.

Jim White, PhD is Chairman and CEO of Post Harvest Technologies, Inc. and Growers Ice Company, Inc., Founder and CEO of PHT Opportunity Fund LP, and Founder and President of JL White International, LLC. His new book is a heartfelt rallying cry for investors: Opportunity Investing: How to Revitalize Urban and Rural Communities with Opportunity Funds, launched March 31, 2020.

Dr. White holds a B.S. in civil engineering, an MBA, and a doctorate in psychology and organizational behavior. He acquires struggling businesses to revive and develop them into profitable enterprises using his business turnaround strategy.

In his own words below:

BY JIM WHITE, PHD

Every investment vehicle has a twist some folks don’t like. Real estate, stock options, offshore tax havens, and even charitable gifting can be criticized for certain loopholes.

Likewise, some detractors have pointed to opportunity zones, a newer investment vehicle unveiled in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by Congress in December 2017. This bold, bipartisan plan allows for private investment capital to be channeled into some of the most distressed communities in the nation, serving the struggling residents and the investors alike.

Personally, I believe it is one of the noblest initiatives to emerge from Washington in years.

I grew up in a sharecropper cabin in what would have been an opportunity zone in Salem, South Carolina. What would an influx of investment dollars have meant to my low-income community? More and better-paying jobs to offset unemployment. People relocating to my town for those jobs, reversing population decline and increasing real estate values. New life breathed into local businesses. The increased tax revenues could have helped improve failing infrastructure. Social challenges, like crime and drug use, could have decreased. Better resources for my family and our neighbors, such as health care and education, would have emerged.

Today, there are nearly 8,800 distressed communities dotting the country that have been identified as Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZs). These neighborhoods were designated from census tracks, treasury, and state leaders as communities that would benefit from an influx of investment dollars directed through Qualified Opportunity Funds (QOFs) to reinvigorate businesses, rebuild infrastructure and bolster residents.

As our economy continues to falter, more and more businesses file Chapter 11 and unemployment soars under COVID-19, I believe we are heading toward a painful expansion in designated opportunity zones. Even with the latest round of CARES stimulus money many people will have no way to rebound from this crisis.

One of the unexpected consequences of the coronavirus quarantine is that many businesses are discovering that, in reality, they can succeed through working remotely. This success is a double edged sword, meaning that if a business can thrive with employees working offsite then commercial real estate will suffer. And when companies no longer require brick-and-mortar locations, a local domino effect ensues; ancillary businesses, from cafés to gyms to print shops in and around a commercial office environment will subsequently close. The ripples will be felt through many other industries, including construction, transportation, energy, and retail.

Qualified Opportunity Zones and Qualified Opportunity Funds are instruments that can help stop a downward spiral. When a sponsor is able to present a project that meets the objectives of the QOZ initiative, both the QOZ and the investors benefit. That’s a win!

And, it’s not only urban centers that benefit from investment dollars. Forty percent of opportunity zones are rural. Even with often plentiful food, water, energy and other natural resources, deep poverty exists, and too many of America’s 60 million rural residents lack access to education and healthcare. A declining population often goes hand in hand with failing infrastructure as tax money for repairs dwindles. Many households lack broadband, something the vast majority of Americans take for granted.

Despite the challenges, rural residents are often surprisingly resilient and resourceful. According to The Hill (“Rural America has opportunity zones too”), rural residents create self-employment opportunities at a slightly higher rate than the national average. Their challenge is to connect with investors and access funding, more of which is directed to small business investment on the coasts.

In fact, many entrepreneurs and small business owners don’t know about Qualified Opportunity Funds. If a business is located in an opportunity zone it is eligible for direct funding by reaching out to the QOFs with a specific request for funding.

More than any investment plan that’s come before, I believe opportunity zones have the greatest capacity for positive social and economic impact. Spread out over many communities, these investments can help our nation flourish as a whole.

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

Business Marketing

How Instagram’s latest redesign is more sinister than it seems

(MARKETING) Instagram’s latest updates have all but repurposed the app into an online mall – one that tracks everything you see, say, and buy on it.

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Woman in hijab taking photo on her smartphone for Instagram, affected by the redesign.

Instagram started the new year off with a makeover in their latest redesign. The notifications button teleported to the top of the screen in the app’s new design, and now the “Shopping” button is in its place.

It’s a subtle yet insidious switch. You’re much more likely to select the marketplace out of habit, by accident, when searching your next dose of online validation.

The app has always been a vital tool for artists, craftspeople, and small businesses to promote their work — including myself. And the new redesign is intended to boost the visibility of those groups. At least, that’s Instagram’s argument.

In an article for The Conversation, Nazanin Andalibi of the University of Michigan School of Information provides a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes.

“By choosing to make the Shop tab central to its platform,” she writes, “Instagram is sending its users a message: This platform is a business, and interactions on this platform are going to be commodified.”

As an advertiser, Instagram’s popularity has exploded in the last decade. Even big pharma is in on the surge, with seventy pharmaceutical companies purchasing ads on the app in 2020. (That made it the fastest growing pharma advertiser of the year.)

As we know, Instagram not only runs ads, but also uses user information to filter who sees what advertisements. Now, shopping is explicitly a central function of the app. It sometimes feels like a digital mall… And that’s not really what people signed up for.

I’ve had my account for since I was a teenager, and the experience I have using the app today is totally different from what it once was. For one, it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate paid ads from regular user content on Instagram.

And second, I use Instagram to promote my work, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing personal details about myself anymore.

Because, to use Anadalibi’s words: “Sharing or seeking information about a difficult, personal experience on a social media platform and then having the platform capitalize on an algorithmic understanding of the experience–which might or might not be accurate–is problematic.”

That goes doubly so for youth, who may not be fully aware of that engineering.

For instance, a teenager searching for body positive posts might receive personalized ad results for weight loss programs. A human would probably realize that’s an inappropriate, even triggering suggestion. But algorithms don’t think that way.

Alongside the redesign update, Instagram has also faces recent criticism for their Community Guidelines, which prevent suggestive and explicit images and speech.

And whether you agree with the guidelines or not, don’t be fooled. Instagram isn’t concerned with uplifting its creators, or protecting its young users. Their only goal is protecting their new bottom line, and staying as ad-friendly as possible.

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Business Marketing

Ghost Reply has us asking: Should you shame a recruiter who ghosted you?

(BUSINESS MARKETING) Ghost Reply will send an anonymous “kind reminder” to recruiters who ghost job candidates, but is the sweet taste of temporary catharsis worth it?

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Stressed woman at a laptop with hands on head, considering if she should send a Ghost Reply.

People hate to get “ghosted” in any situation, personal or professional. But for job seekers who may already be struggling with self-esteem, it can be particularly devastating. Ghost Reply is a new online service that will help you compose and send an email nudge to the ghoster, sending a “kind reminder” telling them how unprofessional it is to leave someone hanging like that.

Ghost Reply wants to help you reach catharsis in all of this stressful mess of finding a job. Almost all of the problems and feelings are compounded by this confounded pandemic that has decimated areas of the workforce and taken jobs and threatened people’s financial security. It is understandable to want to lash out at those in power, and sending a Ghost Reply email to the recruiter or HR person may make you feel better in the short term.

In the long run, though, will it solve anything? Ghost Reply suggests it may make the HR person or recruiter reevaluate their hiring processes, indicating this type of email may help them see the error of their ways and start replying to all potential candidates. If it helps them reassess and be more considerate in the future and helps you find closure in the application/interview process, that would be the ideal outcome on all fronts. It is not likely this will happen, though.

The Ghost Reply sample email has the subject line “You have a message from a candidate!” Then it begins, “Hi, (name), You’re receiving this email because a past candidate feels like you ghosted them unfairly.” It then has a space for said candidate to add on any personal notes regarding the recruiter or process while remaining anonymous.

I get it. It’s upsetting to have someone disappear after you’ve spent time and energy applying, possibly even interviewing, only to hear nothing but crickets back from the recruiter or HR person you interacted with. It’s happened to me more than once, and it’s no bueno. We all want to be seen. We all want to be valued. Ghosting is hurtful. The frustration and disappointment, even anger, that you feel is certainly relatable. According to several sources, being ghosted after applying for a job is one of the top complaints from job seekers on the market today.

Will an anonymous, passive-aggressive email achieve your end? Will the chastened company representative suddenly have a lightbulb go off over their heads, creating a wave of change in company policy? I don’t see it. The first sentence of the sample email, in fact, is not going to be well received by HR.

When you start talking about what’s “unfair,” most HR people will tune out immediately. That kind of language in itself is unprofessional and is a red flag to many people. Once you work at a company and know its culture and have built relationships, then, maybe, just maybe, can you start talking about your work-related feelings. I believe in talking about our feelings, but rarely is a work scenario the best place to do so (I speak from experience). Calling it unprofessional is better, less about you and more about the other person’s behavior.

However, it’s unclear how productive Ghost Reply actually is. Or how anonymous, frankly. By process of deduction, the recipient of the email may be able to figure out who sent it, if it even makes it through the company’s spam filters. Even if they cannot pinpoint the exact person, it may cast doubts on several applicants or leave a bad taste in the recruiter’s mouth. It sounds like sour grapes, which is never a good thing.

There may be any number of reasons you didn’t get the job offer or interview, and they may or may not have something to do with you. Recruiters answer your burning questions, including why you may have been ghosted in this recent article in The American Genius.

Ultimately, you will never know why they ghosted you. If it makes you feel better or at least see the issue from both sides, the amount of job candidates ghosting recruiters after applying and even interviewing is equally high. Some people simply either have awful time management skills or awful manners, and at the end of the day, there’s not much you can do about that.

Focus on your own survival while job hunting, instead of these disappointing moments or the person who ghosts you. It will serve you better in the long run than some anonymous revenge email. There are other ways to deal with your frustration and anger when you do get ghosted, though. Try the classic punching your pillow. Try taking a walk around the block. If it helps to put your frustration into words, and it very well may, then do so. Write it on a piece of paper, then burn it. Or type it all in an email and delete it. For your own sake, do NOT put their email address in the “To” line, lest you accidentally hit “Send.”

The sooner you can let it go, the sooner you can move on to finding a better job fit for you.

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Business Marketing

Free shipping is everywhere… how can small businesses keep up?

[BUSINESS MARKETING] Would you rather pay less but still pay for shipping, or pay more with free shipping? They may cost the same, but one appeals more than the other.

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Person standing over pacakge, sealing with masking tape.

When it comes to competing with huge corporations like Amazon, there are plenty of hurdles that smaller businesses have to cross. Corporations can (and do) undercut the competition, not to mention garner a much larger marketing reach than most small businesses could ever dream of achieving. But this time, we want to focus on something that most people have probably chosen recently: Free shipping.

How important is free shipping to consumers? Well, in a 2018 survey, Internet Retailer discovered that over 50% of respondents said that free shipping was the most important part of online shopping. In fact, when given a choice between fast or costless shipping, a whopping 88% of those surveyed chose the latter option.

Part of this has to do with the fact that shipping costs are often perceived as additional fees, not unlike taxes or a processing fee. In fact, according to Ravi Dhar, director of Yale’s Center for Customer Insights, if it’s between a discounted item with a shipping fee or a marked up item with free shipping, individuals are more likely to choose the latter – even if both options cost exactly the same amount.

If you’re interested in learning more, Dhar refers to the economic principle of “pain of paying,” but the short answer is simply that humans are weird.

So, how do you recapture the business of an audience that’s obsessed with free shipping?

The knee jerk reaction is to simply provide better products that the competition. And sure, that works… to some extent. Unfortunately, in a world where algorithms can have a large effect on business, making quality products might not always cut it. For instance, Etsy recently implemented a change in algorithm to prioritize sellers that offer free shipping.

Another solution is to eat the costs and offer free shipping, but unless that creates a massive increase in products sold, you’re going to end up with lower profits. This might work if it’s between lower profits and none, but it’s certainly not ideal. That’s why many sellers have started to include shipping prices in the product’s overall price – instead of a $20 necklace with $5 shipping, a seller would offer a $25 necklace with free shipping.

This is a tactic that the big businesses use and it works. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?

That said, not everyone can join in. Maybe, for instance, a product is too big to reasonably merge shipping and product prices. If, for whatever reason, you can’t join in, it’s also worth finding a niche audience and pushing a marketing campaign. What do you offer that might be more attractive than the alluring free shipping? Are you eco-friendly? Do you provide handmade goods? Whatever it is that makes your business special, capitalize on it.

Finally, if you’re feeling down about the free shipping predicament, remember that corporations have access to other tricks. Amazon’s “free” prime shipping comes at an annual cost. Wal-Mart can take a hit when item pricing doesn’t work out. Even if your business isn’t doing as well as you hoped, take heart: You’re facing giants.

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