UM B.E.A.R. Initiative Helps Small Businesses Survive COVID-19

Right before COVID-19 hit, Purusa Yoga had just started to grow. Thanks to help from UM’s B.E.A.R. initiative, Fernando (third from left), was able to move classes online and keep Purusa open. (Photos courtesy Sherika Fernando).

MISSOULA – It’s been almost a year since Sherika Fernando’s yoga studio went dark.

Purusa Yoga had just begun to grow when COVID-19 hit. After upping her cleaning standards, Fernando had to rapidly pivot to offer the practice outdoors and then switch to online classes while monitoring what was happening with the pandemic.

“It was shocking and very scary,” she said.

So, when her father sent her some resources from the University of Montana to help businesses stay afloat, Fernando, who earned a psychology bachelor’s degree from UM in 2013, took advantage to keep Purusa’s doors (virtually) open. 

UM launched its Business Emergency Assistance & Recovery (B.E.A.R.) initiative last spring to help business owners like Fernando during the pandemic. Through a webpage set up by a student team in conjunction with Blackstone LaunchPad,  B.E.A.R. streamlined UM’s Accelerate Montana economic development programs into one location, making it accessible for business owners.

Jenn Stephens is a 2005 Master of Business Administration UM alumna and regional director for the Missoula Regional Small Business Development Center, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary at UM. She said so far there have been more than 70 queries from business owners. Some have just asked questions, but others have been in dire need of resources.

“Many business owners think ‘Hey, I need some help right now,’” Stephens said.

This is a headshot of a dark-haired female with makeup and a blue Eastern outfit
Sherika Fernando, a 2013 University of Montana psychology alumna, began Purusa Yoga in Missoula three years ago based on her own experience using yoga for healing. 

Purusa is a labor of love for Fernando, born from her experience in high-trauma work with children and teens and incorporating healing yoga into her own life. Through combining spiritual healing with the ancient eastern practice of yoga from her Sri Lankan roots, Fernando started Purusa for those who have gone through injury, illness and loss to help them develop strength and flexibility, calm anxiety, heal their pain and feel empowered.    

“I learned in my own journey how necessary this was,” she said. “Not only did I have my academics and that background in biological psychology, but as I made that change in my own life, I really started to see how much the yogic practice helped me to heal and recover and really changed my entire life from the inside out.”

Through help from SBDC – as well as relationships she had built through the Missoula Downtown Association and UM’s Blackstone LaunchPad – Fernando applied for grants to alleviate the financial burden of moving online and losing the building housing Purusa Yoga.

SBDC at UM is one of 10 regional centers across the state that support small business growth through offering counseling and training in finances, strategic planning and more for business owners. SBDC applied for funding from the United States Small Business Administration during the pandemic, citing a health emergency as a natural disaster.

Stephens said SBDC serves as a “warehouse of information” helping businesses access “life-saving money.”

For Carla Proud the money she received for her business during the pandemic was much-needed.  As owner of Every Nook and Cranny commercial cleaning, she found cleaning work hard to come by as businesses closed their doors.

When her daughter learned about UM’s B.E.A.R. initiative, she too decided to reach out for help.

Proud, who also attended UM, said she was shocked after her daughter helped her apply for a grant through B.E.A.R.’s resources and she received a $16,000 loan. With money allowing her to replace equipment and pay up on her vehicle, lease and storage unit, she was able to sleep soundly.

“The money that was loaned, it was just amazing and it did help me,” she said. “It lifted some of the burden of being scared. It gave me peace of mind.”

Fernando received two state grants: a business stabilization grant to support wages, rent and expenses and a business adaptability grant to help in the transition online. She also earned a small business grant through the Missoula Downtown Association and has applied for a Women’s Business Center impact grant to help her find a new studio location.

“It just kind of evolved in a very serendipitous way,” Fernando said.

Proud has continued cleaning during the pandemic and hopes Every Nook and Cranny, which she started in 2017, continues to grow despite the pandemic.

She is extremely grateful to SBDC at UM for giving her financial peace of mind.

Purusa Yoga just celebrated its third anniversary. Fernando said businesses can always seek help within the UM and Missoula community and other business owners, who lift each other up.

“You don’t have to do it all on your own,” she said. “That’s huge. I think as business owners you can get really scared and feel alone. It’s really helpful to know you can always reach out more, and it’s a strength.”


Contact: Jennifer Stephens, regional director, Missoula Small Business Development Center at the University of Montana, 406-493-4702,

By Courtney Brockman, UM News Service