Adam McCloskey of the Louisiana Small Business Development Center at LSU is helping protect small businesses.
Most think they’re too small to be targets when that often makes them the best target.
Louisiana small businesses are lining up to receive free services through the LSU Cybersecurity Clinic, the first such clinic in the nation to be funded by the National Security Agency, or NSA.
Meet Amanda Floyd Bovino, owner of the pet boarding, daycare and grooming business Royal Treatment in Baton Rouge; Chris Hilliard, chief operating officer of Suds Laundry Services, or “Uber Eats for laundry,” in Baton Rouge; and Konda Mason, president of Jubilee Justice, a nonprofit working to bring climate-friendly rice farming and economic equity to Black farmers in Central Louisiana. All appreciate the need to be cyber-safe, while looking to the LSU Cybersecurity Clinic to understand what that really means for them.
Most think they’re too small to be targets when that often makes them the best target.
Small business owners often lack the fundamental knowledge to even know what concerns or weaknesses they have, or what they can do, affordably, to protect themselves.
Small businesses are often used by cyber criminals as stepping stones to hack and attack larger organizations.
“Nearly perfect targets,” said Adam McCloskey, director of the Louisiana Small Business Development Center, or SBDC, at LSU, one of 10 regional offices throughout the state. “I work with at least a hundred small businesses a year, and while most understand that cybersecurity presents a threat to them, there are only two or three that have taken proactive steps to protect themselves. Most think they’re too small to be targets when that often makes them the best target.”
This is why McCloskey partnered with Aisha Ali-Gombe, associate professor of computer science in the LSU College of Engineering and director of the newly NSA-funded LSU Cybersecurity Clinic. Together with LSU cybersecurity students and faculty in engineering, business and law, they are developing a menu of critically needed services to help protect small businesses in Louisiana from cyberattacks.
“Small business owners often lack the fundamental knowledge to even know what concerns or weaknesses they have, or what they can do, affordably, to protect themselves,” Ali-Gombe said. “That’s something we’ll help them figure out, to make them less easy targets for attackers.”
Amanda Floyd graduated from LSU in 2010 with four minors: business, religion, sociology and communication studies.
“They all, weirdly enough, come together,” Floyd said. “You need to be well-rounded when you run a business. You must understand your community and know how to talk to people.”
And to pets, as it turns out. Floyd has spent the past 14 years building a booming pet grooming and boarding business, Royal Treatment, with help from LSU all the way. LSU Innovation and the Louisiana SBDC at LSU have worked with her on multiple business plans, from her early days grooming dogs at a veterinary hospital in her hometown of St. Francisville to hiring her first employees and now operating one of the largest pet care businesses in Baton Rouge with over 30 employees caring for dozens of cats and dogs each day.
“People think we’re corporate because we’re large, but we’re a locally owned and operated non-franchise,” Floyd said. “We’ve been in the LSU 100, the fastest-growing LSU graduate-owned businesses in the world, every year since we became eligible.”
“But with growth comes growing pains,” Floyd continued. “I trust my IT guy but am interested in working with the LSU Cybersecurity Clinic because I also know how much I don’t know. I’m looking to launch e-commerce and all our data is in the cloud, our point-of-sale system, all that, and we have cameras in the upper suites that our clients can access securely through an app. It takes a lot of intelligent machinery to run a business, and it’s nice to have peace of mind.”
During the pandemic, when her business was the most vulnerable, Floyd lost thousands of followers on social media and had to start over from scratch after her accounts got hijacked.
“Facebook and Instagram thought I was a fake person,” Floyd said. “It was devastating.”
To start her e-commerce business and do it securely, Floyd looks forward to once again sitting down with LSU to look at options, numbers and potential risks.
“It’s been a while since I was a student, but LSU is still there for me and my business,” Floyd said. “They sit down with me to map things out, make sure I understand where I’m going and what I’m looking at. It’s a blessing to have that, especially when you’re working your tail off.”
“Any time you’re dealing with technology, you have to be concerned with cybersecurity,” said Chris Hilliard, chief operating officer of Suds Laundry Services, which he describes as a model very similar to “Uber Eats, but for laundry.”
“All the value we have is in our app, in our technology,” Hilliard added.
Suds was started in 2018 in Baton Rouge by four partners, two of whom are LSU alums. Their original business strategy was to pick up dirty clothes from business professionals and overworked parents, have their clothes cleaned by local partner establishments and return with freshly pressed shirts, suits, dresses and folded laundry.
“We were really gathering steam when Covid hit and our business was wiped out overnight,” Hilliard said. “No one was dressing up to go to the office anymore and not many people wanted their laundry outsourced due to the pandemic, so we flatlined.”
But as one dryer door closed, another one opened. Instead of cleaning for individuals, Suds pivoted to servicing businesses and taking on larger contracts.
“Truth be told, we didn’t know if we could do it, but we had to say yes,” Hilliard said. “That then developed into our commercial services branch, doing it on a larger scale, and LSU was there the whole time, helping us with customer discovery.”
Suds worked with the Louisiana SBDC to find their exact target market.
“I’m talking about drilling down,” Hilliard said. “Time and again, LSU has helped us find our true target audience, and that’s pivotal. LSU also gave us a customer discovery grant that allowed us to learn from other people in our industry and connect with mentors.”
“As we grew, our friends at LSU went from consultants to cheerleaders,” Hilliard added.
Next, Hilliard plans on sitting down with LSU to discuss the kinds of services Suds could receive through the LSU Cybersecurity Clinic.
“We’re pretty secure in our transactions, but growing our business comes with strengthening our cybersecurity,” Hilliard said. “With all of this information we’re gathering from customers, it’s important to us that our cybersecurity is top-notch and keeps their data safe and sound.”
In Central Louisiana, on five acres of a former cotton plantation called Hard Times, a network of Black farmers is developing a more climate-friendly way of growing rice. The network is supported by a nonprofit, Jubilee Justice, led by Konda Mason, a self-proclaimed “activist who loves entrepreneurs.”
“We’re smack-dab in Alexandria, Louisiana,” Mason said. “The universe really has a great sense of humor, me living on a plantation, but it’s home. We’re teaching farmers how to grow organic, regenerative rice in a method called the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, while also teaching consumers how to be more food secure.”
Jubilee Justice leases land from Inglewood Farm, the largest organic farm in Louisiana, and sells organic vegetables at the local farmers market. It recently opened its own cooperative, solar-powered rice mill to allow participating farmers full control of their product, from growing to milling to sales, to retain more of the value they’re generating.
“We do all specialty rice,” Mason said. “We work to close the gap with Black farmers who’ve been losing their land to instead create a crop that will yield more value for them and regenerate the soil.”
Jubilee Justice operates an experimental farm for rice research on 35 varieties with as little irrigation as possible to preserve resources and the environment. The practice of flooding rice fields generates methane-producing bacteria, putting worldwide rice production on par with the aviation industry as far as global greenhouse gas output, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. Instead of flooding their rice fields, Jubilee Justice farmers practice the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, increasingly common in Africa and Asia.
Mason recently connected with the Louisiana Small Business Development Center at LSU and the regional office at LSU Alexandria.
“Since we’re so data driven, I really want to plug into LSU and LSUA and the services that are there,” Mason said. “I personally have had cybersecurity things happen that have scared me, and we do so much of our business operation online, from payroll to how we do our books and track expenses. To be as organized as possible, this means being online. It also means access for people who want to do bad things.”
“We’re interested in working with the LSU Cybersecurity Clinic because anything happening to Jubilee Justice would just be devastating,” Mason added. “After all, this is the world we live in, and we’ve got to know it.”