Grit and grace: US women business owners persevere through COVID
A year after the first COVID-19 lockdowns began in the United States, Al Jazeera asked American women who own small businesses to reflect on the challenges and unexpected silver linings they’ve found.
One year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and a major threat, triggering the first round of economy-gutting lockdowns, the global economy is still very much in recovery mode — and small business owners have borne the brunt of the downturn.
Small- and medium-sized enterprises account for 90 percent of businesses worldwide and 50 percent of global employment. But even before the coronavirus pandemic, many didn’t have the access to capital, credit and technical know-how that their bigger competitors did — especially businesses owned by women and people of colour.
After COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in the United States in March 2020, states and cities passed a raft of stay-at-home orders that upended business and life as Americans knew it. While federal government help was promised, it didn’t always reach those who needed it most and often wasn’t enough to offset the financial blow from COVID-19.
Many small business owners were left to figure out how to survive by themselves: borrowing money from friends and family, tapping retirement and savings accounts and doing everything they could to keep their heads above water. The number of active US business owners plummeted by 3.3 million from February to April 2020 alone, with women experiencing a disproportionately large 25 percent drop in business activity.
Women entrepreneurs who had built businesses around delivering treasured, memorable in-person experiences — from wedding planners and travel agents to caterers and cafe owners — suddenly found themselves scrambling to adapt to a new virtual world. Others struggled to pay their employees, afford rent and keep the lights on while homeschooling and caring for young children. Some battled COVID-19 themselves.
A year after those lockdowns began, Al Jazeera asked 10 small businesswomen to reflect on the challenges and unexpected silver linings they’ve found. We checked in on women who had shared their stories with us earlier on in the pandemic and opened up the question to new entrepreneurs, too. This is part one of their stories in their own words — with all of the grit, grace and uncertainty that comes with a year like this one. (Read part two here.)
Leonya Harris, 51, chef and catering company owner in Illinois: ‘It is difficult for women and in particular, minority women, to be taken seriously in business ownership.’
My business partner, Devonna, and I met at church. We worked together in the church kitchen in a ministry to feed the homeless. As a result of our work in the ministry, we gained a good reputation and we began to get several requests to cook for big church functions as well as private events. When we officially started Heavenly Hands Event Catering LLC in April 2019, we did better than we ever imagined. We were booked almost every weekend that year, and we only did weekends because we both have full-time jobs.
We invested heavily in equipment and inventory, figuring that we would do double the business in 2020 that we had done in 2019. In January of 2020, we had already booked as many as 10 big events and had customers put money down towards each of them. When COVID-19 hit, it devastated our business. We had to either refund or credit monies that were received on those contracts. On top of that, we had signed a real estate contract in February to purchase a small restaurant.
Needless to say, the deal fell through and our earnest money is still in limbo as the seller is trying to sue us for breach of contract. I contracted the virus in late March. During my bout with COVID-19, I saw the effect the pandemic had on first responders. Upon my recovery, I began preparing and delivering meals to first responders on a monthly basis. It was our opportunity to be a being blessing to others.
Business is slowly picking up. This time has given us a chance to refocus and revamp our business. I am the head chef and have utilised the downtime to create new menu items and hone my other food preparation skills. Our personal chef service has become highly requested as people are stuck at home.
We have been blessed to have received various government grants and loans that we are using to rebuild. The silver lining in all of this is that we have a better understanding of purchasing commercial real estate and dealing with lenders. I feel that we were not taken seriously by the lender because we were Black females and were new to the commercial real estate game.
It is difficult for women and in particular, minority women, to be taken seriously in business ownership. At my other job in a federal prison, I never felt that I needed to be “extra hard” to do the same job as my male counterparts. However, my experience in business ownership is totally different. I absolutely have had to be more aggressive in order to be taken seriously. It’s not the method that I prefer, but I do whatever I need to do in order for my business to succeed.
Prayerfully, with everything that’s going on in the world now with race and gender relations, a change will come. That would be the real silver lining in all of this. We still have a long way to go, but we believe the best is yet to come.
Melanie Carugan, 28, beverage consultant and event planner in New Jersey: ‘When we finally come out on the other side, I hope to have grown more into a woman who can empower other women to take a risk.’
When the pandemic hit the US, I was busier than ever planning whisky tastings, baby showers and running the best sushi restaurant in my area. I was working 60 or more hours a week and running myself down, but I loved what I was doing and was supporting my team, so I pushed through. Then the mayor sent us all a letter saying we would have to close the next day. Boom – I was laid off with no warning and no plan ahead for myself or my coworkers or our business.
I ran through the small savings I had worked so hard to build up for the first time in my life. I had just bought a car and had to default on my payments, completely hurting the friend I bought the car from and preventing her from putting food into her children’s mouths. It just felt like a whole terrible snowball effect.
I still owe a whole month’s back rent to my landlord. Left with no other options financially, I pushed myself to create something of my own. I didn’t want to work 60 hours a week for people who didn’t appreciate it; I wanted to work for myself. I am a woman in power! I started Phoenix Rose, a mobile bartending and event company. Then I got a random direct message from a restaurant I did a guest bartending shift for and they asked me to consult for them. They later brought me in as a partner, and now I have a speakeasy-style cocktail bar there — The Sinatra Room — with my name behind it.
When we finally come out on the other side, I hope to have grown more into a woman who can empower other women to take a risk, to be themselves and to take no grief, especially in a male-dominated industry.
Eva Johannesdottir, 43, restaurant owner in New Jersey: ‘The biggest challenge is not knowing what to expect. How long will it take us to build up the business again?’
When it first became clear to me that the pandemic was very real and raging in March 2020, I made the decision to temporarily close my small neighbourhood restaurant. First and foremost, it was to protect my staff and my family from possibly coming in contact with the virus. What I realised quickly thereafter is that I would not have been able to manage both my restaurant and the challenges of homeschooling a third-grader while having a three-year-old at home as well. We remained closed for seven weeks and during that time, I was able to focus on my children.
Once we reopened the restaurant, spring had arrived and we resumed with outdoor service only. We made lots of changes to the business model, including different hours, different food offerings and using only disposable plates, cups and cutlery. My biggest fear upon reopening was not being able to protect my staff and my customers. I felt more comfortable using disposable items to limit the possible spread of the virus even though it went directly against our business model of earth-conscious practices and is much more costly.
Throughout last year, we averaged a 50 percent decline in business, and by December of 2020, we had lost 75 percent of our income, which forced us to shut down a second time. On top of that came rising food costs and difficulty sourcing quality produce. Vendors were offering limited product lines and longer wait times, but most did offer lower minimums to ensure we could still get the products we needed. We also opened up our restaurant to make healthy meals for those experiencing food insecurity or homelessness in our community.
A year after that first lockdown, we are now in the process of getting ready to open up again. The biggest challenge is not knowing what to expect. How long will it take us to build up the business again? Will our previous customers return? We will have to balance our staffing carefully, as that is our biggest expense. A surprising challenge has been finding and retaining staff. Many are not comfortable working in the service industry right now and even more have been forced to leave their jobs in order to stay home and care for children.
I am not ready to end this journey, so my hope is that we continue to manage a safe place for our customers and staff and that I can continue to employ members of our community and eventually bounce back to where we were before all of this started.
Kristen Lowrey Larson, 40, luxury travel adviser and teacher’s aide in California: ‘I learned to slow down and my wanderlust dwindled as I shifted my focus to what I was able to do versus what I could not do.’
My whole identity pre-COVID revolved around travel. Friends and family would say things like, “Oh, you’re actually home!” or “Where’s your next trip to?” My identity had become about being busy all the time, and I liked it that way.
I became a travel agent five years ago and felt I had finally found a lifelong career. My business was growing year-over-year and I was finally able to quit my second job and sell travel full time. My husband and kids were understanding and even joined me at times, but I felt like I needed to travel to be happy.
One year ago, I embarked on a travel agent trip to Australia. We were sent home three days early because of COVID and the borders closed the day after we returned to the US. What followed was the cancellation of every client trip I had booked for the year. Travel agents typically aren’t paid in full until the client’s trip concludes, so I Iost basically all of my income.
I filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and managed distance learning for my older daughter and pulled my other daughter out of daycare, becoming an instant stay-at-home mom. My kids and I moved through the phases of quarantine together – learning to do our own nails, baking and napping. The summer felt a little easier as our family settled into life at home, a house we had just moved into in January 2020.
I learned to slow down and my wanderlust dwindled as I shifted my focus to what I was able to do versus what I could not do. Today, I am working as a full-time teacher’s aide at my daughters’ school and I am happier than I was a year ago. I am happier to be home and more settled. Travel sales are starting to pick up again, but I think I’ll enjoy planning more for others, and less for myself.
Bobbi Mongkhon, 35, outdoor equipment company owner in Idaho: ‘We knew customers were eager to get out into nature even amid stay-at-home orders, but the challenge was connecting with them.’
The pandemic has created its own unique challenges for my outdoor gear business, Paddle Idaho. We sell high-quality, waterproof bags that people can take on outdoor adventures like tubing, kayaking and hiking. When the pandemic hit, all of the outdoor expo events I had lined up for 2020 were cancelled, and that’s where a majority of our revenue was made. We knew customers were eager to get out into nature even amid stay-at-home orders, but the challenge was connecting with them.
There were three major pressures and decisions we faced financially. The first pressure was ensuring the rent at our Boise headquarters was paid on time. We contacted the property managers and agreed on a plan to reduce the monthly rent to a more manageable amount. The second pressure was continuing to run a viable business with a goal set for future growth even amid the uncertainty of COVID. The third pressure was balancing a budget to pay bills and find alternate ways to get the sale. Sometimes this meant we had to be creative. Home delivery services were taking off, so we felt we had to offer this service to compete with other retailers. We began to deliver our products to local customers’ doorsteps.
We also had to focus more of our efforts on online sales, but the online market has numerous competitors. We learned the importance of social media and how valuable it is to have a presence online. The key to developing a base for customers to interact with is creating unique, captivating experiences online with videos and photos, and so we did. We worked with local photographers and videographers to bring our products to life in the wild landscapes where they are put to use.
The pandemic is creating a new normal for everyone. As a business owner, you must be willing to adjust to keep your business on course. You should never give up. Recognise and strategise for the challenges you currently face and the possible challenges ahead. There are always options — reevaluate them constantly and seek help from local resources if you are stuck.
Nicole Marie Zillman, 33, wedding planner and travel adviser in California: ‘I’m very excited for what’s over the horizon in the coming years.’
Since 2020, my wedding planning and travel company, Nicole Marie Events & Travel, has been at the mercy of government mandates and international border closures.
It seemed like around every corner there was an event or travel plan waiting to “blow up” in my face and force me to wave goodbye to my income. As a planner, I take a small deposit at the beginning but don’t get paid in full until the wedding actually takes place, so I lost out on a significant amount of money when weddings were cancelled last year. On the travel side, if my clients don’t actually take the trip, I don’t see a dime.
There was also a lot of backlash against wedding professionals from wedding parties who refused to cooperate with restrictions during the lockdown. It put wedding planners in a stressful situation because we don’t have the authority to enforce state mandates but we are liable and can be fined if we provide services for noncompliant groups who want to go above attendance limits, for example.
As small business owners, we lack the benefits of traditional employees like sick days, paid time off, or short-term disability. We also can’t get fired, so are usually the first to sacrifice our work to manage our households. This is especially true as a woman and mother. When my children’s daycare closes, I have to balance work and caretaking since they don’t stop needing medical care or food just because a pandemic affects my ability to work.
However, there are also opportunities that have come out of the pandemic. It’s now easier than ever to connect with my community online, as more people participate in virtual events and social media. The normalisation of working from home and virtual meetings now allows me more time with my family. I’ve pivoted my focus to destination weddings, especially in the Caribbean and Mexico, and elopements for couples who got tired of waiting for COVID to end to get married.
I’ve also focused on leisure travel for couples, families and small groups of friends who just want to get away. My sales in 2021 are already 300 percent that of 2019. Overall, I’m very excited for what’s over the horizon in the coming years and couldn’t be happier with the evolution of my business.
This is part one of a two-part series on small businesswomen in the United States one year after COVID-19 lockdowns began there. Read part two here.