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When COVID-19 reared its head in the tri-state area in March, countless small businesses quickly pivoted. There’s no denying the sad fact that many have since gone under, but others found their groove by supporting the needs of their local communities.
Their triumphs offer a few insights we all can learn from. If nothing else, maybe you’ll find a new small biz or two to put on your radar and support this holiday season.
This NYC fashion label takes traditional Japanese kimonos and upcycles them into custom embroidered coats and jackets.
How they helped: Ichikawa felt helpless as she watched the city shut down from COVID-19. “I knew many designers who were making masks, but as a small business with limited resources, I wanted to make a meaningful impact for our front-line workers in their time of need,” she said.
She learned of ShoppingGives, which enables e-commerce sites to donate a percentage of profits to any 501(c)(3) charity.
“In no time I was supporting Fashion Girls for Humanity, a nonprofit helping to fund garment center factories that switched their manufacturing to making hospital-grade PPE for front-line workers nationwide,” she said.
Soon after, similarly minded, socially conscious retailers picked up Ichikawa’s bespoke kimono line — stores like Matriark in Sag Harbor, which donates a portion of sales to charities that support women’s equality, and Elizabeth Anthony in Houston, which supports No Kid Hungry. Compared to this time last year, Ichikawa is thrilled to report double-digit sales growth.
“Whenever anyone is faced with uncertainty and unpredictability, especially as a small business owner, it’s only natural to feel a bit helpless and frustrated,” she said. “However, if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that the only control you have in this life is over your own actions, so take it as an opportunity to do better in this world, and it will most definitely make you feel better.”
A farm-to-home delivery service for homes across Fairfield County, Conn., and Westchester County, Mike’s Organic partners with small farms to deliver fresh local produce, dairy, meat and more to your door.
How they helped: During lockdown, owner Mike Geller and his team heard that health-care workers were surviving on packaged and processed grub, with no fresh food to eat during their long, grueling days.
“We began donating organic, fresh fruit to local hospitals in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut,” said Geller. “This developed into a broader initiative we launched to combat food insecurity in the area, given it is at an all-time high.
Every week, we donate fruit and vegetables to those in need and help coordinate pop-up farmers markets with local charities to provide access to fresh produce.”
This benefits family farms, too, since many risked losing their businesses when they lost their restaurant and catering clientele.
“We realized if we expanded our offerings to operate more like a one-stop grocery delivery service, we would be able to better meet the needs of customers,” Geller said. “We continued sourcing from small, local farms, but especially during stay-at-home orders, people wanted to be able to shop with one provider for their grocery needs, so we knew we had to figure out a way to expand.”
In a very brief period, they were able to add more than 300 products to their Web site to meet consumer demand.
Geller stresses the importance of staying true to your company’s mission. “Find ways to build on your core principles that complement who you are as a business,” he said. “For example, we increased our product offerings significantly, but also stayed true to our organic roots and philosophy to connect consumers to healthy food.”
Best known for their “renegade tours” of museums in NYC and beyond, Museum Hack now runs a host of virtual programming, mostly through sister company TeamBuilding.com.
How they helped: When the pandemic broke out, Museum Hack created a grant program for free or discounted programs to nonprofits and schools. “Since our tours business was crushed by COVID-19, we moved to offering virtual events. We provide services to corporate groups, and the grants allow us to serve nonprofits, educational institutions and small businesses, too,” said co-owner Michael Alexis.
“We’ve put 10 years of work into the past six months,” said Alexis. “If your business has fallen apart, you need to put the same effort in that you did when you first got started.”
For Alexis, that meant turning to the data. First, he checked trends on Google for words related to the touring industry. “Virtual museum tours had quickly peaked and then plummeted,” he said. “But, virtual team-building seemed to have staying power, so we put our full operational capacity toward that. Trends and data will always be relevant in business, so start with that, build out a thesis, and then act on it quickly.”
Now, they’ve got a full itinerary of virtual bonding activities, scavenger hunts, storytelling workshops and more.
“One of the first testimonials we got for a virtual event was, ‘For 90 minutes, I forgot everything that was going on in the world,’ ” said Alexis. In a time where we crave normalcy, is there any higher praise?
WOS finds talent in underserved communities, trains them, and places them at employers like Mount Sinai, Prudential, PSEG and more.
How they helped: As a nonprofit, helping the community is ingrained into their fiber. Aside from standard recruitment and training services, they’ve made their Workforce Essentials Certificate free for anyone who has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
The program teaches soft skills such as literacy in business culture and self-esteem to help consultants prepare for job placement. Backed by Columbia University, WOS now offers this certification to “individuals who are underemployed or unemployed and looking to make a positive impact on both their professional success and personal life,” said founder Art Langer, Ph.D.
In addition to moving all of their training and operations online, WOS used the crisis as an opportunity to expand their reach. “This pandemic is accelerating the ongoing digital transformation we’re seeing in businesses,” said Langer.
“Anything a small business can do to utilize technology like Zoom and connect with customers online is going to go a long way.”