The pandemic has been an economic disaster for women. Some took advantage of it.
By this spring, Scriven, 32, was working at a software company, her plans for a wig business on hold. Then covid-19 changed the economic landscape, and she watched co-workers — as well as her own mother — get laid off from their jobs.
“My mom had been at the same company for almost 20 years, and what did she get in the end? A small severance check,” Scriven says. “I saw this and thought: I don’t want to be that person. Even if starting a business is risky, I want to be in control of what happens in my life, professionally and financially.”
In April, Scriven launched Allure Wigs, a made-to-order wig company, joining the ranks of pandemic entrepreneurs betting they can weather one of the worst recessions in history. As of December, more than a quarter of all small businesses in the United States have closed, according to data from Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit based at Harvard University tracking the pandemic’s economic effects. Among those still in business, many fear for their futures. Half of small business owners said they could survive only one more year under current economic conditions, according to a recent survey by MetLife and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Yet entrepreneurship is up. As of mid-December, there have been more than 1.5 million new business applications in the United States, up 82 percent in the third quarter compared with a year ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many of those businesses are being started by women out of necessity, because the timing is right or both. Welcome to a pandemic-fueled rise in female entrepreneurship.
A new survey from the professional women’s network AllBright found that 1 in 4 of its members plan to launch a business. (AllBright doesn’t reveal membership numbers but says it has “tens of thousands” of U.S. members.) Debbie Wosskow, the organization’s co-founder, says those surveyed expressed a desire for more autonomy in their work and control over their time.
Data compiled for The Washington Post by the professional networking site LinkedIn found that the share of female entrepreneurs on its platform grew 5 percent year-over-year, from March through November, more than double the average pre-pandemic. LinkedIn’s analysts looked at female members who had changed their title to “founder” during the pandemic.
“That’s an awful lot to be trying to cram into a week,” Spar says. “For some women, entrepreneurship has become the only good option. You have women in desperate situations who lost their jobs, their rent is due, and they are now making cake pops, potpourri, doing consulting.”
Of course, many women don’t have the time or resources to launch a start-up, a risky venture in the best of times. But there are some women, Spar says, with the financial resources and means to make the leap. For them, the pandemic has become an opportunity.
Scriven says she launched Allure Wigs, which sells wigs made of human hair imported from China, including the “Cutesy Curly” wig starting at $195, for under $5,000. She reached out to former students of her wigmaking classes and advertised on Facebook, Instagram and Google. Her first sale came from a Mother’s Day advertisement. Now she has between eight and 10 orders per month. “It feels really good to see I’m doing this for myself,” Scriven says. “And it’s working.”
After three years as a Zumba fitness instructor, Martha Palacios, 36, had planned to lease a space and open her own fitness studio, Social Joy, in late 2020. But by early March, Palacios began to panic as gyms canceled in-person classes because of covid-19.
Palacios, who lives in Dallas with her husband, decided to launch Social Joy immediately, but it became a very different business than she had imagined. “I had already invested so much in this,” she says. “I had to figure out how to keep things going.”
She spent about $15,000 on equipment, software, web design and legal services and advertised her first class on Instagram in March. “There were more than 100 people in the live stream,” she recalls. “Once class was over, I cried.”
Business has grown every month and Palacios says she plans to retain the virtual component indefinitely, as another revenue stream, even after she is able to open her brick-and-mortar studio.
“Without this moment we are living in, solopreneurs like Martha would never have made this shift, and would never have had me — and lots of other people like me — as customers,” said Harvard’s Spar, who has taken some of Palacios’s online classes.
For working mothers Asya Geller and Talia Friedman, the need for flexible schedules — and control over their day-to-day lives — pushed them into entrepreneurship. After a decade at the multinational auction house Sotheby’s, both left the firm in early 2020, citing management changes and the loss of an important mentor. Geller and Friedman were also reevaluating their careers and the toll they were taking on their personal lives. (Between them, they have five children under age 6.)
They began looking for positions with more flexibility, but two months later the coronavirus hit, and all their job opportunities vanished. It was then Geller and Friedman realized how much of their self-worth came from working, and how much of the responsibility for the house and children — even in dual working families like theirs — fell to women.
Although they stress that they have “modern and supportive” husbands, without child care or school “it became incredibly clear that the balance in the bank wasn’t the balance at home,” Friedman says. “I don’t know one woman who didn’t experience this, and that includes Asya and me.”
Fortunately, they already had an idea for a new business. In January, a friend of Geller’s who owned a Pilates studio in their Connecticut town mentioned she needed help with marketing. “I thought, someone like myself could come in and revolutionize things for her,” she says. “And I started thinking there has to be this connection between small businesses that can’t afford — and often don’t need — full-timers and people with unique scheduling needs, like me.”
Geller discussed the idea with Friedman and the two women created a platform where U.S.-based small businesses can connect with a variety of job seekers, especially those not necessarily looking for full-time, 9-to-5 jobs.
Geller, 36, and Friedman, 39, initially thought they would build the platform “on the side” once they found full-time jobs, but the pandemic changed all that. They decided instead to throw themselves full-time into entrepreneurship and launch their new business, Werkzy. Start-up costs were about $15,000. For the initial launch announcement, on Nov. 10, they reached out to all their personal and professional contacts — about 1,200 people.
“That definitely gave us a kick-start,” Geller says. Two weeks later, the site had 20 jobs listed, 50 job seekers registered and had facilitated three matches. “It feels really good,” Geller says. “Werkzy would never have existed without the past six months. It’s been an odd kind of blessing that we’ve been able to start something we feel really passionate about.”
Geller and Friedman are joining the ranks of female business owners whose numbers had been rising long before the pandemic. Women owned 42 percent of small businesses in 2019, compared with about 4 percent in 1972, according to American Express’s State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. But, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they have also been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. Just 47 percent of women-owned small-business owners said business was “good,” according a Chamber report released in August, compared with 62 percent of male-owned firms.
That’s not stopping new entrepreneurs like Bridgette Taylor. After graduating from Harvard Business School in May, Taylor, 30, accepted a job at a consulting firm, but her start date was delayed because of the pandemic. Like so many others during the lockdown, Taylor spent months in Manhattan mixing cocktails for herself during Zoom happy hours. Before graduate school, Taylor had spent years working as a business strategist. Now, with some time on her hands, she thought she would try starting a business.
“I wanted to be doing something I was interested in. My partner and I were enjoying cocktails with friends virtually, and somehow, this brought me closer to them during this weird time,” she says. “I found purpose in it.”
She also developed an interest in vodka. “I did a lot of Googling,” she says, “and figured out how to start an alcohol brand.” Taylor found a contract distiller in Ovid, a town in Upstate New York, that also grew the corn to be distilled for her vodka. Together, they created a recipe for Harridan Vodka that made it slightly higher proof than traditional vodka. That gives it a “tequila-like flavor that stands out in cocktails,” she says.
Taylor bootstrapped the business with about $35,000, most of it coming from a student loan, and found suppliers willing to work with a small start-up.
The first batch of Harridan Vodka, which retails for $55, shipped in early December and is being sold in a handful of New York City liquor stores. Taylor says the whole experience has been a big aha moment for her. Though she still plans to join the consulting company, “I love being an entrepreneur,” Taylor says. “I didn’t realize how much I would love it.”