After a spring marked by the closure of retail businesses, many have reopened in one form or another. As we approach the end of 2020, owners have adapted and are looking toward recovery for their small businesses, but the path there won’t be identical for everyone. Studies show that this pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women and that women business owners may face different challenges in reviving their businesses to pre-pandemic conditions. Three local business owners shared their experience and insights with the Business Record on what changes are in store for them as we continue fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.


 

Zumi Collection LLC
1141 42nd St., Des Moines
Owned by Lu Spaine

Can you provide a description of your business and how the pandemic has affected it? 
Zumi sells products from developing countries, and I focus on Africa and Asia and South America and I feature a good amount of Certified Fair Trade items and home decor and gifts and accessories. I also have a wholesale side; I have a Zumi line of clothing that I design and have manufactured in Thailand. All of my manufacturing is done with small shops, most of which are by women and involves family members working with them. I not only sell those items in the store here, but I also wholesale those to boutiques around the country.
Considering that my two businesses are both dependent upon consumer sales, the fact that businesses were shut down completely for two months just here in Iowa and sometimes longer than that in other areas of the country. Clearly being closed for that long period of time had a major impact on sales. I also normally do the farmers market downtown every summer, and that just didn’t happen at all, so that revenue is certainly gone. Since we’ve been open, the fact [is] that people are not particularly interested in going out to shop. People have gotten accustomed to staying home; they feel safer there and they tend to do online shopping or to do deliveries. The world of retail, especially for the smaller retail shops, has changed quite a bit. I have some very loyal customers who have been very good about ordering online or coming into the store to shop. … I’ve had a website for quite a while but I certainly have, as the word goes, pivoted toward putting more emphasis on improving my website and putting more products there that are available to be ordered and shipped.

Do you feel your business’s experience with the pandemic matches with other local small retail businesses? Is your business or specific industry different in any way in how it’s been affected?
It’s hard for me to know that. In talking to my retail customers, they’re facing the same problems that I’m facing. In terms of my suppliers, they’re also facing the same kind of problems trying to find ways to incentivize retailers to actually go ahead and order stuff and to stock their stores. And as an African American, this summer since the [killing] of George Floyd I have seen an uptick certainly in the willingness and desire of a lot of people to support African American-owned businesses here locally, and I’m very encouraged by that. I think that is much needed. All of us small businesses need support, and those that are owned by African Americans really need that support.

As a woman business owner, how has life changed for you in both of these roles since the pandemic began?
I don’t know if there’s anything different as far as being a woman. Personally, because I am an older woman, I don’t have children that I have to home-school or try to navigate the whole online learning situation. … One of the things I would say that [has changed] not necessarily as a woman in business but in terms of having women as my primary customer base I think it’s changed dramatically because people just aren’t going into the office, there’s a lot of online meetings happening. The need for clothing and accessories has dropped off dramatically. In terms of selling to or serving women, I think this pandemic has definitely made a much different impact on women in that industry than before.

What's been your biggest takeaway from 2020 in your roles as a woman, a business owner, both?
I have more value for maintaining a good, tight control on [my] business and being able to change when that’s necessary. One of the advantages of being a small business is that it’s much easier for you to do that pivot, make that change than if you’re a huge manufacturing company. So if I take anything away, it’s that I just need to stay vigilant, and I do wish I had paid more attention to online sales prior to this because I’m kind of reluctant to get into that world because it’s very competitive. But I see now that the pandemic has just spurred that on and people are going to do more and more online shopping even if things get back to normal. I think it’s still going to be a trend for some time. But I do think it will come back around, but I’m not sure that it will be in this generation. I think it’s going to take a while for that to happen.

What are your hopes and concerns for your business going forward?
If I’m hopeful about anything, I’m hopeful that they’re able to find a way to resuscitate the economy and stay safe at the same time. That would be my hope, and that’s beyond whether or not my business continues to be successful or not, or if it looks completely different in the future or not. I just hope there will not be a dramatic and long-term effect on the economy.

As a result of the pandemic, have the circumstances changed for women in business? If so, how? Is there anything that needs to change to support women-owned businesses? 
I think, again, with the current environment of protest and concern with minority business and particularly African American businesses, I think that has brought to focus inequity across the board. I don’t know that anything has happened that specifically singles out women in business, but I think that there is definitely a brighter light being shone on inequities in all aspects.
I think absolutely [circumstances have changed for] minority-owned businesses; I am in fact working with an organization that’s looking at how to provide funding to minority businesses to help them with promoting their business, primarily trying to get them to a point where they are taking part in the funding resources that are available. I think that focus on getting access to capital is important.


 

Salon Spa W
400 E Locust St.  #2, Des Moines
Owned by China Wong

Can you provide a description of your business and how the pandemic has affected it? 
Before the pandemic I simply may have said our salon provides hair, skin and nail services. But now, having seen the impact on our clients and team members of being closed 59 days and 21 hours, it is clear we also provide an emotional connection that is also deeply valued and needed now more than ever. 
From day one, we made a commitment to the physical and emotional health of our staff, guests and loved ones. This included more than the required closures and the limitations on capacity when we reopened. For example, significant investments were made in air-filtration with the installation of a Synexis Microbial Reduction System, the renovation of our space, and the use of hospital-grade disinfectant products, processes and protocols. We also focused on team and client engagement through online sessions, videos and delivery of special health and beauty kits.  
When our state’s governor announced we could reopen, two words I’ve never put together before best describe what I felt — restrained elation. Just 27 hours after receiving the green light, our team and a handful of guests, fully masked, began meeting outside on the sidewalk at staggered times for check-in, and together they carefully navigated new protocols throughout every part of the service to ensure we were taking care of one another’s health and safety. 
Recessions and economic downturns have tested our industry before, but the pandemic has been something unlike any other challenge. While adaptations to additional sanitation and safety requirements have been swift with good outcomes, the length of the shutdown, along with the limits on the number of customers that can be served in a space, has been devastating to many. Salon Spa W is fortunate to have had the benefit of 15 years of stable, year-over-year growth before the pandemic hit. This gave us the financial wherewithal to invest in the air-filtration equipment, space remodeling and safety equipment. We also received a loan from the Payroll Protection Program that helped with a short-term strategy for keeping staff paid. In short, we have fared better than many in our industry, but this is not cause for celebration but rather reflection on the devastation of the pandemic and the need for continued vigilance. 


As a woman business owner, how has life changed for you in both of these roles since the pandemic began?
2020 felt a bit like 2005, when we opened our doors and experienced many of the challenges faced by startups. It has once again been an exercise in reinvention, reflection and resilience. We have reinvented our business systems and space to optimize safety due to COVID-19; we are reflecting on racial equity and have taken action through education and outreach to be more inclusive and aware; and we are bolstering the resilience of our team and community by supporting mental health and wellness. 
In the months following the pandemic I also dove into the history of pandemics throughout the world. I believe the ability to learn from the past is a skill that both challenges and guides us to make sense of the context of a problem and what lessons might fall into our current framework.  This has included a focus on understanding the “how” behind the eradication of a pandemic and the decisions and behaviors of people that either helped or hindered the society’s return to health. Every decision and investment I have made has been made with that in mind. 


What's been your biggest takeaway from 2020 in your roles as a woman, a business owner, both?
As a speaker, consultant and female founder, I am often asked about two things I am passionate about: profit and purpose, which I liken to the head and the heart of the business. This year has reminded me why I believe there is a symbiotic relationship between the two and why so many leaders have long embraced the idea of doing well by doing good. What’s different for small business owners is that being profitable is an imperative to fulfilling their most fundamental purpose of serving customers, ensuring employees can take care of their families, providing health and retirement benefits that ensure a stable future, and having resources to give back to the community.
It was the combination of purpose and profit that enabled me to double down on making COVID-related investments that ensured the safety of all involved and demonstrated that we are, and will continue to be, a leader in our industry. Some of my decisions may not have made sense on the balance sheet in the short term, but they aligned with our values and future strategies. That meant significant investments in everything from how we kept in touch with guests, to product packaging and deliveries, to taking care of team members and investing in high-tech, high-quality safety products and measures. Yes, a calculated risk, but one I had confidence in based on the outcomes of past experiences where I used my head and heart, together, to make big decisions.  


As a result of the pandemic, have the circumstances changed for women in business, and how so? Is there anything that needs to change to support women-owned businesses? 
As a business that employs and serves women, I have seen firsthand the disproportionate impact and related struggles the pandemic is having on women. Furthermore, according to UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, it is estimated that 510 million women globally work in the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. I am deeply concerned about the generations of progress that could be lost, the new risks and economic challenges being faced by women, and long-term impact around the world and in our own community. 
I have both the challenge and blessing of wearing many hats, including mom and boss. In fact, right now I can see my baby sleeping in her crib in the corner of my office. Unfortunately, very few women have the latitude to both work and care for their children. According to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of a report issued in October, four times as many women than men have left the workforce due to COVID-19. One key reason is the lack of caregiving infrastructure.
While we won’t know the depth and breadth of impact for some time, clearly the consequences of the pandemic on women will affect the full spectrum, from widening the poverty gap to impeding their ascension to leadership roles. It is crucial that at every level of influence we target economic relief to industries that have been impacted the most and represent a high number of female and minority employees. Being intentional on this front and providing quality child care and education was important before the pandemic; now it is absolutely imperative.


 

All Makes
500 E. Court Ave. #150, Des Moines
Managed by Kelly Coenen, vice president of the All Makes Des Moines Branch

Can you provide a description of your business and how the pandemic has affected it so far? 
We are a full-service contract furniture and technology dealership. We thoughtfully design and provide office furnishings that optimize the way people work. Our business serves the needs and goals of the workplace, but what’s interesting is it’s not limited to any one industry, market, size or type of workplace. Because of that, we have always had to navigate all the different ways people work and use their environment. COVID-19 has only expanded on that. There’s people working more remotely, there’s different integration of technology into how they’re working and using it. Health and safety in the workplace is a major concern, and we need to understand how to address that within our business. 
Pre-pandemic, we were designing open collaborative environments and reducing square footage per employee. Now, we’ve made a shift where we are designing with social-distancing requirements in mind and with screens and barriers. Home office demand has certainly increased and technology has been a critical component to that. I think it’s really expanded on the types of things that we’re doing with our clients to make their environments safe and healthy for the workers to return to work if they're not already.
With many businesses keeping employees at home, emptying their facilities, everyone probably thought our industry would decline. Upon initial onset of the pandemic, I would say it did momentarily. However, with people returning to work, now, we're kind of being called back in to help redesign the space. We’ve [seen] a surge in work from home programs. I think the opportunity that we have that some businesses don’t, is that there is always a need for what we do as people will continue to work — how and where just looks different. So we’ve had to expand our reach and evaluate where the demand is — a common thread in businesses today.

Do you feel your business’s experience with the pandemic matches with other local small retail businesses? Is your business or specific industry different in any way in how it’s been affected?
In our industry, I'm sure that the competition has had a similar experience, in that there's always a need as people will continue to work. It's just a matter of recognizing the shift that's occurring, and making sure that we're informing ourselves of the new trends, the new innovative solutions and the new research on how to deliver that to our clients. So that could be what sets us apart. We pride ourselves on trying to stay in touch with what's happening, and what are the pain points and the concerns of our clients as they start bringing people to work or as they're shifting people to a work from home program, and then packaging solutions for them to solve those pain points. And so I think that we've seen success in doing so.

As a woman business owner, how has life changed for you in both of these roles since the pandemic began?
I think the pandemic has certainly added to the difficulty of being a female business leader. While business resumed in our locations pretty quickly, it took a lot sorting out to do so, especially in the beginning. With the initial closure of schools and day cares, I personally wasn’t left with any choice but to work from home and help our children learn virtually. This required an incredible amount of flexibility, patience and openness to change because I was doing teaching, child care and work simultaneously. This past year has put a lot of pressure on myself and a lot of women to maintain a positive work/life balance. I feel like the pandemic has caused me to work harder on both than ever before. I’m motivated by the people I work with, who are all working incredibly hard to persevere during this pandemic. 

What's been your biggest takeaway from 2020 in your roles as a woman, a business owner, both?
  It is helpful and inspiring to connect with other female business owners and leaders within our community. There's power in getting together with women that are going through the same things as you and pulling lessons and ideas from them. I think, despite the pandemic, we need to continue to do so. Taking advantage of virtual meet-ups and networking events is important. I think we could always use more of those opportunities. COVID has hugely shifted our way of life — how we work, socialize, live. I think if we can call on each other to still connect virtually, that’s really important. Also, we should be giving each other a lot of credit; it has been difficult to strike that balance between work and how COVID has affected our households and cut ourselves some slack that we are all doing great and getting through it.


What are your hopes or concerns for your business going forward? 
I hope that, as more businesses and organizations return to work, they use All Makes as a resource. COVID-19 has led our manufacturers to produce innovative, creative solutions to help promote health and safety in the workplace. There is a lot of information and tools available to help businesses navigate post-COVID office management. As people return to work again or find themselves having to rethink how they’re having employees be in their workspace, I think we can be a tremendous resource for them. That’s my hope, we have been successful in recognizing the change and adapting our business, so I hope 2021 brings continued success.

As a result of the pandemic, have the circumstances changed for women in business? If so, how? Is there anything that needs to change to support women-owned businesses? 
I think many women are experiencing more pressure to perform at work, while also managing the effects of COVID on their household. Many are working while caring for and teaching their children simultaneously. I’m sure there are many women who have downshifted or decided to step away from their career as a result. I think it is important for employers to recognize this, be flexible and accommodating, so we don’t force the loss of incredible female talent in the workforce.
If women want to continue to work and strike that balance, I think it requires employers to remain flexible. The 8 to 5 mentality just can’t coexist with that type of balance. As long as we’re able to get our task completed and we see success in our specific role, that should be the driving factor for evaluation of someone’s performance. 


Effects of COVID-19 on U.S. small businesses
In July 2020, 47% of women-owned small businesses rated their company’s overall health as “good,” a drop of 13 percentage points compared with before the pandemic when 60% said they were doing well. For male-owned small businesses, 67% said their businesses were doing “good” before the pandemic, and in July the figure only dropped 5 points.

From Q1 to July, 11% more men-owned small businesses said they would increase investments in the next year, jumping from 28% to 39%. In the same time frame, there was no change in the percentage of women-owned small businesses (32%) that said they would increase investments.
In Q1, male-owned small businesses said they expected increased revenue for 2021, and the figure did not significantly change in the July survey. More women-owned small businesses, 63%, expected increased revenue in Q1, but only 49% said so in July, a loss of 14 percentage points.

Fewer women-owned businesses said they expected to hire more staff after the pandemic took its toll, dropping from 31% in Q1 to 24% in July. The number of male-owned businesses expecting to expand their team actually grew between Q1 and July, from 31% to 36%. That creates a 12-point gap between the two, 36% to 24%.

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The report can be found at bit.ly/36kR7cv