Running your own business is an adventure. Toss in a global pandemic, and the stakes are even higher for coming out the other side in one piece. Across the country, women-owned businesses are struggling to recover from pandemic setbacks. According to an Inclusive Finance Report from Source Funding, it is taking women three times longer to bounce back than businesses owned by men.
Locally, women entrepreneurs are faring a little better. Most attribute their survival during these strange times to loyal and understanding customers and a willingness to embrace change. More than a year into the global pandemic, local women-owned businesses have hit their stride. They modified, and adapted, and continue to do what is best for their employees, their customers and their businesses.
Modifications Amid Mitigation
When COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in March 2020, stay-at-home orders and other mitigation efforts were enacted in Allegheny County and throughout Pennsylvania. One of the orders included the closing of all non-essential businesses.
One of the biggest challenges for women-owned businesses is staying accessible while keeping employees and customers safe. “I was concerned in the months leading up to the initial shutdowns,” said Kelly Motter, an agent-owner with State Farm in Cheswick. “It is important to me to protect my team and my clients.”
Initially, insurance agents were considered non-essential under Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown orders. That meant Motter and her workers had to vacate their offices, and customers were relegated to conducting business virtually. Motter said that she had a bad feeling a month before the closure orders came that drastic measures might be necessary and began preparing for anything.
One of her first orders of business was to ensure her workers could work remotely. When Motter was confident they could, she sent them home—a week before the official shutdown orders. She remained in the offices holding down the proverbial fort until the state issued the lockdown. Then she, too, shifted to remote work.
What it meant for clients was they could no longer pay with cash or checks while all Motter’s employees were working remotely. “There was no one in the office to accept the payments. That was our only glitch when we shifted to remote work,” she said. Customers were notified of the change, and reminder signs were posted on the office doors.
Motter said the hardest part of the shutdown for her was the change away from in-person interactions. “I am a very relationship-focused agent. I prefer to meet with new and existing clients in person. COVID-19 changed the way we interacted with customers and recruited new customers. It was a difficult adjustment for me personally,” she said.
Nancy Reader, the owner of Hearth and Home Furnishings in Zelienople, had to close her store during the initial shutdown orders. She was forced to lay off her employees. Reader kept in touch with her employees during the shutdown to help maintain the company culture. One of the biggest challenges she faced was dealing with customer service departments at the factories from which she sources her products. “Customer service from most factories could stand a lot of tweaking,” she said.
Carol Kinkela, owner of Oakmont women’s boutique Carabella, said that she was able to shift to online sales when her storefront was forced to close during the shutdown.
“Our social media became critical to keeping the lights on. Our Bella Boxes—a try-before-you-buy concept—were conceived and accepted in great fashion,” she said. “I was shipping merchandise all over the country, carefully curating client-specific items and having a blast doing it.”
Her social media team kept the weekly social posts, emails, and the website updated and positive. The response from customers was beautifully received.
Unexpected Silver Linings
While the last year proved challenging, there were some unexpected silver linings. Amazing customers were right at the top of the list for these women-owned businesses.
When Motter had to shift to 100 percent remote work for the entire office, her customers were amazing and adapted to making online payments during the two months her offices were closed. Even though it was an inconvenience for some, they adapted. In May, insurance agencies were added to the list of essential businesses in the state, so Motter reopened her offices but opted to keep her employees at home to keep them safe while manning the offices alone.
Reader said that what helped make the pandemic situation more tolerable were her customers. “Our clientele is amazing. We had clients supporting us during COVID-19 and calling, making appointments, and purchasing from us,” she said. “They are comfortable with our staff, and we enjoy educating and supplying them with U.S.-made fireplaces and furniture. We have had customers return that purchased from us over 30 years ago!”
Kinkela also gave a shout-out to her customers. “To say Carabella has the most amazing clients is an understatement,” she said. “I put little treasures in each Bella Box to keep it fun and to show my sincere appreciation.”