For solace from the stress, she turned to a long-forgotten pastime of hers: making tasbih, or Muslim prayer beads. “It took me about a month of making tasbih again to decide that this is what I was going to do,” she says. “I was going to quit my job and career, and start my own business.” She followed through on that promise this past August by launching Grounded Revival, a jewelry store based in Alberta, Canada.
The pandemic, she says, gave her “the time to research and come up with designs for my product line. I am not sure I would have gotten here if it wasn’t for [it].”
They say necessity is the mother of invention — it is, at the very least, a parent of many startups. While the coronavirus crisis has forever altered our lives, and has had devastating economic consequences for millions of people, it has also fostered a groundswell of entrepreneurial spirit, especially among women.
The U.S. Census Bureau saw a significant uptick in new business filings over the course of the pandemic, with more than 4.4 million new firms created since March 2020 — a 24-percent increase from the previous year. Data compiled for The Washington Post by LinkedIn found that female entrepreneurship grew 5 percent during roughly the same period, more than double the pre-pandemic average.
A Pandemic Startup Boom
Much of the rise in entrepreneurship is a consequence of unemployment, which continues to run rampant, with 114 million jobs lost worldwide last year. In the U.S., rates “peaked at an unprecedented level, not seen since data collection started in 1948,” says the Congressional Research Service, a public policy institute. By December 2020, the number of permanent jobs in America lost swelled to 3.3 million.
In what has been dubbed a “she-cession,” women have lost more jobs than men as industries dominated by women — think service or retail — have been hit the hardest. Internationally, women suffered 5 percent more job loss overall than men, the International Labour Organization says.
Mel Tepeyac was one of them. After 9 years as a manager at a legal institute in Phoenix, she was let go during the pandemic. “I needed income and … everything appeared to be shutting down. And with two small children, one of whom has Down syndrome, I was put in a situation where it was ‘sink or swim.’”
In April 2020, she started up a bilingual digital marketing firm, Mevios Media, which caters to education and healthcare firms, as well as an Etsy shop that she runs as a side hustle. She learned the ropes of building and running her online businesses by watching tutorials. It hasn’t been a smooth path, she says, but she’s landed several clients so far, and it’s kept her family afloat.
A joint survey from global payroll service Gusto and the National Association of Women Business Owners shows that Tepeyac isn’t alone in her need-driven reasons for launching. A third of new women entrepreneurs polled cited job loss and lack of new opportunities as their reasons for starting up.
The Ladies Who Launched
We recently put forth our own call for women who started up mid-pandemic to tell us their experiences. It yielded well over 100 replies from entrepreneurs near and far who have been navigating the tricky process of starting up while also surviving a pandemic.
And they’ve launched everything — from online consulting firms for fellow entrepreneurs or parents, to virtual activity centers for people of all ages, to e-commerce sites that sell makeup, toys, clothing and more.
Jen Hogan of Atlanta is one such entrepreneur. After a 20-year career in corporate marketing, strategy and finance both here and abroad, Hogan had just taken a job in 2019 managing Delta Airlines’ SkyMiles program. “Then the pandemic happened,” she says. “Airlines and pandemics don’t go along well.”
When Delta began cutting back, Hogan took a voluntary severance package last July. “I figured that there were people who needed that job more than I did,” she says. That same month, she launched her own business coaching firm, Sakura, to share what she’d learned in the corporate world with others.
“This was my chance to do something that I truly loved,” she says. “It was like the universe was telling me that the nagging voice I had at the back of my mind no longer had any excuses clouding it.”
Indeed, a common thread in the responses we received from new business owners was that this radical shift in our lives forced them into taking a leap — whether because they had to, or simply because they wanted to — that they may never have taken otherwise.
Theresa Levine gets it. She’s the founder of her own law practice, which she launched in November 2020 — 7 months after the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything for her.
“I left one of my city’s largest, most prestigious law firms to begin clerking for a newly elected New York judge in January 2020. The courts shut down in February. By the end of March, I no longer had a job,” the Endwell, New York lawyer says.
She describes the experience, and the months of unemployment that followed, as “horrible,” “devastating” and rife with shame. But Levine had years of experience and a robust support network to fall back on — and over time, she began to see the professional potential in our now largely-online way of life. So last fall, she launched her virtual firm, which helps clients (in particular, survivors of domestic violence) start their own small businesses.
Finding the Good
The circumstances that led these women to startup life may have been dire. But optimism and yes, even appreciation for new opportunities were also recurring themes in the callout replies we received from women business owners.
“The pandemic allowed me to really focus — less distractions, less ‘busy-ness’ — while still having plenty of time for myself, for walks, for the simple things,” says Vikki Louise, who owns a life coaching firm in Manchester, United Kingdom, that she launched last February, leaving behind a 10-year career in finance and tech just as the pandemic was spreading. It was a shift she had wanted to make anyway — lockdowns simply gave her the excuse to go for it.
Justyna Malota, the New Jersey-based founder of accessory brand Isle Wilde, says the additional time at home led her to “revert back to what made me feel fulfilled” by giving her a chance to, at last, focus more on her jewelry line. She also holds down a job as a project manager for an AI software company. Before Covid-19, she contented herself with working on her creations in whatever small pockets of time she could find. “I knew I wanted to make it an official business, but that little voice told me I wasn’t ready and that I just need more time.” Like Louise and others, time was what she got by being forced to work from home, and she launched her venture in August 2020.
And some of these new business owners see great potential in our new collective virtual savvy — which is why New York lawyer Levine says she plans to keep her offerings online no matter what. “Taking calls on video in a secure manner is commonplace now. Exchanging documents securely and receiving timely updates should not be a special accommodation. Video conferencing can handle captioning, so making accommodations for individuals with different abilities is easy, if you take a few minutes to offer it,” she says. “It’s a brave, new, more inclusive world, if we allow for it.”
Between the new professional opportunities and the personal benefits — such as more time for themselves and their families — women appear to be finding some good amid an unthinkable global tragedy and the economic collapse that has followed.
As digital marketer Tepeyac sums it up, “I had to [start up], but I found gratitude in that necessity.”