How Women-Owned Small Businesses Are Coping During the Pandemic

Priscilla Wesson always knew she wanted to be her own boss. Quarantine gave her an opportunity and she took it. Wesson, a former supervisor at a mental health not-for-profit and mother of two daughters, used her newfound time to open her online shop 'Cozy N Cute Kids Boutique'. Inspired by her daughters’ love of fashion, she sought to fill a gap in the market by founding a black-owned children’s clothing shop. Completely self-taught, Wesson turned to YouTube videos and other resources on the Internet on how to operate an e-commerce website.

'Cozy N Cute' was launched in June of this year in the days following the death of George Floyd. After that, “a lot of people now are talking about diversity and how to support Black people,” Wesson said.

“People wanted to be conscious of buying Black.”

'Cozy N Cute' has had over 200 orders since its launch. Wesson decided to leave her job in October to run her business full time.

“It was very hard to leave but I didn’t have any doubts. I don’t believe in living with regrets,” Wesson said.

As ownership of businesses by women steadily increases, the COVID-19 pandemic has given some women the chance to pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship. For others, they have been forced to adapt—all while facing the same difficulties of being women in business.

While e-commerce has flourished during the pandemic, more mature businesses face a different set of obstacles. 'Willy Nilly Trading Co.' in downtown Bay Shore opened in the spring of 2000 by Marilyn Schulman and Lynn Brey. Schulman took a risk in closing her family’s business Bay Shore Lighting and Home in order to open the quirky shop filled with eclectic home decor, jewelry, makeup, and personal care items. With Brey as her business partner, the women led what would become a successful business. Even in the about page on their website, they proudly state, “in spite of the naysayers who said no one would come, it became a retail destination within a few years.”

Schulman says she loves being her own boss. “I’ve always been a bit of a feminist,” she said. Schulman says the freedom to implement her own ideas and running a female-oriented business has made the experience rewarding.

Then COVID-19 forced the shop to close temporarily on March 21. Revenue that was usually generated from Mother’s Day and other holidays dried up. “Being a mature business means we were able to survive,” Schulman said. While this year’s fourth quarter has already proven to be tremendously successful for 'Willy Nilly,' the pandemic has served as a stark reminder for many businesses of the fragility that comes along with entrepreneurship.

Although, not all businesses experience this in the same way. Janine DiPalma, the owner of Janine L. DiPalma Insurance Agency Inc., calls the insurance industry “recession-proof.” That does not mean DiPalma hasn’t had her fair share of obstacles to get to where she is. When DiPalma opened her agency in 1990, she was the second woman and youngest State Farm agent in Suffolk County at 24 years old. She says that she received little to no support from the company who at that point had just reached a settlement of $330 million in a sex discrimination lawsuit.

“Being a woman in a predominantly male industry was very difficult. There were certainly biases at that time that really has diminished slightly,” DiPalma said.

DiPalma wasn’t the only woman navigating through a male-dominated industry. Cecilia Boschelli, a photographer who has had her own photography business, Boschelli Photography & Cinematography, for ten years now. Immigrated to the United States from Argentina in 2001, Boschelli worked hard assisting other photographers to hone her craft before opening her own business.

And yet, even now, Boschelli receives comments asking if photography is a hobby of hers or if she’s “just trying to make a couple of bucks for [her] home,” she said. The assumption that photography isn’t an actual career path for her stings. “Having a photography business is not just taking pretty pictures,” Boschelli said. Occasionally, people will mistake Boschelli’s male assistant as the head photographer. “I was just a little girl playing around with a camera,” she said.

COVID-19 has impacted Boschelli Photography & Cinematography drastically, as well. The business was scheduled for 70 weddings at the beginning of the year but they only got to do six of them. As a result, they no longer have a physical location, which has its benefits and drawbacks. While the business has transitioned seamlessly into video-consultations, this has made the competition more fierce. Where couples would typically meet with three potential vendors in person to quote them a price, now they are able to meet with 5 or 6 via video call. Boschelli said that “it is something we will have to overcome with time.”

The National Women’s Business Council’s 2019 Annual Report reported that in 2017, there were 1.1 million women-owned employer firms in the U.S., according to the 2018 Annual Business Survey. There is no doubt that these numbers have been affected as a direct result of the pandemic. The National Bureau of Economic Research found using monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) files that COVID-19 took a major toll on small businesses. “...the number of working business owners plummeted from 15.0 million in February 2020 to 11.7 million in April 2020 because of COVID-19 mandates and health- and economic-driven demand shifts.” This loss of 3.3 million business owners accounts for 22 percent of small business owners and is the largest drop on record, according to that report.

While owning a small business can be risky and industries can be volatile, “resilience is key for being a business owner,” DiPalma said. Especially amongst women, confidence is required for a successful business, a sentiment shared amongst all of the women with small businesses interviewed.

“Whenever I am told I cannot do anything, I tend to react by doing what they say I cannot do. And better,"  DiPalma stated.