How COVID-19 forced four small-business owners to think big

Jamila Riley, owner of J. Riley, which sells crochet fashion and accessories, suffered a tough mental year. Not only did she deal with the impact of COVID-19 on her business, she also lost her son to gun violence. On March 11, 2020, most of the U.S. came to a […]

Jamila Riley, owner of J. Riley, which sells crochet fashion and accessories, suffered a tough mental year.

Not only did she deal with the impact of COVID-19 on her business, she also lost her son to gun violence.

On March 11, 2020, most of the U.S. came to a screeching halt with the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Riley, who was operating her business out of the Sherman Phoenix, had no idea of how long it would be shut down or what long-term impact the pandemic would have on her financially.

It was a scary time as she waited for her permanent space to be finished at The Underground, which is in the basement of the Phoenix.

Before the pandemic hit, Riley was building up her customer base and planning spring and summer events to introduce more people to her crochet products. When things shut down in March, everything stopped.

“The first two weeks of lockdown, I didn’t touch anything that had to do with J. Riley at all,” she said. “The third week I said, ‘OK. This is something that’s clearly going to be here, so how do I adjust?’”

As Riley set about the business of implementing a new marketing strategy, she had no idea how much her life was really about to change.

On April 11, Riley’s son, Rashad Buggs-Barnett, 23, was shot and killed on Milwaukee’s North Side.

“Not only was I dealing with the new normal of COVID but dealing with the new normal of my son is not here. That had the potential to make or break my business.”

As she still copes with his death, Riley presses on, saying: “I would not allow the enemy to steal my joy. I know my son would want to see me succeed.”

Riley and others local business owners I interviewed have overcome a lot during the pandemic. All spoke of resilience and new things they learned about themselves during the past year.I wanted to hear how Riley and others made it through the year. In addition to Riley, I also talked to Leonard Wilson, personal trainer at DI Fitness; Marjorie Rucker, owner of Bado Buna candles and accessories; and Pam McCreary of At Peace Designs.

Here’s what they had to say, starting with Jamila Riley of J. Riley:

X

How did COVID-19 impact your business?

I had to really do social media. I’m a pen and paper girl. It challenged me to learn a lot of things about social media marketing. The different times of day and where to post. Who was my target audience? Who are my followers? I had to learn how to build a relationship with customers online.

What have you found the most challenging during this year? 

Not being able to interact with people. The Sherman Phoenix is a nonstop block party, and we had all these ideas of hosting fashion shows and having guest DJs and then we can’t. I love my people and I’m a hugger, so that was probably the most difficult part for me.

What have you found the most rewarding during this time? 

Social media. I’ve learned how to network in different arenas, and cross-marketing. Being able to share who I am and what my passion is with other people through social media has been really cool.

As we return to whatever new normal looks like, are there procedures you’ve implemented that you will keep in place? 

Deep cleaning. Keeping hand sanitizer at the door. This year really exposed just how unclean stuff is. 

What words of wisdom would you like to impart in other entrepreneurs?

1. Put God first. We can have the blueprint as much as we can with our carnal human minds, but He is the blueprint.

2. Be yourself. There are a million people out here and many may be doing the same thing, but be your authentic self and don’t try to mimic what someone else is doing. There could be 27 people selling Tupperware, but no one is going to sell it like you when you put your personal spin on it, so be yourself.

3. Be patient. Be patient with yourself, others and the process. You’re not going to make good money right away or see the money you spent come back right away. That takes time. As you embark on your next big thing, all sorts of roadblocks will be thrown at you. But you gotta stay the course. 

Leonard WilsonX

Personal trainer Leonard Wilson, owner of DI Fitness, had to change his hands-on, in-person fitness training to meet the new normal during the pandemic by switching his sessions to Zoom meetings. Here’s what he said:

How did COVID-19 impact your business? 

I had to try something I hadn’t done before, which was Zoom, in order to still reach people to get them healthy.

What did you find the most challenging? 

The challenge was being more technical and using online platforms. Being more involved in social media.

What has been the most rewarding during this time? 

Just people coming together to support one another was huge. In some of those low moments you start thinking, “OK, I need to figure something else out. Maybe a different profession.” And all of a sudden you receive something from someone, and you realize why you do what it is that you do.

Are there any procedures you will keep in place? 

I like the Zoom. Being able to use that on rainy days or days without gym availability. I’ve also been doing some podcasting and will definitely keep that going. I was reluctant last year to go outside, but I’m going to spend more time training outside this year. And take advantage of outdoor space.

How are things now? 

I’m more focused. I never had a direct target group. Now, I’m working with more people who have Type 2 diabetes, (are) recovering from cancer or are overweight. I’ve created a new business structure and renewed my LLC and put things in better business order.

Any words of wisdom? 

Be flexible. Be open to learn new things and continue to push through.

Marjorie RuckerX

Marjorie Rucker sells candles and accessories at Bado Buna. Rucker said the most rewarding thing that occurred during the pandemic was gaining a new customer base of people wanting to support Black-owned business due to the racial equity and injustice climate. 

How was your business impacted? 

I sell most of my products at in-person events like fairs and markets and distribute at retail locations. This made it hard for me to be visible in the spaces that I thrive in. It’s been a burden financially, like it has been for every small business.

What did you find the most challenging? 

The first was how to pivot … The other is the additional pandemic we have with racial equity and injustice.

What has been the most rewarding during this time? 

Learning how to increase my online presence and work on building my brand in the way that I want to. It gave me time that I needed that I don’t think I would’ve taken had I been at markets and fairs. I’ve worked on my branding and repackaging. My Instagram following started at 254 last year and is now over 5,000. 

Are there procedures you will keep in place? 

I will definitely keep my social media and (solidify) my branding and continue to expand my line.

Any words of wisdom? 

Be seen. You must be visible. Be consistent. Start keeping your financials in order. Whether you want to grow your business or keep it as a sophisticated hobby, know your numbers. There are a lot of opportunities and grants to help small businesses, and if you’re filing it on your taxes anyway, you can get a lot of opportunities and grants if you’re keeping books; but if you are not, it’s virtually impossible.

Pam McCreary, owner of At Peace Designs jewelry and accessories (and mother of Jamila Riley of J. Riley), located in The Underground at the Sherman Phoenix, said adjusting to the volatility of the retail market was challenging: 

How was your business impacted? 

It was like dealing with a death almost. Once you get over the shock of it all, you say, “OK. I have no income coming in.” It took me a couple of weeks before I said, “OK, I gotta move. You gone have to figure out somehow to get a revenue stream going.” 

How did you regroup? 

I already had an online presence, but I had to change my way of thinking. I had to start pushing people to my website and start thinking of things people could do at home. Kids were home and parents needed things to do with them, so I started creating bracelet kits. Something to generate revenue. You have to be creative. 

What did you find the most challenging? 

2020 was most challenging for me not because of COVID-19, but because I’d never worked in retail before. Always being on and dealing with people who aren’t always pleasant was an adjustment.  

What has been the most rewarding during this time? 

The last year has been a blessing and a curse. The pandemic is a horrible, horrible thing. The Black Lives Matter movement and protests have brought the Sherman Phoenix to the forefront as people are looking for Black businesses to patronize. 

Are there procedures you will keep in place? 

The regular cleaning down of everything now that the habit is there. Our online presence will definitely stay there. We will also keep our pop-up shops for other vendors. 

How are things now?

Things look promising. I’m an optimist and I’m always looking for the silver lining. Things look positive, and I am looking forward to seeing what the summer is going to bring.

Any words of wisdom? 

1. Don’t go in it for the money. You have to find something you are passionate about that brings you joy.

2. Get your team together. Surround yourself with positive, like-minded individuals. 

3. Make sure you get your business set up correctly. Protect your intellectual assets like your logo and business name. What I found during the whole pandemic is that if you don’t establish a business correctly, when you apply for grants, you don’t have the things they are looking for because you didn’t do those things. That was a hard lesson to learn, but I definitely learned it.

About this column 

Causey’s Career Corner shares stories of those who have taken a nontraditional approach to employment or an unusual career path. I will also list employment information such as job fairs, resource fairs and job training events. I encourage organizations to email me at [email protected] with career information.

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