From Pandemic to Profit

Radka Horackova, who started her own business in November 2019, works as a personal chef, offering catering and meal preparation services. (Photo provided by Radka Horackova)

By M’Niyah Lynn | Dec. 10, 2020

It’s not unusual to catch Kamirah Gates, a 20-year old university student, sporting long, wispy false eyelashes, a glittery highlight on her cheekbones and colorful eyeshadow. A passionate self-taught makeup artist, Gates is now trying to make money with it. In November, she created the make-up line KT Beauty with a friend. “We wanted to offer lipgloss and lashes to the market because that is trending right now,” Gates said.

Kamirah Gates shows off her self-taught makeup skills that have inspired her to start a makeup brand. (Photo provided by Kamirah Gates)

Like Gates, many other young college students are using the pandemic as the time to start businesses and are trying to figure out how to address the challenges that come with it, like running a business from your apartment. Even before the pandemic, about 69 percent of U.S. entrepreneurs started their own businesses at home, Small Business Trends reported. 

They are motivated by hobbies, talents and, in some cases, because they lost their jobs. In July 2020, there were 1.9 million more unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds than in July 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some young entrepreneurs are teaming up with their families. Zahrah Khan, a college student, opened the food business Khantinental Catering with her mother.  She said the dishes that they sell, like shrimp alfredo and tandoori chicken, are part of her family tradition — and she is trying to tap into a void in the market of tasty halal Desi food. 

Zahrah Khan prepared her honey sriracha chicken dish for a customer looking for halal Desi food. (Photo provided by Zahrah Khan)

One of the factors helping these new online entrepreneurs is the recent shift to e-commerce. According to Ana Valenzuela, a professor of marketing at Baruch College, “every time there’s a break in consumer habits, it’s really a good time to enter the market.” 

This is why creating small businesses has been trendy, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to attract customers. One reason is that online businesses made customers “oversaturated with retail,” said Eileen Connelly, a journalism professor at Baruch College with a degree in business journalism. Some of this is because owners compete with large companies like Amazon.

Another challenge young entrepreneurs have is that they fear losing their businesses because customers are struggling financially and might fear losing their jobs as well. 

Still, the desire to be independent is appealing to many young entrepreneurs. Many are taking on responsibilities like running a website while keeping track of product inventory, which can be hard to do. About 20 percent of small businesses fail within the first year, according to a 2020 Lending Tree report with data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One of their biggest challenges it to gain consumer trust. College student Tehreem Khan, who manages her mom’s South Asian jewelry company Rangreza Collection, is in charge of several business operations like outreach and engagement. She acknowledged she’s struggling to please customers.

Tehreem Khan manages her mom’s business while she’s in school for operations management. (Photo provided by Tehreem Khan)

Khan said one of their challenges is that customers are wary of buying pieces based on online images. To make a sale, she said she needs to respond to inquiries quickly and improve her marketing tools, all while trying to complete a fully-remote school semester.

Rangreza Collection, Khan’s business which often sells a variety of creative South Asian jewelry. (Photo provided by Tehreem Khan)

It’s hard to meet “everyone’s exact needs,” she said, but she believes retaining customers is important for a small business to survive.

Young entrepreneurs have in their advantage the fact that they are savvy tech and social media users. Fashion student Alivia Matthews founded her fashion company about two years ago on Depop, but with the pandemic, she started also making masks. Wearing large earrings and razor-sharp eyeliner over her bluish-green eyes, she says she’s always been passionate about designing.

Alivia Matthews adds masks to her shop collection to contend with customer interest during the pandemic. (Photo provided by Alivia Matthews)

Matthews runs a “one-woman show.” She started the business because she was “passionate about fashion and clothes and the concept of wearable art,” she said. Matthews tried to remain relevant by making masks and she noted that customers are changing how much they’re willing to pay for items. 

Matthews creates fashionable masks to add to her fashion collection on Depop. (Photo provided by Alivia Matthews)

Like Matthews, Personal Chef Radka Horackova, who has ran her own food company since November 2019, had to adapt this year. At the height of the pandemic, Horackova faced restaurant restrictions and had to cancel orders. “I did not take on any clients for three months,” she said.

Horackova finds joy in preparing treats and dishes for her customers. (Photo provided by Radka Horackova)

Yet, once restrictions eased in the summer, she started regenerating profit. Horackova attributed her success to adapting and planning, and she feels optimistic about the future. “I plan to work on my business and grow it until it becomes a viable company with enough clients that would allow me to work full-time without any supplemental income,” she said.