How 3 women entrepreneurs pivoted amid a once-in-a-lifetime disruption

By Adobe Communications Team

Posted on 03-25-2021

Women business owners have seen outsized hardship during the pandemic, and many have shown unprecedented resilience in adapting to the crisis and innovating to drive future growth. Whether they have quickly launched new products, revamped operations or pivoted into online sales channels and e-commerce, women entrepreneurs are set to rebound even stronger.

“We’ll build back better,” said Deirdre Quinn, the co-founder and chief executive of Lafayette 148 New York, a New York-based women’s fashion brand and retailer. “Fundamentally, we’ve changed as a company, and we’re much more open-minded to different channels of distribution.”

The pandemic has been difficult for women business owners, with 67 percent reporting that sales had fallen since the health crisis began, according to a survey by Babson College’s Diana International Research Institute. In response, a significant portion of those companies cut executive pay, reduced employee hours, delayed payments to vendors or even closed permanently, the study found.

Women-owned businesses were more likely than their male-owned counterparts to shut down during the onset of the pandemic, according to a study cited by Wells Fargo. However, the bank’s economists also said women entrepreneurs were poised to play a bigger role in the post-pandemic recovery amid the shift to remote work and more flexible scheduling.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation for many women-owned businesses, including several who shared with Adobe how they responded to those disruptions and what they expect for the future.

Quick pivots amid lockdowns

Lafayette 148’s Quinn remembers the grim week in March 2020 when the coronavirus had reached pandemic levels, and lockdowns on many businesses went into effect. As department stores and fashion boutiques closed, they started canceling orders for items her company had designed, manufactured and imported.

Quinn had planned to attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which had been delayed and then called off for the first time in more than 250 years, as the crisis struck. “I was going to go the parade, and instead, I’m sitting on 77,000 pieces of excess inventory,” she said. “That was a tough day, and we’re still digging out. As entrepreneurs, what we do is figure it out.”

The most immediate priorities were to trim inventory levels and find a way for employees, including teams of designers, to work remotely. By June, her company, whose yearly sales total more than $150 million, was showing its holiday 2020 collection to buyers in a three-dimensional virtual showroom.

“It actually made the web even more important because the customer almost has to be able to feel the product now without touching it,” Quinn said.

For Carolyn Aronson, the founder and chief executive of It’s A 10 Haircare, the pandemic affected every part of her Florida-based company’s supply chain — from sourcing materials used in manufacturing to getting finished products into stores and salons. Many of those businesses were temporarily deemed “non-essential,” and their customers looked for other ways to find haircare products.

“We are sold throughout chain salons nationwide, and some of those chains closed down permanently — went into bankruptcy,” she said. “A lot of hair stylists were out of work, so the demand wasn’t there as much.”

Amid those travails, Aronson forged ahead with a plan to diversify sales with the launch last fall of Be A 10 cosmetics, a product line that she spent years developing. Even though many women were wearing less makeup while stuck at home during the pandemic, Aronson saw an opportunity for a no-fuss line of cosmetics that women could put on quickly for a video call or going out.

“I wasn’t about to scrap it, and I still believed the concept of the brand was very viable, which was simple, easy-to-use, multifunctional makeup,” she said of Be A 10. “If anything, it might be even a better time to launch it because people are looking for ‘simple’ right now.”

That spirit of innovation motivated Claire Coder, founder of feminine care products company Aunt Flow Inc., a supplier of tampons and pads to businesses, schools and other public facilities, to create a new division of Aunt Flow — Work Flow — a provider of personal protection equipment like face masks and disinfectants. Coder’s 15-employee company re-tooled its production amid early reports about the coronavirus threat in February last year.

“It was one of those risks where you cross your fingers and hope it works, because you have two more weeks to make payroll, and you’ve got to have that money back in your bank account to achieve that,” Coder said. “Thankfully, it worked, and we built out a whole new product line.”

By diversifying, Aunt Flow helped to offset the loss in sales to customers whose buildings emptied out as people stayed home and did not use its products.

“It allowed us to stay afloat, and to build relationships with new customers,” Coder said, citing Nationwide Children’s Hospital as an institution that now orders feminine care products from her Columbus, Ohio-based business.

E-commerce expansion

While Aronson, Coder and Quinn are women entrepreneurs in different industries, they have shared one thing in common during the pandemic: e-commerce growth. Those digital sales channels have become more vital in driving revenue as their customers spend more time in front of screens.

Lockdowns and people’s unwillingness to visit physical stores led to a massive surge in online sales last year. The 32 percent jump in e-commerce to $791.7 billion far outpaced the 3.4 percent growth in total retail sales, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Aronson said It’s A 10’s sales through Ulta Beauty Inc., the retail chain that temporarily closed all its stores a year ago, saw a more than sixfold jump as shoppers flocked to its website. Her company also has seen surging sales from its direct-to-consumer site, which is on track to triple sales, to $10 million this year. She declined to share total revenue for her 15-person company, saying it’s in the nine figures.

“The pandemic really taught people in America how to use their computers and their phones to instantly order what they need, even groceries,” Aronson said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to spending our weekends shopping in malls.”

Lafayette 148’s Quinn said that while total sales fell 30 percent last year, a bigger portion of sales came through its direct-to-consumer channels. The company’s DTC channel expanded its share of total company sales from 33 percent to 40 percent with more shoppers ordering at home from the website. As digital sales have grown, the company also has cut back on its print catalog from 5 million copies to 3 million, Quinn said.

“The website became our largest channel of distribution, and it will continue to be the most important,” she said. “The way women are living, working and traveling has changed — and the boundaries between work and home are now blurred. Our collection has to reflect that, along with the way we help women to build their worlds and engage with our brand.”

Aunt Flow’s Coder also has seen more business come through the company’s website, which is focused on enterprise customers that install its tampon and pad dispensers in rest rooms. Those customers can re-order products through the site or enroll in its automatic refill program.

“Now, it’s very common for businesses to fill out our get-a-quote form and do everything online, where previously, they wanted to talk to a sales representative,” Coder said. “Many more transactions are just happening naturally through our website, which has been great, and customers are still getting the same consistency of service.”

Women-owned businesses have faced significant challenges during the pandemic, but many have responded by revamping their operations, developing new products and services and connecting with their customers through digital channels. As Aronson, Coder and Quinn have shown with entrepreneurial drive, their businesses are pushing ahead to emerge stronger from the global crisis.

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Topics: Celebrating Women, Future of Work, Retail, COVID-19, CMO by Adobe

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