World Reimagined

Female Founders Whose Businesses Suffered in 2020: How They're Emerging Even Stronger

“My company had an amazing start of 2020. We had our first significant revenue from customers like TikTok and Wilson Sporting Goods.”

“Ninth Street Collective was on a growth trajectory coming off of a strong 2019 and January and February.”

“I had a full calendar of live talks, networking events, and client retreats scheduled in cities around the country and internationally in 2020.”

Of course, 2020 did not turn out as expected. But as the 17 women leaders below have demonstrated, the setbacks and hurdles of the year allowed them to actually emerge stronger, tapping into projects and pivots that would never have been possible in a normal year.

Here, in their own words, are how these leaders faced down the challenges of the year and turned things around:

Adero Miwo

1. Adero Miwo

Founder of FairFare, a direct booking one-stop shop for ride hails.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: With the onset of COVID-19, people literally stayed home. That meant no traveling, no carpools, no shared rides. Uber, et al, ridership declined 75%. As a result, FairFare platform was down 85%, which almost wiped us out. As a ride-hail platform, we had to pause development completely due to no revenue or investment.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: During COVID we were contacted by the China StartUP program that's facilitated by CKGSB in Beijing. They were very interested in our platform, especially since China is the number one ride-hail country. We were accepted into the program and will be making B2B partnerships with major Chinese companies due to the robustness of CKGSB alumni, who boast executives and founders such as Jack Ma and others. Total country pivot! Lesson learned: keep creativity at the forefront, and big vision thinking may manifest earlier than expected, as we had international ambitions but obviously did not think it would happen as quickly as it has.

Elle Wang

2. Elle Wang

Founder and CEO of Emilia George, a sustainable maternity fashion line with substance and style.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: Emilia George was launched three months before COVID hit in 2020. We were in the process of onboarding Neiman Marcus, which had to stop. We could no longer afford to pay fees to the store, since the store was closed. We also no longer could spend on digital marketing. Our production for the Summer 2020 collection had to stall because fabric mills in Europe and Asia were closed and we couldn't even get the fabrics. The list goes on and on. 

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: After basically crying for two months about the fact that Emilia George could pause or close even before we had a chance to take off, I decided to make face masks, given the shortage. Our factory had never made face masks before, but we perfected our design and production after several prototypes.

It blew up.

Vogue, People, Forbes, and all major magazines covered our masks, and we received over 1,000 pre-orders. Then, the National Institutes of Health reached out to us to make customized masks for their employees, and we produced over 120,000 masks in about a month. Dr. Fauci was wearing one of our masks at a Capitol Hill meeting. The masks really helped us stay afloat and helped us become profitable within seven months of our launch. We've also been donating masks to schools.

I want to share some advice with other startup entrepreneurs: don't be afraid to change your course temporarily. The path to success is always zig-zagging, and you never know which turn could be meaningful. You simply have to keep going so that you can arrive somewhere.

Melissa Priest

3. Melissa Priest

Founder and CEO, Alexandretta Transportation Consulting, a consulting firm that increases its clients’ profits by decreasing shipping costs.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: Our business model is to share the savings we create by renegotiating transportation carrier rate agreements. We calculate savings on a per-package basis, so when COVID-19 hit and many shippers closed down, our revenue decreased by 65%. A secondary line of business has been terminated by the carriers, and we have no visibility into when or if that line of business will come back.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: We've always kept a very close eye on the books, so we run a tight ship; however, we cut back even further to make sure we would survive. The PPP plan was not a fit for us, and our EIDL application was delayed, so it was all on us. By eliminating my salary and reducing other expenses, I knew that we could survive until business turned around, and that has been the case. We are thriving now and have started a third line of businesses to further insulate us from events like this in the future.

Marie Berry

4. Marie Berry

CEO and Co-founder of Kara, a software platform that automates the production of marketing material, while maintaining brand integrity.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: My company had an amazing start of 2020. We had our first significant revenue from customers like TikTok and Wilson Sporting Goods. When COVID-19 hit, however, our business plummeted—marketing budgets were cut and thus contracts stalled, some investors dropped out, and my co-founder left.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: A few months later, my company still exists, and I’m coming out of this stronger than ever. I found a solution via an equity deal to partner with my engineering team in Argentina. Our product roadmap is adjusted towards a slower but sustainable growth, which allows me to live the kind of entrepreneurial lifestyle I didn’t know I could have—with more time for my 1-year-old daughter. My tip for any founder out there is to consider your lifestyle goals right from the beginning of your startup journey.

Kimberly Brizzolara

5. Kimberly Brizzolara

Founder of Brands That Get You, home of The Branding Sprint—an easy-to-follow framework that fast-tracks creating standout brands.

Negative Impacts of 2020: I started 2020 as the co-founder of a completely different kind of business: a men's personal care company called Archer that was set to launch in 2020 with a dry shampoo designed to perform post-gym and post-commute. But when the pandemic started, gyms closed indefinitely and commutes gave way to quarantine, which meant that the two primary use cases for my hero product completely disappeared.

How I’ve Emerged Stronger: I completely pivoted and went back to my branding roots to start Brands That Get You, a new company, on my own. Armed with the lessons learned from my experiences with Archer, I'm now able to understand and solve for the struggles of founders in a way that I never would have been able to before, as someone who had only been on the brand strategy and creative side of the fence. Brands That Get You focuses on helping new companies and growing brands get their great ideas off the ground faster and for less through a proven process I developed called The Branding Sprint, which gives founders a deep understanding of their brand that they would not get from a typical agency experience.

Whitney A. White

6. Whitney A. White

Founder of Take Back Your Time, a hands-on coaching program for high achievers who struggle to cut through the noise and pressure of day-to-day life.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: I had a full calendar of live talks, networking events, and client retreats scheduled in cities around the country and internationally in 2020. In addition to looking forward to connecting in person with Take Back Your Time alumni and meeting new clients, events were my primary marketing tactic for the year. However, all those plans had to change when COVID-19 reached the United States. I had to cancel all my events and figure out what my business could look like in a completely new landscape.

How I’ve Emerged Stronger: Scrapping my 2020 plans made me test and implement new strategies more aggressively than I would have otherwise. Instead of trying to simply keep my business afloat, I was determined to grow it in 2020. I saw more business owners applying to my coaching program looking for expert help during the pandemic, so I created a brand-new program focused on helping small businesses grow. By launching my Small Business Accelerator, I have gone beyond survival to truly thriving and even exceeding my initial revenue goals in 2020.

Tiffany Pham

7. Tiffany Pham

Founder and CEO, Mogul, one of the leading resources in the world for diverse talent.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: During the first few months of COVID-19, most of our corporate partners had to freeze hiring, which slowed the traffic down on our Talent Acquisition Platform. Now that they're hiring again, we're getting a lot of traffic, but for a while, we were waiting to see how the pandemic would play out, just like everyone was.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: The biggest lesson we learned in terms of adapting is to remember to always fulfil a need. Because so many of our current and potential partners were experiencing layoffs and furloughs, we knew they wouldn't be looking for new hires. As a way of providing continued support, we bundled some of our services so our partners could give their outgoing employees resources to get them back on their feet as quickly as possible.

Anne Kavanagh

8. Anne Kavanagh

CEO and Founder of Steereo, a music streaming app that is focused on new music discovery, where users are incentivized to listen.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: Once the stay-at-home order was mandated, we had to cease operations and furlough our team. We went from operating 28 U.S. markets and operating in full growth mode to zero. We had to make a tough decision based on the impact on the industries we are in—rideshare and music—and the risk for the company's future.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: We spent the last six months focused on product and engineering with a skeleton team and reduced our overheads to bare minimum. The result is a better product, and more efficient operational processes, and we are currently piloting a new product for general music lovers that incentivizes music discovery, similar to how our drivers do.

My biggest takeaways from the last six months are that your team is key; aside from being talented, you want people who are willing to stick through the tough times. Build with sustainable growth that can financially support operations, and make sure what you’re building is valuable to potential buyers, no matter how the market is impacted. Always have a Plan B, C, D and E, and enjoy the journey rather than the result.

Kristina C. Unker

9. Kristina C. Unker

Founder and Managing Director of MA'AM, a creative studio dedicated to beautiful and distinct work with purpose. Formal in name and manners only.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: Due to COVID-19, one of our largest hospitality clients has understandably gone dark. In 2019 they contributed significantly to our billings, which put pressure on the business to find new opportunities to make up for the anticipated loss.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: Relationships are everything, and people are at the center of our business. Long-term partners and clients have stayed with us through the pandemic and have presented new opportunities through referrals. YTD our business is up from 2019 total sales due to new clients, expanding existing relationships, and pushing outside of our comfort zone. Our team is fully remote and has worked hard to maintain connection and dedication to extraordinary work. Still, a more purposeful focus on team mental health and instilling balance into our days has helped us survive and thrive together.

Ada Chen

10. Ada Chen

Founder and CEO of The Cultivate Method, the modern marketing method for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: As I was starting to turn my ideas into a business, my dad was hospitalized and I had to drop everything to become his full-time caregiver. Because of COVID, hospitals weren't allowing any visitors, and all I could do was manage his care remotely. I regularly spent 40–60 hours a week on the phone consulting with his medical team and getting his affairs in order, and it basically became my full-time job, on top of writing my ebook and getting my business launched. Having this extra responsibility and having to navigate the healthcare system during COVID meant that I had to delay my launch by a few months.

How I’ve Emerged Stronger: I've become even better at prioritizing important things like my family and health, and I think this has helped prevent burnout and brought an extra level of creativity to the resources and content The Cultivate Method provides. For example, my original business plan relied on some in-person speaking engagements to generate awareness, and obviously those events have either been postponed or moved online. With this change, I've learned to adapt my presentations to an online audience, figured out ways to engage attendees online, and started to work on other marketing tactics like webinars, cross-promotions, and giveaways that should provide even better ROI for my business. 

Olivia Bowser

11. Olivia Bowser

Founder and CEO of Liberate Studio, the first-ever mental wellness studio on a mission to bring human beings together through movement, community, and mindfulness.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: My business was nearly cancelled because of 2020. I had plans to open a brick-and-mortar studio in Los Angeles at the end of the year, but the year had other plans! Los Angeles still does not allow fitness studios to open to clients, and even when they do, I think it will take a bit of time for human beings to feel comfortable and safe in a group setting. The future of my brick-and-mortar studio is distant, but not gone.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: We pivoted to offer online classes, something we had never explored. Using Zoom, we're able to create a group setting to practice mindfulness together—the Zoom chat function is used to create conversations between participants and deepen the exercises. I've learned that the best thing I can do is be quick on my feet! The only guarantee is change. With our pivot, our online community has doubled in less than six months, and it continues to grow.

Michal Levison

12. Michal Levison

Founder of Seasoned Moments, which helps leaders build strong teams, using food as the gateway.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: Ninety-five percent of my speaking engagements and workshops were cancelled due to COVID-19. Also, since school switched to remote learning, I had to keep my business afloat while overseeing two kids with different learning schedules. Oh, and I had to cook three meals and four snacks per day and keep my kids from getting depressed and anxious—all while trying to keep my house relatively clean!

How I’ve Emerged Stronger: Since so many companies were in survival mode, they couldn't see how important my workshops were for them. So, I pivoted! I offered online cooking workshops to offer something useful and helpful during a difficult time. More important, I started an Instagram TV show to highlight people in the food world, the impact COVID had on them/their business, their pandemic pivot, the future of food, and how we can use food to heal the divide in our country. I have learned that our food systems and supply chain are completely broken, but we have an opportunity now to rebuild and create a better, more sustainable, more equitable future. I am building credibility and gravitas for my brand, which has resulted in more interviews on podcasts and articles, as well as booking for virtual talks and workshops.

Jes Osrow

13. Jes Osrow

SHRM-SCP, Co-Founder and DEIBA Specialist at The Rise Journey, an HR consultancy that provides high-value, metrics-driven support to facilitate positive organizational change.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: We lost a pipeline of potential business, and those who were in contract negotiations backed out due to COVID-related budgetary concerns; we ended up losing $250,000 worth of contracts that would support our business over 18 months. This meant we had to cut the hours of our part-time employees in order to game-plan and reset.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: We pitched dozens of thought leadership pieces to journalists across the content spectrum and landed quotes and thought leadership in 20+ publications, including HR Advisor, TechCrunch, Society for Human Resource Management, and Forbes, among others. It allowed us to expand our reach and our audience, and get on the radar of future clients in a way that wasn't sales-y but rather supportive and resource-driven.

I personally started doing DEI coffee chats multiple times a week with anyone who was interested in having a thought partner. The reason I do these chats is because the space we're in needs a community. This work cannot be done in a silo; it is a living, evolving, constantly shifting space where there is not one right answer but rather putting together the pieces others have used to create your own whole organizational puzzle. To date, I've spent 70+ hours since March in these thought chats. I hope I imparted some wisdom, but I know I've grown tremendously from these conversations.

Melinda Wang

14. Melinda Wang

Founder of Ninth Street Collective, which offers professional development services for artists.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: It truly felt like the bottom fell out of the art world during the early pandemic months of March and April. Ninth Street Collective was on a growth trajectory coming off of a strong 2019 and January and February of 2020. We had honed our offerings, including one-on-one consultations and periodic in-person workshops, and built out free online resources for navigating the art world. But as COVID-19 hit NYC, exhibitions and residencies were cancelled, galleries and museums had to close temporarily, artists weren’t able to access their studios, and the demand for our services declined exponentially.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: Anecdotally, I knew that artists wanted to make the most of their time in isolation, and also that many missed the sense of community. While group workshops had been a supplemental offering in the past, I realized that online workshops could be our focus during this time and that we could partner with other arts organizations to share content aimed at thriving in the new normal. Since May 2020, we’ve offered over 30 online workshops, including partnering with several non-profit organizations and commercial galleries to reach over 650 artists nationwide. The workshops have also been successful in helping artists expand their networks, and they have allowed us to give back to the community, as a portion of profits benefit various social justice organizations.

Allison McGuire

15. Allison McGuire

Creator and CEO of The McGuire Method, a presentation coaching business that leverages acting techniques and business applications.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: Because my business required me to travel to help clients around the world with their presentation skills, the entire market I was used to drastically changed. Presenting no longer meant presenting to an in-person crowd, but to an online audience almost every day. I realized that to be able to make an impact in the market, I needed to understand the market's needs first. This meant I had to go several months without income as I built Present Like A Pro Online.

How I’ve Emerged Stronger: I took the time to listen to my clients’ needs and create a new product offering tailored specifically to them. I scaled that with a team that helped me build a product with many moving parts. I learned that our current situation had hindered the ability for many to present like their best selves, due to the new elements that arise with presenting online. I realized that my background in acting would help clients with new elements, like camera work and lighting, that they never even considered before.

Jackie Ghedine and Mimi Bishop

16. Jackie Ghedine and Mimi Bishop

Co-Founders of The Resting Mind, a coaching and content company that works with Gen X women on all the things that keep them up at night.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: In April, our pool of clients completely dried up. Everyone's fear for their jobs, the economy, and their mental well-being made investing in themselves and their career and personal growth not even a blip on the radar.

How We’ve Emerged Stronger: When clients started pulling out, instead of panicking, we decided to focus on our core value: helping Gen X women. We doubled down on our offerings that would support our cohort without financial investment. We created free online classes, did free group coaching sessions, and developed a low-investment group coaching program to make the cost of entry feasible. This “of-service” mentality allowed us to build a loyal following. When our community began to feel confidence, they started investing in themselves again, and they turned to us to help them navigate it all.

Elissa Weinzimmer

17. Elissa Weinzimmer

Founder and CEO of Voice Body Connection, which provides vocal health and speaking training to help students to find and amplify their voices with confidence.

The Negative Impacts of 2020: I ended up losing about $20,000 in projected revenue at the start of the pandemic after pivoting to respond to the collective trauma I was seeing. Rather than focus on the small group program I was designing at the time, I decided instead to focus on a community program that could reach hundreds of people. I knew that I had the tools to help people who felt disconnected, shell-shocked, and silenced to reconnect with their voice and their truth. I started offering low-cost live online vocal warmups, group coaching sessions about speaking your truth, and a virtual community-led concert to help members free and liberate their voices.

How I’ve Emerged Stronger: Though my initial shift resulted in lost revenue and required multiple months of restructuring, the process has been utterly transformational for my business. Not only have I discovered a rewarding means of connecting with a larger community, but I have honed in on the messaging and purpose of the current times to give my business a stronger mission. I have raised my voice, and in doing so have connected with new groups who resonate and want to raise theirs. I have delivered powerful corporate workshops at Fortune 100 companies about speaking your truth to women in STEM, and I have launched a new online course called Authentic Voice Academy, where I connect powerfully with my students about raising their voices confidently in these uncertain times.

About the Author: All women featured in this article are members of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective for impressive, values-driven women supporting one another in their entrepreneurial pursuits. Dreamers & Doers catalyzes the success of women leaders and their ventures through its highly curated network of influential women, powerful thought leadership opportunities, and high-impact resources supercharging its members’ journeys.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Gesche Haas

Gesche Haas is the Founder/CEO of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through visibility opportunities, resource exchange, and collective support.

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