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Women & Power

How these female business leaders successfully pivoted when the pandemic hit

COVID-19 and the shutdown have ravaged countless companies. But these leaders leveraged their skills to steady the ship — others can follow their lead.

Illustration of women on ship changing course in a storm.
Kim Salt/for The Boston Globe
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Angela Sanchez built a business on orange peels.

Her company, Artyfactos, imports and markets colorful and dramatic jewelry made by artisans in her native Colombia, from sustainable materials like tagua nuts, melon seeds, and, yes, discarded orange peel.

Or at least it did in the pre-COVID-19 world, when her customers worked in offices and wore power suits. When lockdowns began in March, they were pulling on hoodies and working at their kitchen tables.

“Nobody was dressing up to go to the office or buying jewelry. People were losing jobs,” says Sanchez, who is based in North Grafton and has a master’s in business administration from Babson College in Wellesley. She participated in the school’s Women Innovating Now Lab and is working on an app to connect construction companies with minority contractors. But when the economy slid into a recession, she worried about the livelihoods of the half-dozen Colombian families who depended on Artyfactos, not to mention the survival of her own jewelry business.

So, she pivoted.

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She arranged food donations for her artisans and their communities. She expanded her market through a partnership with The Grommet, an online retailer. She joined the wholesale online marketplace Faire because she could no longer send sales representatives to visit boutiques or sell at craft fairs or trade shows. She realized women were no longer buying jewelry for themselves but were buying gifts, so she expanded her product line into home goods, like napkin rings. And now she’s developing a marketing campaign to persuade potential customers that a beautiful necklace will make them look sharp on those Zoom calls.

While sales have dropped this year, Artyfactos is surviving. And some decisions Sanchez was forced to make have even been advantageous, exposing her products to outlets outside of New England.

“Now I can tell the market is starting to wake up because we have been getting a little bit more orders,” she says.

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Successful business leaders and entrepreneurs must always be nimble enough to adjust to customer needs or the vagaries of the market. But this time is different. The sudden economic shutdown in March forced big and small businesses to slam on the brakes and either switch directions or find themselves stranded in a frightening and unforgiving landscape.

The crisis hit women-owned businesses particularly hard, experts say, partly because many are newer, sole proprietorships with fewer financial resources. Women are more likely to be in vulnerable sectors, like child care, or food services, or office cleaning. And they often bear the brunt of child or elder care in their own families, making their time less flexible.

Even longstanding businesses were unprepared for the shock of the last few months. Of 74 women business owners surveyed in late spring and summer by Babson’s Diana International Research Institute, which studies women and entrepreneurship, only 42 percent had enough cash on hand to cover three months or more of payroll and expenses. Seventy-five percent suffered a decline in sales. Of those funded by venture capital, 60 percent weren’t sure if investors would be willing to come up with more capital. And 23 percent said they had closed permanently.

“We see women as a key lever for economic growth, not just for themselves but for their families, their communities, and for the economy overall,” says Gabrielle King Morse, president and CEO of the Center for Women & Enterprise, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps women start businesses and worked with more than 4,000 women entrepreneurs across New England last year. “And it’s not just, ‘I need to pivot my [business] model.’ I need to change the way my house is set up. I’ve got to change the way I’m supporting my kids. I need to change communication with my partner.”

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Even before the pandemic, women were pivoting by starting their own businesses. In the United States, 42 percent of all businesses in 2019 were women-owned, compared with 4.6 percent in 1972, according to a 2019 American Express report. From 2014 to 2019, the number of women-owned businesses climbed 21 percent, compared with 9 percent overall. Companies owned by women of color grew by 43 percent, more than twice that rate. Now, the pandemic is spurring more business startups. Daniel Enríquez Vidaña, president of Innovation Studio, a nonprofit that offers free entrepreneurial support in Boston, Cambridge, and Providence, says applications to the organization’s class on business pitches jumped from 40 in February to 70 in September, and 70 percent of participants are women.

Many of the attributes that allow businesses to pivot successfully are heterogeneous, such as openness to change and leadership experience, says Amanda Elam, a research fellow at the Diana International Research Institute and the chief marketing officer of Galaxy Diagnostics, a medical diagnostics startup. But other experts cited skills and attributes rooted in how women often approach the world that prepare them for successful pivots.

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They tend to like collaboration and seek advice when solving problems. They consider the long term. They multitask. They are raised to be empathetic.

But they are also willing to run finances close to the bone, even if it means risking their own burnout. Sometimes, in fact, it’s hard to get women to admit that it’s time to quit, says Smaiyra Million, the institute’s director.

A happy ending might not be in store for everyone. To address that, the Center for Women & Enterprise is creating educational materials about bankruptcy, Morse says. “Because there are some good laws now for small businesses, but they need to know them, they need to not just bury their heads,” she says. “They’re not all going to make it, and we need to support each other.”

According to British researchers Rosalind Gill, from City, University of London, and Shani Orgad, of the London School of Economics, societies should stop encouraging women to be so resilient and instead fix the inequitable infrastructure that requires them to continually bounce back. That idea resonated with several local business owners.

“It can be very easy to blame the group of people who are not able to reach a certain level if we ignore the historic or systemic ‘isms,’” says Charmain Jackman, a licensed psychologist in Watertown and founder of InnoPsych, a nationwide directory of therapists of color. “If we look back, some people had a head start.”

These days, there are more ways for women to get that head start through entrepreneurial programs and mentoring organizations, including the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network and SCORE, formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives. These organizations teach skills that contribute to successful pivoting and offer businesses mentors and advice to support them through it.

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Where to begin? Here are five pieces of advice from industry experts and female business leaders who have been changing course this year.

From left: Angela Sanchez of Artyfactos, Lisa Wexler of Elaine Construction, and Sarah Fox of So Zen Spa.
From left: Angela Sanchez of Artyfactos, Lisa Wexler of Elaine Construction, and Sarah Fox of So Zen Spa.Sanchez photo by Sandy Rivlin/Fox photo by Jenna Alderton at Alderton Media Group

1. Shore up financial strength.

Yes, it’s a no-brainer, but easier said than done. Of the companies replying to the Diana International Research Institute’s survey, only 24 percent were up-to-date on accounts receivable, the money owed to them.

Some of that is related to size. Large businesses are more likely to have cash in the bank, the ability to go after debtors, and backers willing to inject more money, Elam says.

“Guess what? Small businesses rarely have any of that: cash in the bank, backers, investors ready to put more money in, and the ability to secure credit,” she says. “I guess the long-story-short about this for me is that we’ve done a crap job of managing this pandemic and all the impacts because, honestly, the most vulnerable parts of our population have taken the business impact, whether that’s running a small business or working for a big company.”

One example: Women, particularly women of color, have a harder time securing bank loans. To answer that, Morse says we need more creative lending tools that are part market-driven and part philanthropy, similar to programs that support women-owned businesses in developing countries. “Certainly there are programs that are able to lend at lower rates, but I think that’s even not enough, it’s just not enough,” she says.

It’s also important to run lean, says Lisa Wexler, president of Elaine Construction, based in Newton Upper Falls, which has about 100 employees and scores of subcontractors. “You can’t be nimble and have a big machine. It’s like a cruise ship, right? You can’t just turn it on a dime . . . If you were always working your team a little harder with a few less people, if the resources were always tight, then when you have to adapt, you’re able to.”

2. Embrace technology.

If the pandemic is remembered for something positive, it might be that it spurred businesses to stop procrastinating and leap into technological upgrades, such as a restaurant implementing online ordering, or a manufacturer finally signing with a digital wholesaler, as Sanchez of Artyfactos did. Companies that had ignored inbound marketing are learning search engine optimization and Google analytics, and brushing up on social media.

“Not every business is a high-tech business, but you have to be tech enabled,” Vidaña says.

Reading Cooperative Bank went totally paperless so that fewer people would have to go into the office, says Julie Thurlow, the president and CEO. Elaine Construction uses QR codes to register workers and virtual tours to give clients work updates. Companies in the market for investment money are prerecording pitches and holding virtual question-and-answer sessions, says Elam, the research fellow at Babson. Even large digital events have turned out to be manageable.

“Are we ever going back?” she asks. “Like, who wants to travel to conferences every month?”

3. Be transparent and empathetic.

When Reading Cooperative Bank moved to remote operations this year, Thurlow was concerned about her staff — 60 percent of whom are women — struggling to balance the competing demands of caring for children, dealing with grocery shortages, and taking care of their own health. She held daily calls with management and weekly calls with her entire staff “just to let them know what we’re seeing and how it’s going to affect them,” she says.

“People are under a lot of pressure and just acknowledging that pressure . . . gives people permission to let the anxiety go and be understood,” she says.

4. Remember your mission.

Last fall, Sarah Fox, owner of So Zen Spa in Roxbury, which provides on-site spa services, quit her day job, finally confident that she could make it financially with her four-year-old business. Her team of 25 massage therapists, aestheticians, and nail technicians delivered services to offices, private homes, elderly housing, and special events such as conferences and bridal showers.

Then everything shut down and she had to regroup. Keeping within the theme of wellness, she pivoted to a monthly or quarterly subscription box of skin care and other wellness products aimed primarily at women of color. So far, she’s living on savings and unemployment but is waiting to hear about a Small Business Administration loan that would let her develop the new business.

“As much as I wanted to provide services to people before, I feel like this is even more closely related to who I am and what I want to do,” she says. “Because I’m also, in this process, supporting Black-owned businesses and other people who are trying to work something out for themselves.”

A good pivot is “really thinking about sticking true to your value proposition, and really being thoughtful, because . . . it’s not like it all of a sudden just switches back, and everything goes back to normal,” Morse says. That means thinking long term. Avoiding fads. Sticking to the mission. If you’re a caterer, don’t start making masks.

“You need to be making your pivot for a long haul, because it could serve as that next safety net,” she says.

5. Network, network, network.

Networking has several advantages, including the ability to access mentoring, support, and potential collaborators.

Amanda Bauman, owner and founder of Chica de Gallo salsa and guacamole in Jamaica Plain, sells her products in markets such as Whole Foods and Big Y, and last year produced the official salsa of Fenway Park. But the spring was hard as supermarkets focused on top-selling items while trying to keep up with panic buying. She couldn’t offer sampling events in stores and was concerned about losing market share. Nor could she afford to pay the part-time merchandiser she shared with a local bakery, so she had no one who could visit stores to rotate stock and schmooze with store buyers.

Now, she hopes to create a merchandising co-op and invite other companies to buy in.

“If you have a few companies sharing a merchandiser,” she says, “you can pay what you need to get the really good person who’s going to treat your product right.”

Bauman says she was in a “total funk” in April, overwhelmed dealing with the business and raising a 3-year-old. She found support through programs offered by the Center for Women & Enterprise.

“Having people tell me I can do it and just really encouraging me and having my back pulled me out of that,” she says. “And it’s just great to have other women and other folks to bounce ideas off of and just have encouragement.”

That willingness to collaborate and ask for help are women’s prime strengths, both mentors and business owners say. Thurlow meets monthly with a group of female bank CEOs. Fox has a mentor with SCORE and is taking the pre-accelerator course at the Roxbury Innovation Center so she can apply for an accelerator program. Wexler seeks advice from her father, who ran the business before her, and anyone else she can think of.

“I was talking to owners of subcontracting firms, material suppliers,” Wexler says. “We were all going through it, and . . . I’m the first one to say, ‘What good ideas are you using, and how can we learn from each other?’”

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Susan Moeller is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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This story has been updated to include the photo credit for Sarah Fox’s picture.