Resurgence: This series of essays curated by the National Cultural Foundation’s Literary Arts Officer, Karra Price, features the thoughts and commentaries of Barbadians immersed in various aspects of the everyday that effort.
This essay examines the ways in which entrepreneurship has grappled with a changing economic landscape in the midst of a global pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic came as a whirlwind and severely damaged our little island of Barbados. It started with many changes – both negative and positive – some will fade with time and others will not. Thanks to COVID, tourism, a major contributor to Barbados’ economy, shut down almost overnight, highlighting the value of local consumers and the need for Barbadians to support each other.
Although the world is gradually lifting the restrictions on COVID and trying to move forward, it is clear that life may not go back to the way it was before. As an entrepreneur, specifically an accessories fashion designer, I thought that my accessories business, Ayola by Blessing Olaniyi, would be affected by the pandemic due to the lockdowns and people’s changes in personal finances. Surprisingly not! Indeed, business and opportunities have grown and set the foundation for a more sustainable business post-pandemic.
Of course, it took more than sewing handbags to grow the company during this period. Of the many lessons I learned, the most important was the importance of human connection – a factor that seems to be rapidly diminishing due to the increased use of technology.
However, I learned that, when used wisely, technology can be a great tool for establishing relationships with clients. This lesson is invaluable in helping to dictate the ‘new normal’ of communication from both a business and personal perspective and highlights the fact that while nothing replaces the joy of face-to-face human interaction, having an online presence business is very important.
Another lesson learned is the Bajan meaning that says “don’t put all yuh eggs in one basket”. This should resonate with many other businesses as well, which has led us to pivot to find new and innovative ways of selling products and services online. For example, there has been a rise in virtual marketplaces where customers have been given opportunities to view and purchase various products from the safety of their home. It has proven to be a good model because it is convenient and safe for both the buyer and the seller.
In times of crisis, the focus of the business can no longer be the product and the bottom line but has to shift significantly to the customer experience; how to serve the customer, how to make sure they are heard, seen and fully satisfied. This concept has always been present in my business. After all, Ayola means “something that makes you happy” in Xhosa.
However, doing it online has become the New Normal. For Ayola, the success of this personalized shopping experience can be expressed in two words: Customer Choice. This means allowing the client to choose the fabrics, patterns and other details of their bag, making each bag a custom-made, one-of-a-kind piece that they helped design, and, perhaps most importantly, listening to customer feedback to produce an improved finished product. This approach became a pillar in the foundation of my business and continues, after the pandemic – one of the few positive effects of COVID.
So what does entrepreneurship look like after the pandemic? How do I define the new New Normal as we return to personal interactions? Well, in Barbados, our culture sets the tone for that change. Here, we love to talk and interact; We love the sense of community, so focusing on maintaining personal relationships with customers is paramount and, in an environment without restrictions, now presents better opportunities for business growth. Transitioning to this new New Normal was a slow process and took careful planning and execution. The reopening of the island was carried out in two phases for entrepreneurs like me.
First is the reopening of boutiques that allow customers to reacquaint themselves with in-store shopping where they can see and touch the product in a safe space created by maintaining social distancing and other protocols of pandemic. Next came the restoration of in-person events, which brought the opportunity for Pop Up markets. While many people remain cautious in this post-pandemic environment, others welcome personal interaction, and such events play a big role in creating a sense of community as entrepreneurs connect. one-on-one with customers and with each other.
Experience a face-to-face consultation; seeing, in real time, the joy on customers’ faces as they discover the “perfect handbag” or recognize how beautifully others have accessorized their favorite clothing is priceless.
This new New Normal consists of elements introduced during the pandemic – mainly the use of technology and virtual spaces – balanced with personal events to achieve the best shopping experience. I’ve been making the most of opportunities to collaborate with other small businesses, hosting and attending live events, and building relationships with others in the fashion industry, all of which seem foreign after so long separated.
As I write this, the new New Normal has yet to be fully revealed, however, I fully embrace the bumpy journey to discovering it. To sustain the business, I explore possibilities for new revenue streams while listening carefully to the ever-changing needs and wants of my clients. The recovery from the pandemic is ongoing and will take time as our minds adjust to the regularity that now seems irregular and, in some cases, just plain wrong. Many are still wondering, Is it really over? Is it safe? Will the pandemic happen again? As an entrepreneur these questions are at the forefront of my mind and influence many of my decisions, especially financial ones.
The entrepreneurial journey is long and slow, requiring commitment, determination and the ability to navigate unexpected obstacles. In smart business, surviving the pandemic is a true test of entrepreneurial skill and, as we emerge from the tunnel of isolation, the light I see is hope.
The pandemic effectively reminds us that we are all our brothers’ keepers. It helped revive the true spirit of the Bajan community that once seemed almost dead. I hope that this spirit will continue to be celebrated both in our business and personal relationships because it is what binds us together, which keeps us strong and steadfast. This is what makes us Bajans.