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Weathering the COVID-19 Storm: How Women Business Owners Navigated the Pandemic

July 19, 2021

As a woman-owned business, Leading Retirement Solutions is always looking for ways to support other women business owners. We believe we have a unique opportunity to help them overcome some of the challenges female entrepreneurs face when it comes to financial security. 

Recently our CEO, Kirsten Curry, spent some time reflecting about her own experiences during the pandemic as a business owner and the challenges she faces. That led her to wonder how our clients fared both personally and professionally during the long months of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A few of our clients graciously shared their time and experiences:

Marleen Eitzen Shanks, Team Red Dog

For Team Red Dog owner and single mom of two, Marleen Eitzen Shanks, living through the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year has turned her into an even more skilled juggler. Especially when it comes to working from home. “In addition to the kids and the business, I manage a new puppy, three guinea pigs, a rabbit, 10 chickens, four ducks and more recently, a horse,” she said. “Also, I added three acres and an outdoor riding arena to my three-and-a-half-acre farm.” For Shanks, one of the biggest opportunities that moving her Puget Sound-based staffing agency into her home brought was the opportunity to get back into horse riding after 40 years. “I’ve wanted to have a horse since I was 18, and when Covid hit, I thought if you have a little dream, now is the time to indulge.” she said.

But the challenges of managing a multi-species household while running a growing staffing agency from home soon became apparent. An early decision to let the chickens free range delivered some grizzly results. Shanks explained that she was on a Zoom call in her office when she heard a bang outside her window. She peered out only to see a coyote killing one of her chickens. She grabbed her laptop and ran outside to try to stop the carnage. On another Zoom call a few weeks later, she got a text from her neighbor saying that her horse had escaped. “Once again, I grabbed my laptop - with the client meeting still ongoing - and ran outside to catch the horse. The client never realized what was happening,” she said.

Even though her world shrank down to her home and her property, Shanks did not realize how much she would like being at home. “Before, when I was commuting to the office, home was more of a landing pad. But, now home is everything and that has really shifted some things for me.”

Shanks isn’t the only Red Dog team member that enjoys working from home. “My team is reticent about returning full-time to the office. Many of them are mothers and they appreciate the extra time they have gained from not having to commute.” Shanks said Covid has helped her company of 30 employees reset their work-life balance. “I can give my employees the gift of not having to commute and they can choose what to do for their lives. I think we are better than the old normal now.”

While Shank’s company did not experience any significant business loss over the past year, the company did and will continue to make some key shifts. “In the year before Covid, we invested in infrastructure like Microsoft Teams that allowed us to transition to remote work very easily.” She said she also made the decision to hire remote employees for her internal team when it became clear that remote work was not negatively impacting the business. This opened the pool of candidates. While local employees will be encouraged but not required to be in the office for one or two days each week, it is very possible that Shanks will move the company into a smaller space in the near future.

Kirsten Curry, Leading Retirement Solutions

Staring into the eyes of the beast is what helped Leading Retirement Solutions’ Founder and CEO, Kirsten Curry, navigate her business through Covid-19 with as little fall-out as possible. An early follower of the news emerging from China, Curry instinctively knew there was a chance that what was growing into a pandemic could have a major impact on her business. “I immediately started communicating with my internal team to make sure they understood that anything could happen and that we would do everything we could to ensure that the company could survive,” she said. Curry’s team also started reaching out to clients to communicate the company’s continuity plan and to assure them that they would continue to support them through the coming months.

At the same time, the leadership team started conducting business analysis and making strategic decisions. Curry explained: “We started looking at our expenses and did some forecasting to see what would happen if our revenue decreased. As a team, we then started strategizing what we could do.”

Thankfully, Curry and her team never had to deploy any of this disaster forecasting. “It was incredibly empowering to have hard data that showed us what would happen in three different “worst-case” scenarios. It meant that I was not making strategic decisions from a place of fear and panic,” she said.

The second largest expense the firm faced when Covid hit was office space. Curry quickly realized that if the pandemic lingered, the company would not be needing a physical space. She then made the difficult decision to negotiate out of the lease. This has created the opportunity for LRS to remain a virtual company for the foreseeable future. “Before Covid, we were primarily working remotely. We had a small group in Seattle that would come to the office, many of them sporadically. This meant that we didn’t have to pivot to support remote work.”  For Curry, the challenge is bringing the distributed team together. A LRS employee summit is under consideration. 

Once she had faced and prepared for the worst-case, Curry was able to focus on supporting clients. “It was emotional for me to think that some of our clients may not survive the pandemic. A lot of our internal conversions were about how we could help her clients,” she said.

An obvious place to start was to quickly become very knowledgeable about the new regulations impacting clients. This allowed the company to be more helpful than ever before when clients called in. The marketing team also put a Covid-FAQ on the website and developed helpful articles that would address many of the concerns clients had.

For Curry personally, the toughest part of the past year was operating in a place of intense insecurity. What carried her through was tapping into the business networks she belongs to and connecting with other business owners. She also leaned on her coaches, friends and family and took care to prioritize her health.

Helen Newman, Veterinary Transplant Services

A colleague’s dog’s hip dysplasia was the impetus for Helen Newman to set up Veterinary Transplant Services, the world’s first tissue bank for animals in 1996. “I had been involved in human tissue banking for many years and was surprised to learn that a bone graft was not easily available for Ted’s dog,” she said. At first, Helen ran VTS as a side business but after a few years, she left her day job to run the business full-time.

At the beginning of 2020, VTS was a niche business. The company had grown to 8 employees working in an office in Kent, WA. Newman explained that when Covid hit, the company’s orders stopped completely for almost a week. Newman had been keeping up-to-date with US government policies and realized that the best initial step would be to furlough most of her team but keep them on stand-by status. This would allow her to quickly rehire them when business picked up again. And her staff would receive unemployment benefits. 

Even though veterinary services were considered an essential service, non essential surgeries were put on hold. Vets had to adjust their policies and quickly retool how they would conduct business. 

At VTS, most people were on standby. The QA person and administrative staff were now working part-time from home, with some coming into the office one day a week. All technicians were furloughed. However, the company still needed to make products for anticipated orders and because of the Covid restrictions, Newman ended up being the only production person, working on her own in the clean room. 

“I needed to make sure we would still have supply. So, I was using the slow down to build up our inventory. It took a month before our orders started to pick up again which allowed me to slowly bring people back,” she said. Within a month or two, VTS was back to full staffing. “I was grateful that when business came back online, we had products available.”

Soon after the team returned to work in the office, Newman and her Production Manager caught Covid-19 from a returning co-worker. “I was worried this would bring the whole business to a grinding halt. We had gone to great lengths to have people continue to work from home if they could. We had many pages of policies to protect our staff. We posted signs everywhere and took people’s temperatures.”

Fortunately neither Newman or her Production manager experienced severe symptoms and after a few weeks, both were back at work. 

 Soraya Memreno, Bitch Media

Working and living alone in her LA-based apartment for months and months, not being able to visit her family in Florida for a year and a half and then catching Covid-19 in spite of fastidious efforts to self-isolate were particularly challenging for Bitch Media Publisher Soraya Membreno.

“Even though I have been working from my apartment in LA for many years, this was a different version of being alone. I had taken the lock-down in California pretty seriously. Other than going for walks and runs and the grocery store, I pretty much had no contact with other people. In spite of this, I still got Covid-19 in December when hospitals were at zero capacity,” she said.  Managing through quarantine proved particularly challenging as she couldn’t let people through the metal gate barring her apartment complex so receiving deliveries was not possible. She was also concerned about how she would get to a hospital if her symptoms took a bad turn.

Membreno was also experiencing challenges at work as Covid-19 started to tighten its grip on the US population.  In January 2020, 50% of the media company’s 10 full-time staff were working from its Portland office. “Because many of us were already working remotely, I had a delayed reaction to understanding what the impact of the pandemic could be on the company,” she said.  However, the challenges started to become clear when the staff who were responsible for shipping magazines and promotional items from the Portland office to members were now working from home. 

Membreno said that on a flight back from visiting friends in New York City, she watched one of the company’s revenue lines disappear on her phone as cancellations for paid speaking engagements under their “Bitch on Campus” program streamed into her in-box.

“As we realized that this was not going to be a 2-week shut-down, we started to pull back from everything that wasn’t essential. This was critical as people were canceling their subscriptions and fundraising proved to be tough.”  The company, for the first time since its founding in 1996, had to lay a few people off.  “We tried to put it off for as long as possible. We are still rebuilding trust with staff as a result,” she said.

The pandemic has given Membreno and the rest of the leadership team the opportunity to think about how to encourage staff to do a little less. “We noticed that because staff were already working remotely, we didn’t consciously try to slow down. But we realized that we needed to slow down because people were dealing with a global pandemic. We knew we had to give ourselves a little grace and take things a little easier. We are still figuring out how to do this, but we are giving people a lot more flexibility and are considering giving people a set number of additional days they can take off.” She added that the company had already moved to unlimited vacation days but are now also trying to institute a minimum number of vacation days to encourage staff to take time off.

Creating an Ever-Expanding Circle of Opportunity for Women Business Owners

We loved hearing these stories of fortitude in the face of unimaginable stresses and we are proud of the many women business owners we support every day. In our experience, when women align their interests, everyone benefits. That is why we actively seek out opportunities to support women entrepreneurs with knowledge and resources as they work to grow their businesses and prepare for a secure retirement for themselves and their staff. 

We welcome the opportunity to partner with your organization to create a retirement plan that perfectly meets your needs today and in the coming years.

For more tips and information regarding retirement plans, contact us.

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