"I thought we were going to lose our business." Aurea Sanabria Molaei is the founder of Flower Bodega, and remembers how terrified she was in March of 2020 about her new business. She wasn't wrong to be fearful: within a massive downturn in small business overall, lockdowns and safety protocols disproportionately affected Latinx- and women-owned small businesses. Molaeia, a former employer of Refinery29, opened her studio in February 2020, but had to close them after a mere few weeks. Her story is not unique. Not only did the sales of Latinx small-owned businesses drop 42% in just the first two months (March-April 2020), but these owners were only half as likely (3% compared to 7%) as their white non-Latinx counterparts to receive assistance in the form of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. For women-owned businesses, who already face a lack of funding, the recent U.S. State of Small Business Report from Facebook revealed that women-owned small businesses experienced higher closure rates (28% vs. 22% for men) and lower sales (47% vs. 41% for men).
Against the odds, many Latinas were able to hold onto their businesses by relying on smart shifts in the way they operated. Many of these business owners turned to Instagram to market their products directly to consumers, while also building a sense of community at a time when kinship and closeness were hard to come by.
A year later, we spoke with three Latina small-business owners: Kalima DeSuze of indie bookstore and coffee shop Cafe Con Libros, Jazmin de la Guardia of ceramics studio Franca, and Aurea Sanabria Molaei of flower studio and content creator Flower Bodega. They talked to us about the realities they faced amid the pandemic and how they were able to unexpectedly overcome the effects with the help of social media.
Cafe Con Libros - Bookstore
In early March of last year, Kalima DeSuze was sitting on the train, watching people wearing masks, when she finally called her business partner to close up shop (the bookstore wouldn't open back up until that June with strict social distancing protocol). While their storefront is an essential business because they sell coffee and pastries, DeSuze wanted to prioritize the safety of her staff and customers. "I just didn't feel like we had enough information to keep not only our family safe, but the entire community safe," she tells Refinery29. Luckily, she had a full-time job outside of the book store that gave her a financial cushion, but all the money went towards her shop — as it always has. "I carried that business for the first two years off my own paycheck," she shares. "There is not enough of the narrative [in the media] that Black and brown people also have safety nets, so we had plans to pivot."
DeSuze couldn't sell books in person, so she made the decision to look past her disdain for social media and ask other Black- and Latinx-owned bookstores how they built a following on Instagram. What she once saw as a platform for "performative politics" became a valuable tool for her. "It allowed for me to open up other spaces in which I could collaborate, which I could feel seen, for me to feel affirmed, and for me to feel in community with other like-minded folks," she shares. After taking social media, SEO, and e-commerce training, DeSuze's Instagram page gained over 15,000 followers. And while Instagram helped her extend her business outside of physical retail, it's also given her a platform to share the works of women of color — her favorite part of the entire experience. "I have a platform where I can put somebody's book on my platform, and I can say, 'Sis, I see you. If nobody else sees you, I see you,'" says DeSuze. "I think about what I can do for the people in my community and people that I want to represent." As a 41-year-old, DeSuze hopes other women of color her age can feel like they're capable of constantly evolving, too. "There is a lot of intimidation around navigating social media," she says. "I had to let go of that narrative of 'Oh, I'm not savvy enough' or 'I'm not young enough.' I had to allow myself to see the possibility that's before me."
Jazmin de la Guardia
Franca - Ceramics
"I honestly did not think that we would be able to keep our business afloat," says Jazmin de la Guardia. While she tried to remain optimistic, the reality was not: Early on, their wholesale accounts shut down, which ended 95% of their business. To keep their heads above water, de la Guardia and her business partner decided to increase traffic to their website, which meant the needed to be more engaging on Instagram. "[Our staff] was on Instagram all day, just trying to figure out how to grow it," she recalls. That's when their business changed forever. Online orders began rushing in, and they even caught the attention of Michelle Obama, whose organization WhenWeAllVote worked with Franca on a limited-edition VOTE mug.
Today, in a complete reversal, 95% of their business comes from online orders. De la Guardia has even been turning down some wholesale orders, because the demand has outpaced her ability to make new product. "Instagram saved the business," she says. Their account now has over 62,000 followers. "[Without Instagram,] people forget you're there. Through Instagram, we're able to remind people what we're doing, our collaborations, and who we are: a minority-owned and women-owned small business."
Aurea Sanabria Molaei
Flower Bodega - Floral Design & Content Studio
Last March, Aurea Sanabria Molaei was at Trader Joes when a client called to cancel their upcoming floral installation. Over the next few days, she had an upward of 30 cancellations, and was forced to call off any activities planned in their Brooklyn loft, a space the business had just opened, and a big expense that relied on the contracts she had booked for 2020 — that nearly all disappeared at once. "I remember actually sobbing in the street," she says. On top of that, while Molaei secured a PPP loan, she was very wary of putting herself in more debt, so she applied for less than she needed, and put her own money towards the business. "Every little bit of personal money [went] to saving Flower Bodega," she adds. As a means to survive, Molaei started selling floral kits as a quarantine activity at home. She and her husband drove around New York City to all the different boroughs to deliver kits to 40 people's houses during the lockdown.
Once everyone had her kits, Molaei hosted a class from Instagram Live. From there, she caught the attention of brands who wanted to pay her for Instagram takeovers and IGTV assets. Pre-pandemic, Flower Bodega had 5,000 followers; now she has over 20,000, and Molaei is heavily relying on the platform to market her experience-based floral work and virtual workshops. Although she's been lucky to secure business for 2021 and open the studio back up for regulated photoshoots, Molaei still is fearful of what the future holds — but that's why she's working harder than ever. "It's been such a wonky year that it's a little scary to think that something could happen and turn it all on its head again," she says. "We're working to keep Flower Bodega alive."