Small businesses make a shift for survival
When COVID-19 sent Oregon's economy tumbling, small businesses — especially those owned by people of color — took a hard hit.
Small business owners, however, are a determined and dedicated bunch. As the reality of the situation began to sink in, they jumped into action to find ways to adjust their business models and shift their products and services in order to continue to serve customers and keep revenue flowing.
More than a few of those small businesses have found new niche in what has become, for many people, a must have accessory — face masks. Some business owners, however, are meeting that new market of demand with more flair than others.
It's a wrap
Fashion designer Shalonda Menefee was preparing the latest creations in her Queendomwear clothing line for an upcoming fashion show when the COVID-19 pandemic put that dream on hold.
While Menefee was disappointed, she's also not one to sit around feeling sorry for herself. She had too many other projects that needed attention. Her main company, Sistas Initiating Strategies Together Achieving Success, is made up of several ventures, including her fashion line and a series of workshops she offers as an empowerment coach. She was in the process of restructuring to brand them all as individual enterprises.
Still, she was concerned about how she would keep income from her small businesses coming in. Some of her colleagues suggested she consider making and selling masks, but she wasn't interested. All of her businesses are based on providing more than just a product or service. For Menefee, they're a way of helping people better connect to themselves, their history and their community.
"A lot of people in the beginning saw making and selling masks as an opportunity," she said. "I didn't want to do that. It has to have a bigger meaning."
Then her son requested she make 16 face masks to provide protection for a unit of young men at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in McMinnville. Menefee decided to at least play around with coming up with a possible design for a face mask.
With her usual creative flair, she dug into her stash of African-print fabric and sat down at her sewing machine. She had finally settled on a design featuring a pocket for an optional filter when she was struck by another flash of inspiration.
One of her businesses focuses on providing custom head wraps. She created a head wrap in a fabric matching one of the face masks, photographed herself wearing both, and posted the result on her Sistas Facebook page, where she promotes all of her Queendomwear designs.
"From that one Facebook post, I got 100 orders," Menefee said.
The interest convinced her to move forward with making and selling face masks and matching head wraps, allowing customers to select from 44 different types of fabric designs. She added options to switch out the wrap for a headband or bandana. She also came up with a name for her new fashion collection — New Normal 4 Now.
"Face masks are going to be the new normal," Menefee said. "If you're going to wear a face mask, be unique. Everyone is uniform with the same masks and gloves, but you can be who you are."
She's not sure how long the New Normal 4 Now collection will be available. Once face masks are no longer needed for the pandemic, she thinks her creations could still be used by snowboarders, motorcyclists and others who need protection against the wind or cold. But she also says she's spent more time than she intended developing the lines and trying to keep up with orders for the masks, which sell for $20 each.
"I already had enough work to do," Menefee said with a laugh.
With an eye toward keeping a bigger purpose at the center of all of her entrepreneurial efforts, Menefee is using the money she makes from mask sales to pay for materials to create the requested face masks for the 16 young men at MacLaren — and then some. She says she's on track to provide 250 masks, enough for everyone at the facility.
To learn more about Menefee's New Normal 4 Now line, visit newnormal4now.com
Fit to print
Antonio "Tony" Alcocer doesn't shy away from talking about how he found out he had a passion — and a talent — for art and graphic design.
In his younger days, he had one main interest — skateboarding. Then he started hanging out with a bunch of kids who were doing graffiti. Some of them were content to just leave their mark — their name or initials on a building. But Alcocer realized he saw graffiti as a way of doing something more.
"I never thought about doing art before that," Alcocer said. "But I found my passion, what I was meant to do."
He eventually realized he wanted to take his art in a different direction. He got a job at a small company that did silk screening and set about learning new ways to express himself as an artist. When a chance to buy the company came up, he jumped on the opportunity and started his life as both a graphic artist and an entrepreneur.
His business, which goes by the name Antonio Alcocer TM, was holding its own. A growing stream of customers were stopping by the storefront to buy hoodies, T-shirts, dresses and shoes emblazoned with silk-screen designs created and made by Alcocer.
Then COVID-19 came to town. Overnight, business dried up and Alcocer realized he needed to find a new way to both practice his art and drum up revenue.
As he noticed more people going out in public wearing face masks, Alcocer began to play around with different types of fabric. He created a design with a pocket that allowed him to add an optional filter. His unique design even allowed the wearer to adjust the band holding the mask, to create a comfortable fit while still providing adequate coverage and protection.
The resulting basic mask line offers a variety of colors. But Alcocer also is using some of his own art and that of other artists to silk screen designs on some of the masks.
As he continues to build up his new product line, Alcocer says he's thinking about creating a website and moving into the world of online sales. In the meantime, he's keeping busy creating his art. When he was younger, he says, art was "a tool of healing. It got me off the streets." Now it's a place to find balance and quiet in the current storm.
"Art gives me peace like nothing else does," he said.
To learn more about Alcocer's silk screened designs, visit him on Facebook at Tony Alcocer TM or on Instagram at antonioalcocertm
Campaign for a cause
Another small business in the Portland metro area is also tapping innovation to help meet the need for masks while inviting its customer to join in the effort.
Authenticity50, a Vancouver, Washington-based company started by Jim and Steph McDonald, specializes in American-made, ethically sourced luxury bedding. As the McDonalds learned about the danger doctors, nurses and other health care workers holding down the front lines in the battle against COVID-19 face due to a shortage of personal protective equipment, they began to look for ways to help.
They soon realized that the top-quality cotton sheeting fabric they used for their company's bedding was an excellent material for making masks. The next steps were no-brainers for the McDonalds.
They committed to donating 4,000 yards of top-quality bedding fabric from their company to make 100,000 masks for health care workers. They then connected with Standard Textile, an Ohio company with a focus on hospitality and health care textiles and fabrication.
The McDonalds also started a fund-raising campaign, with a goal of collecting $100,000 to cover the $1.30 cost for manufacturing each mask. The money will allow Standard Textile to continue to keep its workers employed and turning out two-ply medical face masks, according the McDonalds.
"Every single cent fundraised will go to our manufacturing front lines, so that we can provide masks for our health care front lines," Jimmy McDonald said in a released statement. "We're very proud to produce and donate (personal protective equipment) during this critical time of need."
The completed masks will be sent to nonprofit community hospitals across the country, with a focus on underserved areas with the most need. The McDonalds say they plan to keep the campaign going until they hit their $100,000 goal.
Individuals interested in supporting the campaign can find more information or make a donation at authenticity50.com/products/100k-mask-project.
In a recent column in the Business Tribune, a sister publication of Opportunity magazine, Matt Miller highlighted other area businesses that have shifted gears to produce personal protective gear while also keeping their staff employed.
According to Miller, who serves as interim president and CEO of Great Portland Inc., Paula Hayes and her Beaverton cosmetics company, Hue Noir, offset a drop in sales of lipstick and eye shadow by turning out bottles of hand sanitizer. Customers responded in droves, leading Hayes to produce 25,000 units in just a few weeks.
Ryan Moor, the founder of Vancouver-based Ryonet, refocused the Washington state company's efforts from manufacturing screen printing equipment to manufacturing personal protective equipment to help hospitals meet shortages.
Portland-based Keen, meanwhile, shifted a production line at its plant in Thailand. Instead of the company's usual footwear, the production line turned out 100,000 face masks that were donated to front line workers.
In a similar vein, Shashi Jian, a manager at Intel, worked with a group of 3-D printing advocates to create a crowd-funded supply chain called Makerforce. The pop-up effort allows anyone with a 3-D printer to turn out personal protective equipment components for hospitals in their area.
"Even in the midst of an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, our … entrepreneurs and business owners in our region are innovative and collaborative," Miller wrote. "Above all, they strive to help each other make our region stronger."
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