By Juliette Kimmins
Priscilla Wesson always knew she wanted to be her own boss. Quarantine gave her an opportunity, and she took it.
Wesson, a former supervisor at a mental health not-for-profit and mother of two daughters, used her newfound time to open her online shop, Cozy N Cute Kids Boutique. Inspired by her daughters’ love of fashion, she sought to fill a gap in the market by founding a Black-owned children’s clothing shop. Completely self-taught, Wesson turned to YouTube videos and other resources on the Internet for advice on how to operate an e-commerce website.
Cozy N Cute launched in June 2020 in the days following the death of George Floyd. After that, “a lot of people now are talking about diversity and how to support Black people,” Wesson said. “People wanted to be conscious of buying Black.”
Cozy N Cute has had over 200 orders since its launch, Wesson said, and in October, she decided to leave her job to run her business full time.
As ownership of businesses by women steadily increases, the Covid-19 pandemic has given some women the chance to pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship. In 2018, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council reported that since 2007, the number of women-owned businesses had increased by 58%, which is better than businesses overall, which increased by only 12%. Additionally, nearly half–47%–of women-owned businesses were headed by women of color, and businesses owned by women of color grew 163% between 2007 and 2018.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more established women-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected and forced to adapt. In a special report on women-owned businesses during COVID-19 conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, women-owned businesses were less likely than male-owned businesses to view the overall health of their businesses as good, report staff increases, have plans to invest or expect revenue increases.
Despite the grim outlook for many women-owned small businesses, some have been able to adapt to the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Marilyn Schulman and Lynn Brey opened Willy Nilly Trading Co. in downtown Bay Shore in the spring of 2000. Schulman took a risk in closing her family’s business, Bay Shore Lighting and Home, to open the quirky shop filled with eclectic home decor, jewelry, makeup and personal care items. With Brey as her business partner, she led what would become a successful business. The About page on their website proudly states, “In spite of the naysayers who said no one would come, it became a retail destination within a few years.”
Schulman said she’s loved being her own boss with the freedom to implement her own ideas. Running a female-oriented business has been rewarding. “I’ve always been a bit of a feminist,” she said.
On March 21, Covid-19 forced the shop to close temporarily. Revenue that was usually generated from Mother’s Day and other holidays dried up.
Being in business for 20 years and having a loyal clientele helped Willy Nilly bounce back in the fourth quarter. “Being a mature business means we were able to survive,” Schulman said.
While this year’s fourth quarter has already proven to be successful for Willy Nilly, the pandemic has served as a stark reminder for many businesses of the fragility that comes with entrepreneurship.
Not all businesses experience this fragility in the same way. Janine Diplama, owner of Janine L. Dipalma Insurance Agency Inc. in Bay Shore, calls the insurance industry “recession-proof.” Nevertheless, Dipalma has had her fair share of obstacles to get to where she is. When Dipalma opened her agency in 1990, she was the second woman and youngest State Farm agent in Suffolk County at 24 years old. She said that she received little to no support from the company which at that point had just reached a settlement of $330 million in a sex discrimination lawsuit.
Dipalma said that in her 30 years of experience, the discrimination and harassment have diminished only slightly. “I would say that by today’s standards, I probably would’ve or could’ve had at least 10 lawsuits based on discrimination and/or harassment,” she said.
Other challenges come with having a small business as a woman in a male-dominated industry. Photographer Cecilia Boschelli has had her own business, Boschelli Photography & Cinematography, for 10 years now. Immigrating to the United States from Argentina in 2001, Boschelli worked hard assisting other photographers to hone her craft before opening her own business.
And yet, even now, Boschelli receives comments asking if photography is a hobby of hers or if she’s “just trying to make a couple bucks” for her home, she said. The assumption that photography isn’t an actual career for her stings. “Having a photography business is not just taking pretty pictures,” Boschelli said.
Occasionally, people mistake Boschelli’s male assistant as the head photographer. To them, “I was just a little girl playing around with a camera,” she said.
Covid-19 has affected Boschelli Photography & Cinematography drastically. The business was booked for 70 weddings at the beginning of the year but only got to do six of them. As a result, the business no longer has a physical location, which has its benefits and drawbacks.
The business has transitioned seamlessly into video consultations, but where couples would typically interview three potential vendors, now they can meet with five or six via video call.
The increased competition “is something we will have to overcome with time,” she said.
COVID-19 has taken its toll on many small businesses in 2020, particularly those owned by women. While owning a small business can be risky and industries can be volatile, “resilience is key for being a business owner,” Dipalma said.
The pandemic has proven to be the ultimate test for many, but women-business owners remain optimistic and ready to prove their resilience.
“Whenever I am told I cannot do anything,” Dipalma said, “I tend to react by doing what they say I cannot do. And better.”