Living through the pandemic as a social entrepreneur definitely makes for some interesting times. Not only do we need to balance the financial viability of our social enterprises, we also need to think about our impact on the environment and the people we aim to serve.
Although I’ve had my moments of despair, exhaustion, and spontaneous crying, I’m grateful for the lessons the pandemic has taught me. We learn far more during times of hardship than we do during times of prosperity, so you can bet the pandemic was full of teachable moments.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, and how they’ve made me a better social entrepreneur as a result.
Pandemic Lesson 1: Know Your Why And Stick To It.
As the award-winning social entrepreneur Reese Fernandez-Ruiz of Rags2Riches once said, “It’s easy to do the right thing when times are good. But it’s more important to do the right thing when they are hard.”
Do you know your Why? And I truly mean your Why, not your What. Are you committed to stick to your Why, even when it’s hardest to do?
My business Cambio & Co. sells fashion accessories. At the start of the pandemic, my first thought was, “Nobody needs jewelry or bags right now.” But eventually I remembered that we don’t just sell jewelry or bags. Our mission is obviously much deeper than that. We provide meaningful ways for Filipinos and people of color to reconnect with their heritage, and we create livelihood for artisans in the Philippines. It doesn’t matter what we sell.
After that, we rolled out storytelling campaigns about the power of heritage and began hosting online gatherings to hold space for our community. We doubled down and found new ways to support our partner artisans and communities in the Philippines so they could continue gaining livelihood. We even began offering face masks, made by the artisans from their homes.
During hardship, your what must pivot. But your Why must remain constant and stronger than ever. For Cambio & Co., if we didn’t have such a strong conviction in our Why, we would have crumbled the minute the pandemic hit.
Pandemic Lesson 2: Put Your People First.
No matter your industry, advocacy, or business model, people must always come first. This isn’t just a social enterprise/”do the right thing” sort of thing. If you want your business to survive (and thrive!) during difficult times, you need to treat your people well.
Cambio & Co. is still a tiny company. We’ve got one full-time team member and a roster of freelance creatives around the globe, plus community and artisan partners across the Philippines.
When the pandemic hit, we checked in on everyone to ensure they were safe. We made clear to the team that the priority was to take care of their health and their loved ones. This meant putting projects on hold, taking time off, or simply adopting more flexible work arrangements. It’s unethical for companies to expect 100% performance from their team members during times of trauma. People over profit, always.
Then we began donating a percentage of all our sales to COVID-19 relief efforts in the Philippines, the most impacted country in SouthEast Asia. And, in a time of scalebacks, cutbacks and cancelled contracts, including fashion brands leaving thousands of garment workers out of work, we chose to increase our orders to our artisan partners to provide them an extra financial cushion.
We are privileged to have been able to do these things, and not all brands can. But all of us can intentionally find ways to put our people first and prioritize humanity over the bottom line. In the end, our relationships with our team members, our partners, and our customers are stronger today than before the pandemic.
Pandemic Lesson 3: Plan For The Worst.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were two main camps of people. In the first were those who operated business as usual. They continued to promote products and run sales and buy inventory, assuming the pandemic wasn’t that serious.
In the second were those who closed their businesses temporarily. They assumed people weren’t shopping anyway so there was no use trying. Instead, they hoped and prayed the pandemic would be over quickly.
I had the fortune to be surrounded by a third, less common camp of people: the planners. They accepted that things could get really bad, and really quickly (which they did). They taught me to plan for the worst case scenario, so we did.
As a team, we mapped out the different possibilities and how we’d pivot in response to each. I created contingency plans, crisis strategies and new content marketing initiatives. At the peak of the crisis, we had daily check-ins and kept a close eye on changes in the environment. We also accepted as a team that if things got really bad, our business might not survive. That sounds bleak, but it actually rallied us as a team.
By accepting this possibility, we all worked so hard to prevent it from happening. It might still happen (cause you never know how the pandemic will play out), but we all agreed that we’d do everything to fight as hard and as long as we could to survive.
Pandemic Lesson 4: But Be Ready For The Best.
We cut back on a lot of expenses early on in the pandemic, but we continued to invest into our long-term future. We kept rolling out new projects, storytelling campaigns, an expanded blog, and even launched a new website and a new company!
It wasn’t easy, but it paid off. We couldn’t have imagined that e-commerce businesses like ours would end up booming during the pandemic. Some of that is luck, but a lot of it was pure, unglamorous grit.
We were able to benefit from the online shopping boom because we were ready for it. This wouldn’t have happened if we had sat back and just hoped the pandemic would go away. We had planned for the worst, but hoped for the best. And when the best happened, you can bet we grabbed onto it with both hands and refused to let go.
Pandemic Lesson 5: Make Your Work Intersectional.
If there’s one, tiny silver lining during the pandemic, it’s that we can no longer pretend the world is fine. The pandemic has put a magnifying glass up close and personal onto the world’s inequalities, and reflected them back at us.
It’s painfully obvious how our current systems of capitalism, colonialism and racism work together to create overlapping layers of privilege and oppression. And these layers happen at the intersections of class, gender, race, and geography.
As social entrepreneurs, this concerns us deeply. Because if we want to address systems-wide problems, we must develop systems-wide solutions. If we want to create a world that’s truly better for everyone, we have to think about everyone and how to dismantle these unequal systems in every part of our work.
We’ve gotta take a big step back and ask ourselves the hard questions. Is my work intersectional enough? Am I truly doing work that benefits everyone, even those who don’t look like me? Does my leadership team have representation from across the gender, race, and socioeconomic spectrum? And in what ways might I, unintentionally and subconsciously, be reinforcing these inequalities?
Pandemic Lesson 6: Community Is Everything.
The only reason I’ve come this far through the pandemic isn’t because I’m particularly smart or talented or resilient. It’s because I had a community of people who uplifted and empowered me, and who set an example. I was surrounded by social entrepreneurs who continued to stay committed to their social mission despite all odds. They never gave up on their Why, and they wouldn’t allow me to give up either.
I know how tough it can be to find a community, especially as a social entrepreneur. We have a foot in different worlds: one in the world of business, and the other in social impact and giving.
Not everyone gets it. I still get blank stares sometimes when I explain what I do, but that’s why having a community like Causeartist is important.
But no matter where you call your community, find one you want to be surrounded with, in good times and in pandemic times.
Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, writer, and online storyteller who uses stories to uplift BIPOC founders and purpose-driven brands. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co. and Sinta & Co., two e-commerce fashion companies that provide sustainable livelihood for artisans in the Philippines and empowers the diaspora to #WearYourHeritage. Her work has been featured in Cosmopolitan Magazine, CBC, Rappler, Metro Style and ABS-CBN. As a content marketing consultant, Gelaine specializes in amplifying social enterprises and BIPOC-owned businesses through impactful storytelling. Connect with her at www.gelainesantiago.com and Instagram @gelainesantiago