‘We were made for this’: the women starting businesses in lockdown | Entrepreneurs


It may not appear the most auspicious time to start a business. Britain has been in lockdown for five of the past 11 months. The economy shrank almost 10% last year. Unemployment is skyrocketing.

But Lucie Halley-Trotter is undeterred. This year she launched her first company, an ethical, sustainable fashion brand, EYO, that takes recycled ocean and landfill waste and remakes it into sportswear.

“I’ve had a lot of stern warnings from people saying ‘are you sure it’s a good idea to start right now?’,” Halley-Trotter muses, “but so many good businesses have started in hard times.”

The entrepreneur knows something about overcoming adversity, having sustained life-changing injuries in an accident in New York a few years ago. The deepest recession for 300 years doesn’t seem to faze her, and instead she sees opportunities in the way the pandemic has changed attitudes in Britain.

“I actually see it as an advantage. It’s activewear, and people are turning to this, turning their homes and gardens into gyms and looking to buy from businesses that are more local and ethical,” she says.

Remarkably, Halley-Trotter is far from alone. In the course of researching this article, the Guardian heard from dozens of new entrepreneurs who had started businesses in lockdown. A large preponderance were women.

When crisis strikes, women commonly experience greater setbacks than men, as they earn less, hold more insecure jobs and make up the majority of single-parent households.

This pandemic is no exception. At least 2.6 million people will be unemployed by the middle of this year in the UK – 7.5% of the working-age population. But it is mothers who are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have lost their job or quit since the start of the lockdown.

And globally women are a third more likely than men to work in a sector or industry shut down by coronavirus. More than half a billion women, or 40% of all employed women, work in the most affected sectors.

Perhaps because of this insecurity, women appear to be at the forefront of a nascent spirit of entrepreneurship. “The cards may have been stacked against women but out of the doom and desperation we are seeing some extraordinary examples of strength and resilience with some small pockets of hope and inspiration emerging,” said Stuart Lewis, the founder of Rest Less, an online jobs site.

Joely To.
Joely To. Photograph: Handout

Joely To is certainly at the younger end of the entrepreneurial spectrum. With extra time on her hands during lockdown, the A-level student set up Pioneer, a non-profit enterprise aiming to nurture a passion for maths in girls aged 11 to 18.

During the long, hot lockdown summer, To partnered with Girls in Data to hold three data challenge series and a summer school for more than 600 girls across the UK. She built up a team of 14 Pioneer outreach officers who worked with companies including Experian, Zurich Insurance, Tableau and Chartmetric to create challenges that required girls to apply their problem-solving skills to real-world business problems in maths-related careers.

“One 16-year-old got an early job offer from Experian after completing our challenge,” she said.

Technology not surprisingly features as a central idea in a lot of new businesses. Rachel ab Iorwerth also saw a pandemic niche and went for it, setting up Zoom and Teams hosting services for free before demand became such that – while still working as a school librarian – she set up her company HoZts.

“I’d had the idea as soon as lockdown hit in March and it really took off,” she said. “By Christmas, office parties on Zoom took off so we went from the odd exercise class and comedy night to twice daily events and tag teaming to cover them all.”

“We’ve still got our day jobs – for now – but our past lives have included television and festivals, so we have the perfect tone to develop a rapport with corporations and performers,” she added. “We were made for this.”

Tracey Barnes rapidly moved online with her dancing lessons for people with health issues during lockdown, and has found she is able to tap a wider market as a result. “My target audience suddenly widened to anyone across the UK who fancied a bit of seated dance,” she said. “I’m holding multiple classes a day and they’re all full. We all log in half an hour early just to have a chat!”

For some women, the pandemic has led to them changing their career direction altogether. Julia Kirby-Smith worked as a broadcast journalist until she was headhunted – and then made redundant four months later.

“We were in the middle of a pandemic but I’m naive, optimistic and single-minded so thought, what the hell, I’ll go for a huge career change,” she said. She set up a sustainable grocery business called Fridge of Plenty in north London.

Julia Kirby-Smith
Julia Kirby-Smith: ‘We’ve had to be really innovative about the logistics around our home deliveries.’ Photograph: handout

Instead of seeing the lockdown as a problem, Kirby-Smith saw it as an opportunity. “I think we were lucky to open when the rest of the high street was closed down,” she said. “We’ve had to be really innovative about the logistics around our home deliveries, which has been a great – if intense – education for us.

“Also, we’ve made a point of stopping to have a proper conversation with everyone we deliver food to,” she added. “We realised we were the only people a lot of them were talking to from one week to the next. It’s nice to be able to help alleviate their loneliness, but also it’s a great way to create customer loyalty and recognition in a very intense and sped-up way. Without the pandemic, this sort of customer connection could have taken us years to build up.”

And it’s not just in the UK that women are creating business opportunities for themselves during the pandemic. Chicca Malone, from Tuscany, lives with her family in Italy’s famous Bolgheri wine region, in a farmhouse located on the Wine Road.

“I have a cooking school that worked very well for over 20 years until the pandemic hit. Most of my guests are from the US and all my classes and tours were cancelled. I lost my job,” she said.

Chicca Malone’s online cooking school.
Chicca Malone’s online cooking school. Photograph: handout

In April, Malone started offering several live, free virtual cooking classes. The classes were such a success that they founded Chicca’s Cooking Club.

“At the start we said we would be happy to have just 15 paying founding members, but we had about 75 members sign up right away. We were amazed,” she said.

For her last free class in January, Malone had about 600 registrations and more than 380 participants on four continents, in 14 countries, including 23 states in the US.

“This is the largest class I’ve ever taught in my life,” she said. “Now the club can count over 150 members, it’s a new small business. We make an income from it and lots of connections with great people across the world.”





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