The year of women in business: Pandemic pushing online stores to new highs

The year of women in business: Pandemic pushing online stores to new highs

Ever since SHEIN the Chinese e-commerce retail app was banned in India following privacy concerns in the backdrop of Indo-China faceoffs, people began to look beyond and find products that suit their tastes. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has a huge hand in triggering the boom of online thrift stores and small businesses that mushroomed on Instagram. Sikkim has its fair share of startups with big investments but when it comes to a one-person owned business, the capital however low, there is no stopping the upward trajectory.

Being confined at home and to a majorly digital world, people got restless. Some tried their hand at learning a language or committing to workout routines (most famously Chloe Ting’s 2 weeks shred). Some decided to make use of their talent and launch an Instagram based store. 

Soon, Instagram feeds were flooded by new stores that sold handmade and thrifted items. It wasn’t the product being offered that made this trend notable. It was the people behind these stores. A large part of this market is dominated by women. Anybody who believed that women weren’t cut out for business should probably question their beliefs. 

Women of all ages took what is patriarchally seen as having lesser value when compared to a giant e-commerce service or delivery company owned by men (it’s only the bitter truth) and turned it around. Selling secondhand clothes not only allowed customers to move on from SHEIN but pick a better option to fast-fashion. Handmade accessories with clay or resin or crochet gave way to affordable options unlike the more relied on brands under Myntra or Zara. 

Still, it is not just accessories or fashion that young people are into. The famous Dalgona coffee and breadmaking have been things that are tried out by social media users with access to an oven or a whisk. Even in the category of food, small businesses like Madewithluv or The Giving Stove found ground.

For instance, Yangchen Dolkar, a student at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi and founder of Madewithluv which offered handmade bentos (Japanese/Korean lunchboxes) designed as popular cartoon characters (Totoro from My Neighbour Totoro, Hello Kitty etc.). She had moved back home due to the increasing rate of COVID-19 infections and like any person locked down in this precarious period, she wanted to utilize her time doing something meaningful instead of sitting idle. 

“I was always interested in cooking and making handmade stuff,” says Dolkar. “In the beginning, I started making bento boxes and currently, I’m creating jewellery. I thought that I would be doing it just for a month thinking that people won’t order but the response has been very positive.”

Since one has to remember that delivery of food is trickier than sending a product via mail, as there has to be a dedicated delivery person and a quick mode of transport that would ensure timely arrival of the order. Yangchen is a few of the lucky ones who did not have to rely on a delivery company and instead took help from her family to make it work. 

 

Custom products

What is interesting to note is that small businesses take more note of their customer’s personal preferences and take customized orders when necessary. 

Before starting her business on Instagram, Papercult founder Eden Bhutia was working as a cabin crew member. Due to temporary suspension of the company, she has been at home since the lockdown began. “While I’m still associated with the company, I’ve been staying idle at home ever since. It was a good opportunity to keep myself busy with a hobby I’d developed since my younger days. My friends and family pushed me to change my interest in paper crafting into a small business.”

Eden explains that Papercult usually takes custom orders where she lets her clients go through a small Q&A where information of what they want, from details as small as the colour preference to messages they’d like to include. “This way, I’m able to customise the products on a personal note. It’s actually very satisfying to see their reactions when they love what they order.” 

“Sometimes there are clients who are confused as to what they want as a gift for someone they love, especially when it comes to scrapbooks or mini albums. So they ask for recommendations and I help them accordingly. So when they tell me to make whatever I like, I do my best to make something different to please my client as well as the recipient. Also, sometimes, when I’m experimenting with new projects, and they make it to my feed, it becomes a non-custom product.”

Most of these businesses are handled by one person alone, which could of course make things difficult but at the same time, they are satisfied with how things have gone. Eden, for instance, is particular about how the products look and confesses she’s paranoid about what and how she wants things done. 

“But at the same time, it’s tough when there are multiple orders and I’ve to meet the deadline. It gets quite stressful and sometimes I’ve had to unwillingly deny order requests when they’re urgent. But I must say I’m lucky because some of them still want to place their orders with me even when I need more time”, she adds. 

“I think as long as I’m home, I’ll continue taking custom orders at least. Although, if work calls, I’m still confused as to what my next move will be

 

Time Management

Despite owning a business that lets them showcase their creativity and channel their lockdown anxiety to a productive area, these women do have lives of their own. Some are in college, while some work from home. How do they manage time between life and their business?

Karma Yishey Lanzom, a civil service aspirant and Tashi Laden, a Masters student at Sikkim Univerity are sisters who own Bhumos Closet, quite possibly the biggest thrift store in the state. Given their academic background, one would think that they hardly have time to manage a business but contrary to that, they sell out their products within minutes of dropping. 

“It’s all about balance. We manage our time. Our drop time is 8 pm at night and we do our studies during the daytime. Business is something we were interested in from a young age since our parents are also businesspeople. So we invested in this, putting together our interest in fashion and styling to good use and launched the store in October. We’re serious about owning and managing our own business”, says Karma. 

“We get exhausted by the end of the day but my sister and I have come across amazing people from all parts of the country and this has personally impacted our lives”, says Tashi. 

Similarly, others have carved out time solely to work on their business.

“Initially, it was really difficult and I had to miss many classes but now since all the restaurants have opened I get fewer bento orders and more jewellery. I make the earrings in the evenings, after class,” says Yangchen.

Even Sonam Ongmu Bhutia and Michelle Sujata, founders of Scrunch It Out, a hair accessory store, probably the first in Sikkim, lead busy lives. “It is difficult to manage time because of work and sometimes I get so tired I feel like giving up but then I think - “this is what you wanted”. So I try to finish two orders per week. I’m don’t want to give it up,” says Sonam.

 

Social Media

Angela Lachungpa, founder of Cosmic Patterns cites YouTube as the influence and assistance behind starting her business. “YouTube, the universal teacher helped and motivated me to start up. These days we can pretty much learn anything on the internet. After watching several videos on handmade goods. I realised it wasn’t that difficult after all and decided to act on it. I thought - if not now then when? I was home all day and I like creating things from scratch. It’s so satisfying when the end results are fruitful.”

“I feel like the pandemic has forced open my creative gates. Everybody knows how hectic and fast-paced college life in the city can get. With assignments and presentations due, there’s hardly any time to create things for pleasure and enjoy the process. Let alone making detailed handmade products that I do now. Making them requires a lot of patience and it’s slow work but I’m glad I have the time and resources to turn my thoughts into a reality. In the end, it’s worth it.

Scrunch It Out by Sujata and Michelle, was another business idea started from a TikTok. “I used to watch TikToks and came across a video on how to make a scrunchie so I decided to do it. That’s how I came up with the business idea. I was sitting idle during the lockdown so my sister and I decided to just go for it.”

From passion to profit

Once considered an uncool and boring hobby (or item) crocheted, embroidered and knitted pieces have now become a staple on everyone’s wishlist. Shruti Pradhan, founder of One Teeny Wish is one of the most popular creators in this niche. 

“I was an introverted and nerdy child, so I used to mostly stay at home at my parent’s wish. I used to literally beg my mother to teach me how to knit and eventually once I was in school, I was the only person in class who knew how to knit for SUPW”, says Shruti. 

“I was in college, in Bangalore, and I knew I wanted to do this for a while but never got the time. So when I came back home in June, I was quarantined for around 28 days. Since I didn’t have anything to do as my college was closed, I began knitting. Then I learnt how to crochet and ended up making a lot of stuff. Once quarantine got over, I decided to set up a shop and make a profit out of it.”

She explains that she first sold her handmade products on NEOrigins, a Sikkim-based e-commerce website before launching her store on Instagram in August. The brand’s USP has been offering customers a personally curated playlist along with their orders. Apart from this, OTW has weaved in philanthropy with business, when a few pieces were set up for a lucky draw to raise money for PRCF India to vaccinate stray dogs against Canine Distemper in Yangang. 

Bona Isaacs, a homemaker and artist residing in Development Area, Gangtok, says “I have always been doing art as a hobby but it was only during this pandemic that I managed to gather an audience and find my patrons. I had more time to create more artworks during this time.”

Her work is largely inspired by nature. “Nature is the answer and it is evident in most of my artworks. It is usually a floral or landscape, inspired by the natural beauty that surrounds me. Besides that, my husband who is also an artist and a fine arts teacher is the biggest inspiration for me. He is the driving force behind my success.

Bona explains that first of all, she is an artist and her work is not a business in a traditional sense. “I make artworks as a means of personal expression and to find a creative outlet. The people who buy my artworks aren't my customers but my patrons who are supporting me as an artist in my journey.” Art had always been her getaway. 

“Every day is a hectic day at the workshop but I start my day as early as possible. I work 6-8 hours a day with my artworks daily. I intend to create artworks for the rest of my life. It is a passion for creating that brings meaning to my life,” says Bona.

Support systems

Saumya Aswal, founder of The Artsy Shop saw that people online were creating amply during the lockdown and took inspiration from it to finally quell the dullness of staying at home 24/7 to launch her store. “Initially, I thought about what I should sell so I started with clay earrings and then moved on to scrunchies. I asked other people I knew who owned an Instagram store how it works and they helped me out. It’s so nice to see local handmade the boom in local handmade stuff”. 

“My parents were surprised when they saw me first saw me doing it but were really supportive, even helping me with packaging and mailing orders. But there are always people who like to diminish what you do in life. I got to find out several had been asking - “Why is she doing it? Is it just for money?” The end result is not always money but a sense of fulfilment and ownership”. 

She adds, “Some time ago, I was thinking of closing the store but my mother didn’t want me to. She said we could figure it out.”

Pema, the founder of Lakzoh, says that she had first gotten the idea of making items out of polymer clay 3-4 years ago while going through Pinterest and coming across realistic-looking food. “Once I got the clay, the first thing I made was doughnuts. I showed them to my friends and they were surprised. They gave good feedback on it and when my parents finally saw it, they told me to create more. My mom even offered to showcase it in the living room”. 

She adds, “For me, its always been about what I want to make. Unless someone asks for a customized order, I make what I want to - there will always be someone who likes it”, says Pema. “Apart from this, I have various creative outlets - I sing, paint, write - limiting myself to one wouldn’t work.”

All these businesses have been crucial during the pandemic. Not only do they alleviate boredom but drive home the message of entrepreneurial growth in Sikkim. More people are taking confidence in their ideas and making them a reality. Women in business, with bright ideas, have always existed but nobody wants to acknowledge their hard work and dedication. These businesses are a testament to the fact that if nobody gives them a seat the table, they’ll craft one for themselves. 

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