Small Businesses Pivots During Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these businesses found ways to help others.

By Erin Poulson

By Erin Poulson December 16, 2020

Headbands of Hope has always been dedicated to giving back. Founder Jess Ekstrom had an ambitious mission when she created the company, which sells bright, colorful headbands, scarves, beanies and more: For every headband purchased, the company would donate one to a child with cancer.

The headbands were “a great way for girls who are losing their hair from chemotherapy to get a little surprise and help them keep their feminine identity as they go through that,” said Lauren Athey, president of Headbands of Hope.

The company started small, but since its first online order (from Ekstrom’s mom) in 2012, it’s grown to have merchandise in thousands of stores across the world. It’s attracted a healthy online following and garnered support from a roster of celebrities and sports icons—but best of all, it’s donated over 600,000 headbands in the United States and 19 other countries. At the beginning of 2020, the company extended its mission to donate headbands to all children with illnesses, not just cancer.

A couple months later, the coronavirus changed everything. As states went into quarantine and businesses began to shut down, the company’s sales plummeted.

“About 80 percent of our business was wholesale,” said Athey, “so those orders came to a halt. One of our largest trade shows was coming up in April, and that was canceled.”

The sudden lack of business was especially scary because the company had just signed a lease on a large warehouse facility, and the first rental payment was due March 1.

However, “our founder Jess is the queen of thinking optimistically,” Athey said, “and figuring out how we can take lemons and turn them into lemonade when something bad happens.”


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And sometimes, those less-than-ideal situations can lead to surprisingly positive results. For instance, Athey explains, Ekstrom had to cancel a conference she’d planned, called Chasing the Bright Side, which was scheduled to take place at the end of March. Bad news, certainly – but by postponing it and changing it to an all-virtual event, she ended up with 2,500 attendees instead of the original on-site group of 300 people.

The company concentrated on its direct consumer website, even though sales were still weakening.

“We knew everybody was struggling, every small business, even big ones. Everybody has taken a hit. We were just wanting to do our part in the community,” said Athey.

Shifting Focus

“[Ekstrom] has been awesome at helping lead us to brainstorm ideas of how we can make a difference as a small company during a time of crisis in our world,” Athey said. “So we were just trying to figure out what we could do when all this came about.”


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The company couldn’t ship out headband donations because of the suddenly-more-restrictive safety regulations. And every day, newsfeeds were filled with stories of hospitals and clinics running out of personal protective equipment (PPE). That sparked an idea. The team wondered if they could produce masks instead.

“It was Sunday night that [Ekstrom] called me and said, ‘Hey, why don't we do this?’” said Athey. “That Monday morning, I contacted [U.S. Acute Care Solutions], which helps us donate our headbands to hospitals. I sent an email and within 10 minutes, the vice president of operations from this hospital center calls me saying, ‘We need as many as you can get. We’ll take it all.’”

Within 48 hours of the company deciding to pivot, its factory in China started production of 50,000 FDA-approved, disposable masks. Those masks were donated to 220 hospitals around the United States in less than two weeks. Another 20,000 were produced and sent out by the end of April.

“Since then, we've actually teamed up with larger companies with the masks, and we're still donating and producing more,” said Athey.

Watching Out for Others Is a Win for All

Another way Headbands of Hope pivoted to help others during the pandemic was by looking out for their wholesale partners. The company eliminated order minimums so retailers could order one or two headbands at a time to save money – and allowed drop shipping so retail stores could get products out directly to customers who ordered through their social media pages, without having to physically stock the items themselves.

On the Headbands of Hope website, the team added a feature where a customer ordering directly online could designate a local business that had carried Headbands of Hope products – perhaps where that customer had purchased items before the shutdown – and Headbands of Hope would pay that store a percentage of the online sale.

“That way, we’re still trying to support our small businesses,” said Athey, “because they keep the world turning.”

The company’s efforts to do right by their retailers and customers has been a big win.

“The positive response that we got back from our community was just breathtaking,” said Athey. “We didn't think that that small little pivot would make such a difference.”

Stay Optimistic, Commit to the Pivot

Things haven’t been all easy for Headbands of Hope – the company missed out on the small business stimulus payments due to issues with its bank, sales still aren’t close to what they were at the end of 2019, and they’ve had to cut employee hours.

“We’d be lying if we said we didn't all get frustrated or stressed about what the next day is going to bring,” says Athey. But the team is focused on staying optimistic—and leaders work hard to take care of employees any way they can, “even if it means we stay up extra hours at night to talk them through something that they may be going through. We need to take care of our employees, because they take care of the customers. If you don't have happy employees, then you don't have a successful company.”

Producing much-needed masks to help under-supplied hospitals gave employees a renewed sense of purpose despite the frustration and stress of living through a pandemic. “As we announced the new initiative,” Athey says, “it was like a breath of fresh air. Our employees were excited to work. They were okay to turn off the news and focus on how we can brighten somebody else’s day.”

The company has sage advice for other businesses thinking of new ways to survive social distancing, statewide shutdowns and a serious economic downturn: Commit to the pivot.

“Once you realize what you want to go for, now's the time to do it,” says Athey, “and you need to commit to it and stick with it. You got to where you are because your community supported you. So if there's a way that you can support your community during this time, just pay it on. If it wasn't for our followers and our community, we wouldn't have been able to commit to the pivot.”


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“You're not alone in this,” Athey says. “Maybe it will never be back to what ‘normal’ was in November or December, but it'll be a new normal. Don't give up on your dream. Always looking at the bright side of situations and being optimistic can really change a lot.”

Headbands of Hope isn’t alone in its willingness and drive to lend a helping hand in tough times. Here are a handful of likeminded organizations that were able to shift focus and pivot to pitch in and help where they could.

Braskem America – Marcus Hook, PA

More than 40 workers lived around the clock at this manufacturing plant for 28 days to boost production of polypropylene, a critical component in making N95 masks, medical gowns and other personal protective equipment. The personnel worked in rotating 12-hour shifts to keep the plant operating nonstop for almost a month. While people outside were socially distancing at home, the workers inside the factory lived under virtual quarantine with company-provided beds, kitchens, groceries, internet access and iPads. Not allowed to have visitors, the workers’ friends and loved ones could drive by with signs and honk their horns to show their support. A shift supervisor reported that camaraderie among the live-in teams was great, and everyone was felt honored to be able to take part in helping first responders and healthcare workers stay protected.

Coffee Bandits – Merced, CA

Local coffee shop owner Melissa Eisner closed her business at the end of March, after being denied a small business PPP loan. While she did have the choice to remain open, she shut down to keep her employees from having to put themselves at risk simply to sell coffee. After closing, Eisner found a variety of ways to help out her community. Her shop has donated sandwiches and other meals to the Merced Rescue Mission. Eisner has worked with Masks for Docs, which is using her shop to store PPE that the group then distributes to local medical facilities. She said the support from the community has been inspiring.

Austin’s Couch Potatoes – Austin, TX

This local manufacturer has halted furniture production to make masks and gowns out of repurposed pillow-casing shells. The company of 15 employees teamed up with Austin Disaster Relief Network to distribute the supplies to area hospitals and other organizations. Leaders have stated their goal is to produce and donate 3,500 masks a day for as long as they can.

MSU High Voltage Lab – Starkville, MS

Researchers at Mississippi State University worked hard to design modifications to convert more than 550 battery-powered ventilators to AC power for use at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. The battery-powered units were originally designed for temporary use during emergencies such as hurricanes or tornadoes. Once the ventilators are able to use AC power, they can be used for longer terms, which aligns with the typical needs of a patient with COVID-19 complications. Taylor Machine Works, based in Louisville, helped the engineers and students procure and convert the parts needed to make the switch.

Sam’s Southern Eatery – Sapulpa, OK

Said Jaraba, owner of this local restaurant, took his wife and five sons to Palestine to visit his family during winter break. He returned in February to work, while his wife and children planned to return home in March. Once the pandemic took hold across the world, Jaraba’s family was stuck in Palestine, unable to come home until restrictions decreased. In the meantime, Jaraba decided to reach out and help others in his community by offering free food twice a week for anyone who needs it. He also gives first responders and healthcare workers a 20 percent discount anytime to show his appreciation for their service. Jaraba has stated that he will continue to give back to his community even after the pandemic ends, and urges others to do what they can as well.

This article originally appeared in NEXT magazine, issue 8, Fall 2020.

Erin Poulson is a contributing writer who specializes in IT and business topics.

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