They mean business: the entrepreneurs who took the plunge in the pandemic and are on the up in lockdown

Four Gen Z go-getters tell Philippa Blakeley about using their creative flair and finding their enterprising spirit in the age of Covid-19

Skiin, started by Saffron Spence and her twin sister

We might have been living through a pandemic, but another contagion raged at the same time, one which was much more fun, relaxing and often rather tasty. Let me remind you of the banana bread obsession we witnessed during the first lockdown. This was possible for the vast majority of us because we had much more time on our hands.

But for many that spare time came at a big cost, through being furloughed or even made unemployed, and it meant many were left needing a second job to help maintain the income they had prior to the pandemic. The non-essential retail industry is one which took a real hit, but for lots of start-up businesses into this industry, they were not deterred.

That doesn’t mean it was easy, the Federation of Small Businesses is predicting the loss of around 250,000 small businesses as a result.

We spoke to four women, who made the most of the opportunities the pandemic presented, by starting their own small businesses – discussing the importance of the virtual world for their businesses, tackling lockdown restrictions, and the benefits of shopping small and sustainable.

Bridie Heath, 22, London

Charity might start at home, but for Bridie that was her work life. When her workplace – a charity shop – was forced to close and Bridie was sent home, like the rest of us, she needed to find new ways to keep herself busy. This was when she took up crocheting in the first lockdown.

Bridie’s first lockdown was already full of creativity, even before she found her love for making earrings and coasters from polymer clay. But as lockdown went on, and it felt as though normality was getting further and further away, Bridie saw this as her opportunity to make a fundamental change to her life.

Initially, doing crocheting was something Bridie enjoyed because it meant she could physically make something for herself and wear it, especially with the environmental benefits this has. She even found the idea of being able to make her whole wardrobe from scratch an exciting prospect. “I started with crochet and making something by myself and being able to wear it was really nice. I think sustainability in fashion is so important, to wear all my own clothes would be fantastic,” she says.

Just before the second lockdown, in October, Bridie began creating earring designs and coasters from polymer clay. “I never really wore earrings that much until I started making my own earrings and I loved the freedom of working with the polymer clay,” she says. This hobby has now become her job, after she started her business bgroovydesigns, alongside her part-time job at a charity shop. To begin with it was something she was very worried about, and took a while to decide over. But with limited work opportunities due to the pandemic, she decided to take the plunge.

“I had seen other people do it and I thought if they can do it, why not I,

“I was really nervous because I’m not a big self-believer but now just to hear that people like my stuff is so rewarding,” she says.

Bridie has also now found a new love for wearing her earrings, which are inspired by 70s fashion, combined with experimental patterns and bold designs. “I love wearing them out, I feel so confident and when people ask me about them, it’s so nice to say they’re mine and it’s free advertising,” she says jokingly.

As we move out of the pandemic and back into more normality, Bridie has aspirations to continue growing the business as it is something she has really enjoyed, and due to the benefits it has brought to her mental health. “In an ideal world, I would love to do it full time, but I do realise that is very rare to be able to do. Currently, it is sustainable for me to do three days a week and I’m very much a realist and know that it’ll be difficult,” she says.

Not only have small businesses in the creative industry emerged during the pandemic, with people having much more time on their hands, but there has also been a surge in the number of people shopping at local, independent shops.

“I’m so against Amazon, I always think support the ‘little man’,

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m now doing this, but I feel like this year people have really focused more on shopping local and have really pushed for it,” says Bridie.

Bridie was overwhelmed by the amount of support she has recieved, despite only officially launching her shop during the second lockdown.

All of us in 2020 saw the importance of social media for everyone, with staying connected, but also for the many people who started their own small businesses during the pandemic, social media has become essential for promoting their products.

“Without social media this wouldn’t be able to happen at all. Instagram is my holy grail for this sort of thing,

“People have just received the first batch of earrings and seeing that is so rewarding, it is my driving force to continue,” says Bridie.

Sophie Nancy, 21, Leeds

The one thing that had always stopped Sophie Nancy? People’s opinions. But that was longer a problem when lockdown hit. Yes, she had the heartbreak of no last day of university, no graduation, no just ‘being a student’ for one last time. But that was no excuse for Sophie, who chose to make the most of lockdown by starting her own business.

She was already able to sew and would often sew for her friends and housemates, but then they began asking her if they could buy her clothes. This gave her the inspiration to start selling her clothes on her Depop, @sophienancy.

“I felt I had been given a huge gift of time, and it was something I had always wanted to start,

“I knew there was interest through my friends,” she says. “Even now it is something I do for the pure enjoyment; I’m not making loads of money from it.”

Sophie’s love for fashion was enhanced during her second year at university when she interned at London Fashion Week and did a short course in fashion at Central Saint Martins, London. It was during this time which inspired her style both for the clothes she wears herself and also the clothes she makes for her shop.

“I saw whacky, sustainable fashion, ripping up the rule book which I like to do but also I think what would I want to wear, what do I think is cool, it’s an intuition thing almost, doing what I want,” she says.

Since the first lockdown, Sophie has continued making clothes for her shop, participating in a pop-up shop on Brick Lane and joining ASOS marketplace, while also starting her Masters in September. “I’ve been running the shop alongside my Masters,” she says. “I took it all in my stride until I stopped for the holidays and now, I just sleep.”

Once Sophie graduates from her Masters, she wants to focus more on further developing and growing her business. “I’m going to apply for jobs but also work on my business full time. I want more regular releases and more structure, as well as a more long-term plan,” she says.

Sophie has also benefitted from the increased numbers of people shopping small this year, and the increased importance which has been put on reducing fast fashion. As with many other small business owners this is something which she feels is essential, particularly since starting her own.

“People need to support the next generation, it’s more sustainable and we’re more aware of the problems in the industry because we’ve been outside it before,” says Sophie. “Also, our things are completely original.”

Sophie even believes lockdown has benefitted her in terms of the clothes she has created because of the greater freedom for designing what she likes, rather than having to take on board other people’s opinions. “It’s been good not being influenced by people’s opinions because everyone has been stuck at home,” she says.

Jess Fisher, 20, Portsmouth

At home, recovering from an operation which left Jess Fisher pretty much bedbound in 2019, was the start of her creative passion. She was suffering from the isolation many of us would experience in 2020 and realised the benefits of getting creative. It was because of this that she set up her business ‘threadbabe’, creating embroidery wall hangings.

So, when lockdown arrived it was the perfect opportunity for Jess to spread her passion to many other people who were feeling lonely and miserable.

“I worked in a call centre and the girl sat next to me said she had been doing embroidery, she was always telling me about it, so I started following a few embroidery accounts on Instagram,” says Jess. “Then when I had my operation and had eight weeks off work, I started, just to prove to myself that I could make these things, but I didn’t realise then that I could sell them.”

As often happens, Jess’ friends started asking if they could buy her things, which was what inspired her to start her own Etsy shop and an Instagram page to promote her business. As with many other small businesses, social media and the virtual world is something which has really benefitted Jess.

Then during lockdown, her boyfriend’s mum asked Jess to provide her with a pattern and all the different things she would need to create her own wall hanging – this was where the idea for the subscription boxes was created.

“With the pandemic and people losing their jobs or being on furlough it meant they have more time, so it was good for me getting my work out there and that meant I was helping many other people,” she says.

With the subscription boxes, everything needed to create the wall hanging is sent out, enabling people to physically get creative. This is something Jess has often used as a coping mechanism when life gets tough, and the pandemic has definitely been that for many people.

“Before I started embroidery, I would just sit scrolling through my phone and I know that’s not good but now I do embroidery and just have that time for myself,” she says. “I think that is something really important, even in the pandemic life is so busy.”

After the pandemic, Jess has aspirations of continuing to expand her business – her aims being to move from working full time to working part time in a job and part time on her business.

For Jess, the increase in people shopping independent is something she is thrilled about. Having a small business within the industry means it is something she sees the benefits of. “By shopping small, you are directly supporting someone’s passion, that is their dream you are supporting,” she says. “If you can afford it, why put your money into something big when they don’t need your custom the same.”

Saffron Spence, 22, Sheffield

The bond identical twins have tends to be like unlike any other relationship. They were in the womb together and they go through life together. For Saffron and Amber they also got coronavirus together.

It was while they were isolating separately but at the same time, they decided to start their own business, Skiin Cosmetics. “Amber facetimed me and said she had this idea, and with both of us being at home for two weeks it seemed to make sense,” says Saffron.

Amber is very keen on makeup, even working as a makeup artist alongside her degree, and as black women, making inclusive makeup was something they both felt very passionate about.

“Amber has always wanted her own makeup brand, so she designs all the products and I do all the other things like the website and marketing,” says Saffron.  “We didn’t really know where to start and obviously in lockdown, it was a bit of a nightmare, but we had those two weeks and the idea so we felt we just had to run with it.”

Unlike the other small businesses, for Saffron and Amber, they were starting a business in an industry where demand was decreasing. With lockdown, people were no longer leaving the house meaning for many women, makeup use also decreased.

As we come out of lockdown, Saffron believes this will help to further boost their business. “We are still selling products but it would be better if we weren’t in lockdown, but you’ve just got to take it,” she says.

Saffron is hoping that when the pandemic starts improving and because of the inclusive nature of their business, that 2021 can be a big year of growth for their company. “One of our goals is to get on ‘Beauty Bay’ or another more well-known site, as well as bringing out a line of blushers and highlighters and a range of foundation by the end of 2021 too.”

Rapid testing home kits available to more people in Leicester

By Kira Gibson

Rapid home testing kids for Covid-19 are now available to those in universities and working professionals unable to get some through their work or university.

Previously the tests were mainly for school and college pupils and those living with them or in their social or childcare bubble.

The tests come in packs of seven and can be collected from a number of pharmacies, and from rapid testing sites.

Leicester’s rapid sites include the Adult Education Centre in Belvoir Street, the Fosse Neighbourhood Centre in Mantle Road and Coleman Neighbourhood Centre in Rowlatts Hill.

However, you can also collect tests from pharmacies such as Boots in Gallowtree Gate and in Highcross, as well as Pharmasite Ltd in London Road.

To find the nearest place to collect free tests, go to maps.test-and-trace.nhs.uk or to order them online, go to https://www.gov.uk/order-coronavirus-rapid-lateral-flow-tests.

Leicester City Council offers outdoor seating grants to support local businesses

by Abigail Beresford

Leicester City Council has created outdoor seating grants to help local hospitality businesses.

Restaurants and cafes in Leicester are able to apply for grants of up to £4,000 to use to buy outdoor furniture to allow customers to visit.

With pubs, restaurants and cafés only able to offer outdoor service until at least May 17, the council hopes to get more local businesses open and provide support for them.

Non-essential shops and restaurants reopened earlier this month (APR12), as lockdown measures begin to ease nationally.

To be eligible for the grant, the businesses must be:

  • Hospitality businesses which pay business rates to Leicester City Council or receive small business rates relief
  • Defined by the Companies Act as a micro or small business, so not chains or multinational groups
  • Providing an established table service food offer; and
  • Holders of an approved street café licence or applying for a new temporary licence.

The grant scheme is already proving to be in popular demand, with nearly £150,000 already given out to 72 businesses.

“Hospitality businesses have had such a tough time and deserve our support, especially smaller, local businesses,” said Councillor Kirk Master, Assistant City Mayor for neighbourhoods, in a statement.

“We hope these grants will provide an important first step towards getting our local economy back on track.”

Cafes and restaurants had been closed for almost four months, after the country entered its third national lockdown in January 2021. 

However, thousands of local businesses are at risk of closing down due to struggles consequent to the pandemic.

People are being encouraged to shop more locally to show support to their local businesses.

Due to popular demand, businesses are being encouraged to apply as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

For more information and to apply for the grant visit www.leicester.gov.uk/streetcafegrants.

A local cafe in Leicester City Centre with outdoor seating

Lockdown easing raises hopes of celebrating ‘the Twelfth’ in Northern Ireland

by Abigail Beresford

With the announcement of Northern Ireland’s ‘pathway to recovery’ to ease coronavirus restrictions, hopes are high that celebrations of ‘the Twelfth’ will be able to be held properly in July this year.

July 12 would have normally seen people filing the streets to watch the parade of the Orange Men in the summer’s sun but that had to be scaled back last year, due to coronavirus restrictions, with people encouraged to celebrate the ‘Twelfth at Home’.

The Reverend Mervyn Gibson, the grand secretary of the Orange Order, told the BBC last Thursday (APR8) that the “signs were looking good” for celebrations of the Twelfth to go ahead this year but nothing was yet certain.

“Last year was the first time in 37 years that our family had not attended the parade,” said Bradley McClean, 20, who studies Law at Queens University, Belfast, but is from Leicestershire.

“It’s an ongoing family tradition that we travel back to Belfast and celebrate alongside the rest of our Irish family.”

The Protestant holiday celebrates the defeat of King James II, a Roman Catholic, by William of Orange in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

“The night before the Twelfth [the Eleventh night], we have a bonfire in the garden, whilst having a few beers and playing a few games,” added Bradley.

“The next day, we make sure we get up early to find a good spot to watch the Orangemen Parade. We put on our orange sashes, dress up nice, and yet again celebrating with a few drinks into the late hours of the night.”

The coronavirus pandemic prevented people from celebrating a big landmark for the national event, marking its 330thyear anniversary of celebration.

With pubs expected to reopen in Northern Ireland from April 30, there are hopes that people will at least be able to raise a drink to celebrate.

“It’s certain that this year we will be celebrating as much as we can, to make up for the loss of last year’s celebrations.”

Celebrating together: The McClean family dressed in their Orange Men attire in 2019

Home time! Students preparing to travel home for Easter brings worries for many

by Abigail Beresford

Universities up and down the UK are breaking up this week for the Easter holidays, with students set to be travelling home for the break.

With students returning home, there are worries that there will be a rise in coronavirus cases and deaths.

The rule of ‘stay at home’ is set to end on Monday(MAR29), allowing students to travel back home using public transport, bringing worries in increasing coronavirus cases.

“With people being able to interact and mix more, the numbers are just going to go up and up, especially when students are coming back from all different parts of the country,” said Sarah Harrison, 38, a mother of a student from Derbyshire.

Over the Easter period, more restrictions are set to be eased, with more interaction to be allowed.

The ‘Rule of Six’ is set to be reintroduced on March 29, which will allow six people or two households to meet outside, including in private gardens.

Non-essential retail and outdoor pubs are also set to reopen on April 12.

However, social distancing guidelines will still remain in place, and people are still expected to abide by them.

“They’re probably going to want to see friends and family that they’ve missed whilst being at university, but this will end up being part of the problem,” added Ms Harrison.

“With restrictions being eased and students coming back, what if all of that hard work was for nothing?”

Students have been encouraged to book a coronavirus test, before travelling back home to prevent the spread of the virus.

To get more information on booking a coronavirus test, visit https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-getting-tested.

Home time! Students prepare to travel back home for Easter.