Celebrating Global Entrepreneurship Week: Profiles in Resilience

Zoë Dean-Smith, Vice President, Economic Empowerment & Entrepreneurship

Each year during Global Entrepreneurship Week, Vital Voices celebrates all of the women entrepreneurs in our network who drive innovation and growth in their communities.

The circumstances this year are markedly different. The global pandemic has forced too many incredible entrepreneurs out of business. Others have had to pivot their business models to stay afloat. A lucky few have found a way to survive and thrive while creating positive social impact at the same time.

Through this crazy unexpected time, our Econ team at Vital Voices have connected with many of our alumnae from around the world in order to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges that they have been facing, to provide support where we can, to connect them with each other and to showcase their successes in finding new, innovative solutions.

Here are ways five Global Ambassadors Program alumnae have transformed crisis into opportunity.

Auralís Herrero-Lugo

In the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Auralís Herrero-Lugo (GAP Puerto Rico) left New York City for Puerto Rico to launch Retazo, a sustainable fashion enterprise. The goal was to revive the island’s fashion industry with a business model centered around educating manufacturers and designers on circular fashion. Retazo took off, serving high-end, ready-to-wear boutiques in Puerto Rico and the mainland. With COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, Auralís quickly realized her employees would take a big hit. She then pivoted the business to the production and sale of reusable cotton face masks. She procured fabric, identified suppliers and drafted manufacturing protocols prioritizing workers’ safety. Within a few weeks, Retazo shifted from making 20 hand designs per day to producing 500 face masks per week, all while limiting workers’ hours on site, or transferring sewing machines to their homes to keep up with production. The pandemic has reaffirmed Auralís’ purpose as an entrepreneur and community leader. Listen to her Voices of Resilience podcast here.

“I came to the world to serve, and as long as I am doing that in some capacity, I feel inspired. What I cannot do is stand still. If I know that there is a problem and I can help solve it, that fuels me.”

Bevin Mahon

Bevin Mahon (GAP Dublin) is co-owner and managing director of Dental Tech, a leading dentures and dental services provider in Ireland. Like so many, she was forced to furlough some of her employees when the lockdown was ordered. But by setting up “tele-dental” services—the first of its kind in Ireland—and instituting contactless pick-up for denture repairs, Bevin was able to continue to serve her client community and stabilize the company. In addition, she fast-tracked plans to go digital through mouth scans and 3-D printing for denture production, with the goal of helping more patients in a fraction of the time, and fewer in-person visits. For Bevin, the COVID takeaway is finding a way for the “positivity to smother the negativity,” and tapping into support systems to cope.

“If you’re struggling, you’ve got to help with your own mental health, and if that means asking for help or getting support, go and get that support. It will have massive ripple effects for you.” 

Panmela Castro

Renowned graffiti artist and activist Panmela Castro (GAP Brazil) kept up her advocacy for human rights and women’s empowerment, despite the pandemic. From procuring grants for female muralists to organizing remote leadership workshops, Panmela and her NGO, Rede Nami, found innovative ways to stay engaged with the community. They launched a COVID-themed art series to encourage creativity and raise public health awareness, and initiated local relief efforts—distributing food baskets, protective gear and toiletries to families in the Portelinha community in Santa Cruz. Panmela’s signature “person-to-person” campaign against domestic violence is constrained by social distancing restrictions, but she continues to use art and mentorship to draw attention to the Maria da Penha law, which grants legal protections to domestic abuse victims. She’s optimistic about the future, knowing that she’s not alone. Listen to her Voices of Resilience podcast here.

“I have all these women who believe that we can change the world together. We can change the culture. We can teach better things for the generations that are coming.”

Aida Axelsson-Bakri

Before the pandemic, Aida Axelsson-Bakri’s (GAP Paris) Brussels-based consultancy, ADS Insight, worked primarily with clients in the shipping and tourism industries—two areas deeply impacted by COVID. Business and contracts took a hit, forcing Aida and her team to get creative in order to find a way through the crisis and ensure business continuity. First, they channeled their EU legislative expertise into new directions, taking on new and important work in the area of health policy. Second, they began to position themselves as thought leaders in all areas of sustainability so that they can represent a broader spectrum of clients in the future. Perhaps Aida’s biggest lesson throughout the pandemic is one of leadership.

The thing that saved me in this pandemic was making sure we could keep the cashflow going, the team gainfully employed and motivated, and that we could still to grow our business despite the economic downturn. But what I’ve learned most importantly is to exercise empathy and give supportlean in in a crisis rather than lean out.”

Shilpi Singh

For Shilpi Singh’s (GAP Dublin) experiential travel company in India, The Unhotel Co., the pandemic’s suspension of leisure travel prompted a 100 percent cancellation and an indefinite loss of revenue. While The Unhotel Co.’s prospects appeared grim, Shilpi found opportunity in other businesses’ increased demand for digital marketing during the pandemic. With a background in advertising and storytelling, she and her partner got to work setting up a new vertical, responding to client needs in a new, virtual environment. They pitched their services to their network and the new business—Studio4—took off. But Shilpi needed to reprioritize in order to make it happen.

“I felt like the bird protecting all the eggs in the nest… but sometimes we just need to go from a nurturing space to a warrior space. I went madly creative after those first couple of weeks of grief…you really have to reach out to your core strength to move from crisis to opportunity.
Flip to flourish—that’s my message to the female founders out there.”

Celebrate with us—follow Vital Voices social media Nov. 16-22 (#GEW2020) for more inspiring profiles, videos and panels featuring extraordinary women entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs from all of our programs.

Read “Leading through the Pandemic” here.

Photography: David Hume Kennerly