One of the few bright spots to the pandemic shines through in a crop of new entrepreneurs. For some, the shakeup in daily routines has brought the push they needed to jump into new business ideas that didn’t seem possible before.
For husband and wife duo Seher Shafiq and Saad Khan, the absence of commutes to and from work and socializing opened up free hours that didn’t exist before the pandemic.
An idea shaped up over a dinner conversation: Cardamom & Co., a tea and spice delivery service that could help their friends and family spread a little joy around in a rough time. They quickly got to work, setting up a Shopify website and Instagram account last summer.
The venture offers care packages, chai kits and loose leaf teas, packed by hand in a small office in their North York condo. The focus is on gift giving and attempting to bridge the gap of social isolation.
“Everything that we do comes with a personalized handwritten card so people love being able to send something to their friends, family (and) colleagues.”
For Khan, the venture feels like a productive use of time. “I feel good, like we’re not wasting our time,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do something on my own and I feel like we just got handed this opportunity.”
Like Cardamom and Co., Ottawa-based Boxed & Loved has zeroed in on gift boxes that can help people share the love while staying apart. Each box contains items personalized with a name, phrase or inside joke, explained co-founders and neighbours Noor Kamran and Dunia Jaradat.
The pandemic made them think about what they could offer others, Kamran said. “COVID kind of forced us to think, ‘What is it that we can contribute?’” she said. “Maybe this is the time that forces you to slow down and think of what you’ve always enjoyed.”
“Usually (the boxes are) tailored towards the gift recipients. So we talk to our clients on what they think that gift recipients would enjoy, whether it be self care items like face masks or bath bombs,” Jaradat said.
With four children under age three between them, the pair wanted something to do that they loved and allowed them to manage their time alongside parenting. “It’s two people doing it, and we’re neighbours so we’ll share the tasks,” Jaradat said.
For Kamran, the venture meant jumping headlong into a project instead of overthinking. “We just kind of (decided), ‘Let’s just do this and we’ll see how it pans out, how the logistics work.’” Whether it’s within your circle, or on a large-scale, there are more than a few businesses that have been started with others in mind.
Manilla.co, for example, is an app that’s working to help people send money internationally, without the usual high banking and wire transfer fees.
Two of the founders, Ashiana Ismail and Nehi Igbinijesu, spoke with the Star and said they made this app specifically with international students in mind.
As former students themselves, they know many of their peers often rely on family support while studying overseas.
And then there’s Goodszilla, founded by Toju Ogbeide. “It comes from the concept of a marketplace, that uses buying and selling of goods to do good at the world,” Ogbeide said.
Goodszilla allows users — whether everyday people or retailers — to sell products and donate a portion of their sales to a charity of their choice.
When Ogbeide first moved to Canada from Nigeria, he got involved in volunteering at food banks, Casey House and other organizations.
When he was decluttering his place for a move, he thought, “How can I monetize these items (and) actually support the organizations that I’ve worked at in the past?”
He noticed auctions were a popular way charities raised money, and he knew that funds could be more valuable than physical things, so he thought a platform where all of that was combined would be neat.
Whether it’s a scrappy endeavour started in a condo, or bigger visions looking for funding, this kind of entrepreneurship is picking up.
Both Manilla.co and Goodszilla are part of an incubator program at Parkdale Centre for Innovation, which has helped entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground since it opened in 2018.
Rusul Alrubail, founder of the Parkdale Centre for Innovation, noticed a significant jump in applicants for the centre’s most recent cohort.
People are finding time and motivation to invest in a new business idea and the reasons can vary, but Alrubail has noticed that even prior to the pandemic, the reason marginalized people can turn to entrepreneurship can have greater stakes. It can be a way to create opportunities for themselves when they face systemic barriers in their chosen fields.
“It’s a way out for them,” Alrubail said. “People are literally starting businesses because they don’t have access to career opportunities. And they need that financial security.”
As a result of the pandemic, unemployment peaked in May 2020 at 13.7 per cent, according to Statistics Canada and as of January it’s 9.4 per cent.
For some, entrepreneurship may be a better option to finding traditional work in a hard economy. Either way, a time of upheaval can be a time to chase a dream.
Mahnoor Khan said she had left her full-time job before the pandemic hit after feeling disillusioned and disenchanted with the rigidity of — something the onset of COVID-19 exacerbated. She remembers feeling something was structurally wrong with the economy and the way people work.
Last summer, Khan found herself in the middle of home renovations.
“I was renovating some space, my own personal home, and (thought) ‘I really just love this, I wish I could just do this,’” Khan recalled in a Zoom video call with the Star.
Already inspired to take on a creative venture, Khan shared her feelings with her new business partner Maham Babar who suggested the two team up to launch Amavi Design Studio. The pair, who handle interior design and staging, have seen a growing stream of business since their studio launched.
“You keep having these ideas of the kind of work space you wish there was or you know, ‘If I was a boss, I would do it like this,’” Khan said. “I feel like COVID really just proved to people that there’s no reason why you can’t work half of the week from home and still be as productive.”
Her takeaway from the venture? Just jump into new ideas.
“You just need to do it, you just need to do something — whatever you’re thinking.”
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jenna Moon, Toronto Star Staff Reporter, Toronto Star