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Women businesses grow and evolve despite COVID-19 crisis

MaryBeth Hyland (Submitted photo)

MaryBeth Hyland, founder and chief visionary for SparkVision, has pivoted her business to offer more virtual training as she’s seen the demand for training increase even as companies pivot from in-person training sessions. (Submitted photo)

An interactive hospital display, virtual roundtables with hundreds of executives, a new mask-making venture and business training budgets suddenly free for mindfulness training — with the COVID-19 crisis some businesses are busier than ever responding to evolving needs.

MaryBeth Hyland was all set to lead a two-day corporate training in Pittsburgh this month when the coronavirus crisis left everything up in the air. She was going to wait and see if her client wanted to reschedule for later when they contacted her to say the employees needed additional development time more than ever.

Hyland, founder and chief visionary for SparkVision, pivoted to host a four-day virtual event with half days instead of whole days, incorporating techniques she learned at a recent event facilitator conference to lead a successful and dynamic virtual experience.

“They said, ‘We need this now more than ever because we haven’t had any time to pause and reflect and be thoughtful about who we are, and who we want to be, and who we’ve become during this time,’ ” Hyland recalled. “It was really quite inspiring for me to have the leadership reach out and say that was their priority right now.”

With so many companies getting funds back from canceled conferences and trainings, Hyland said her business has grown. She started offering “Mindful Leadership” packages, something she had always wanted to do in the past but now finds companies value more.

Another business that has developed new products is Route One Apparel, which created a free printable coloring book and Maryland-themed cloth masks after the pandemic caused a greater than 80% loss of sales.

The apparel company also launched a line of Baltimore quarantine shirts like “Stay Home, Hon” and “Warsh Your Hands.”

Finding the right niche

Ali von Paris, owner of Towson-based Route One Apparel, said the company has also tried to help its retail partners who have had to close up shop by offering to drop shipping services to them and stocking inventory on Route One’s website.

“We are all in it together; if we go down, they go down and vice versa,” von Paris said.

She has appreciated the support of the community for her small local business and is urging everyone to buy local as businesses struggle to survive.

Gov. Larry Hogan sported one of their “Maryland Strong” masks at a press conference, and country music singing duo Brothers Osborne tweeted about the masks. When they launched the masks von Paris said business started to turn around, and she found the new traffic for masks and the free printable, helped drive other sales.

“We’ve always made cute and original designs, but that was the first time we really made something that people were really seeking and not able to find,” von Paris said.

Route One Apparel (Submitted photo)

Route One Apparel launched a line of shirts featuring quarantine slogans.  (Submitted photo)

Technology in demand

Many businesses find they were working harder even as offices emptied out.

Hartman Executive Advisors, an independent technology leadership and advisory firm based in Timonium, has had four times the client conversations compared to normal. They’ve hosted more than a dozen virtual roundtables for C-suite level peers to discuss how to manage the crisis, released a letter template for communicating with employees about positive change during this time, and authored a free e-book for business leaders on ways to leverage the crisis and turn it into an opportunity for business improvement.

The business climate during this crisis is something no one has experienced before, said Marie Hartman, executive vice president and co-founder of the firm, and the company is committed to helping organizations shift their business models in the right way.

“In our increasingly digital environment, it’s critically important that we talk to our clients, not just about how we all have to adapt, but what makes sense to each of them based on the industry they are in and where they are on their digital journey,” she said.

For instance, Hartman’s financial institution clients needed tactical support identifying which essential transactions had to be accomplished in person, and how to do so safely, and what could be moved online. They also had many questions about the government’s stimulus package.

The firm responded with a virtual roundtable in late March for financial services leaders, which included panelist Andy Bauer, vice president and regional executive for the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

“Specializing in a variety of industries gives us the opportunity to hear directly from CEOs what is most important to them and lets us compare the similarities and differences across industries to come up with the strongest possible solutions,” Hartman said.

Finding the right message

But for some businesses serving clients in many different industries, this spring’s uncertainty brought clients who needed to re-evaluate their spending.

That was the case for some clients of Devaney & Associates, an Owings Mills advertising, marketing and PR firm.

Owner Diane Devaney fielded one such call from von Paris, when Route One Apparel’s sales plummeted in March and she said she had to stop PR.

Devaney responded by saying the firm would continue to brainstorm and do PR to help the business pivot without charging. Less than a month later, von Paris called back to say she was so thankful and was able to resume payment.

Devaney has segmented client needs into different groups – a corporate housing or wine bar is going to have different needs from one that provides essential pandemic services, like representing nursing homes.

For instance, instead of focusing on a stroke campaign for long-time client Carroll Hospital this spring, Devaney is working on messaging about telemedicine and preventive care and coordinating a giant interactive “thank you” wall display for essential workers at the hospital.

“This has affected everybody and it’s affected everybody in a different way,” Devaney said. “You have to change all of your messaging. Be compassionate and authentic, you’ve got to be part of the solution and inspire action. Think about your message and be thoughtful moving forward.”

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.