How to Build a Business That's Also a Safe Space for All, Both in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond
Plus, why a diversified team leads to a more inclusive workplace.
Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, political protests, and the national movement for systemic reform and racial equality, the everyday task of "going about our business" is now more complicated than ever. Today, entrepreneurs find themselves grappling with the responsibility of ensuring their businesses stay afloat while ensuring that their employees feel safe and included. For these entrepreneurs, the question is, "How do I sustain my business as well as make sure that it is a safe space?"
For answers, we turned to Kimberly B. Cummings, founder of Manifest Yourself, which is a leadership development company that provides businesses with solutions to hire, develop, engage, and retain women and people of color. She says that, without question, COVID-19 has altered what safety looks like in public spaces, including the workplace. "Prior to March 2020, many large, traditional companies may not have believed in remote work," says Cummings, whose first book Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You'll Love is due out in the spring of 2021, "but it's hard to still argue that point when many non-essential employees were able to successfully work remotely for an extended period of time."
Lisa Rosado, founder of We Are Women Owned (WAWO), which is a platform to discover, shop, and support small businesses, would agree. By collaborating and not competing with other businesses, and staying attuned to her team's needs, Rosado believes she has truly found her purpose. "Just hearing their stories has been so inspiring just for me," she says. "These women are the reason I get up every morning."
Here, we offer advice from both professionals on maintaining your business model and building team inclusivity both at once.
Ask the question, "How are you today?"
Whereas Rosado has seen growth in her business this year, she's also keenly aware of her responsibility to ensure that her core team, which has doubled in recent months, feels a sense of safety as they juggle work life and private life. "I'm a very sensitive, empathetic person, which I think is great in terms of being the leader or the founder," she says, adding that whether it's Slack, text message, or email, she is consistently asking, "How are you doing today?" By checking in regularly, entrepreneurs create an open dialogue wherein employees and their managers can share struggles and seek help, advice, or encouragement.
Solicit feedback on a larger scale.
Cummings advises business owners to reassess by fulfilling their employees' needs, which is paramount to set themselves up for best work performance and productivity. "I recommend facilitating focus groups to learn about the specific concerns employees may have," she suggests. "For some, it may be the physical space if they are in an open space configuration, while others may be concerned about taking public transit and their exposure to the public before even stepping into the office environment." Be flexible and lenient with work tasks and responsibilities when necessary, she says.
Cummings also advises that business owners treat their employees with equal input so as to ensure that their businesses truly are safe for everyone. "'All' is literally everyone in the workplace, from janitorial staff to the CEO," she emphasizes. "When creating a return-to-office plan, every employee must be considered regardless of their seniority or job function. With the added risks of COVID-19, matched with political and social unrest—that's why focus groups are so important. Building focus groups with representation from all groups in the workforce are essential to determining next steps that support everyone's needs."
Show transparency as a leader.
When you share your struggles, it allows others to feel safe being open and sharing as well—and this is true of your internal team as well as your customers or clients. Ultimately, for Rosado, the idea of a safe space comes down to a simple premise: "No matter what size your business is, you should really take the time to connect with your audience," she says. "Find out what they need in that moment and continue to check in."
Be a "possibility model" for others.
As the team leader, you can present yourself as an example of what is truly possible and accomplishable. Make them feel that it is OK to dream and to succeed. For Rosado, who shares that she didn't always feel that she was in a safe space growing up, her life experience has helped her tap into the needs of others. Not only is she more determined than ever to show up for the women and the small business community that she serves, but she envisions herself expanding her own business. "One of my bigger dreams is to have a space where if someone wanted to rent a space for an art gallery showing, or they wanted to put on a performance or some sort of workshop, I have a hub for women to come in and do the work that they were meant to do on this area," she explains. "That's kind like a safe space as well, right?"