How to run a business in lockdown: Virginia, founder and CEO of The Feminist Shop

How to run a business in lockdown is our series about how small business owners are leading their companies through the coronavirus crisis. To share your story, message us: hello@tide.coFacebook or Twitter.

Nearly 2,500 Tide members run online shops and a further 400 manage clothing, footwear, jewellery, homeware or bookstores. In March 2020, many of these shops had to close when the Government ordered ‘non-essential’ shops to close to slow down the spread of coronavirus.

While some online retailers have been able to continue operating, the worldwide lockdown means many companies faced problems from cancelled orders and delayed deliveries to disrupted suppliers and inaccessible premises.

Virginia wearing on of her shop's statement T-shirts and holding her Tide card

Tide Member Virginia Méndez is the Founder and CEO of The Feminist Shop, an online destination for the diverse feminist community, with a retail wing which sends clothing printed-on-demand to feminist shoppers around the world.

We asked Virginia how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting her company, the customers and her finances.

Meet Virginia and The Feminist Shop

Virginia’s first feminist business idea was to write a dual-language book about gender stereotypes, examining equality and critical thinking in a way appropriate for young children.

Pages from 'Mika and Lolo'
Pages from Mika and Lolo

“When I was pregnant with first child, I wanted to write the book I wanted my child to read. And that both my husband and I could read in our own languages.”

Originally in Virginia’s native Castellano (Spanish) and her husband Chris’s English, the book, Mika and Lolo, will be soon be available in Italian, Chinese, French and German dual-language versions.

Virginia’s son is now 3 and he has a sister, aged 2. The idea that became The Feminist Shop became clearer in Christmas 2018:

“I was trying to find feminist gifts for friends. There didn’t seem to be one recognisable brand for feminism that shouted about the values, one website for all things together, that was ethical and giving back. The shop is an online destination for spreading the F word.”

Virginia, modelling for the shop's website
Virginia, modelling for the Shop’s website

As well as selling books, gifts and ‘conversation-starter’ ethical feminist clothing, the shop’s website is a community destination, with feminist resources and content.

Virginia campaigns to dispel any stigma about feminism, noting that feminism unites diverse people:

“No matter how you choose to express it, being feminist means we’re all in the same boat. We need to recognise each other as part of a community. We’re all fighters for equality.”

How is your business affected by the lockdown?

The Feminist Shop had to pause deliveries for several weeks, deciding to put safety ahead of sales.

“People can see our values. They like honest companies, they understood why we had to stop. We’ve been in touch though our mailing list and social media. They’ll wait.”

Unlike many stores which buy and store stock, clothing ordered from The Feminist Shop is printed on demand. The order goes directly to the printer and is shipped from there.

“There’s no waste. Our overheads are lower because we don’t buy loads of stock and then have to sell it. The clothes are produced as ethically as we can, in renewable energy factories.”

Being dependent on the printer, on mail services and being in home confinement, the Shop couldn’t fulfil orders as predictably as before so decided to pause. For Virginia, it meant delaying a much-anticipated project:

“We were going to do collaborations with artists every four weeks – we already have several lined up and ready. On the Friday before lockdown, we launched our first new collection and by the following Tuesday, we had to stop shipping.

“We had plans to collaborate with more influencers – they wear our clothes and talk about them on social media – but we also had to pause that because we couldn’t fulfil the demand.”

After pausing operations for five weeks, the Shop restarted deliveries on Friday 24 April.

Can you continuity plan for a pandemic?

With her background studying law and business, and working for Deloitte and PwC, Virginia was well set up to run her own company. She gained support from the Ulster Bank Accelerator based on her business plan and an interview.

Like most businesses we speak to, while continuity planning is factored in with financial planning, Virginia hadn’t considered the possibility that a force majeure might mean she’d lose income for several months. But taking a leap into the unknown is what entrepreneurs have to do:

“Being an entrepreneur means taking risks. Nothing is as difficult as navigating the fears, the highs and lows. Maybe this lockdown will be the right situation for some people – if they’re at home, maybe on furlough, with some saving, then they could turn their passion into a business.

“I’d love to see us come out of this lockdown with a new economic landscape, with more people taking that risk, running their own business. My instinct (and hope) is that people are more willing than ever to support local, ethical and small businesses. If you have the fire in your belly and the mental space – and during a pandemic don’t feel guilty if you don’t – then this could be the motivation you were looking for.”

What coronavirus support will you get from the Government?

Because Virginia’s business has no property and because she’s only recently gone self-employed, both she and the business won’t get Government support.

“We’re fallen down all the cracks. We can’t get a Small Business Grant or a Retail Grant. I don’t get a salary so I can’t furlough myself. And I haven’t filed a tax return because I haven’t even paid myself a dividend so I won’t get a Self Employed Income Support grant.”

The shop has office space, provided free by Ulster Bank’s Accelerator but because the company doesn’t pay rates – even if it paid nothing with full Small Business Rates Relief – it isn’t eligible for a grant.

Adding to the family’s concerns is that Virginia’s husband Chris is also self-employed (running e-commerce solutions business, FlatWhiteDigital). He finds himself in a similar situation: with no premises and having only gone self-employed in November 2019, he won’t get a Government grant either.

What’s your #1 lockdown tip for small businesses?

Virginia’s message is that people are more resilient than they believe.

“At the beginning, my top priority was to flatten the curve of my own anxiety. I had to remind myself that I did have it in me to get through this, that I’ve been through worse. Give yourself some credit – things will work out. You’ll make it work because there’s no other choice. Even if ‘making it work’ doesn’t look the way you thought it would.”

Being forced to step back from the day-to-day running of the company means many business owners are reflecting on how far they’ve come. Virginia says:

“I understand how privileged I am and feel grateful for what we’ve achieved. Recently, someone from Alaska bought a piece from our collaboration with Australian feminist artist Pink Bits. Her amazing art from Australia, through us in Belfast, to Alaska! It’s amazing to think that someone in Alaska is wearing our clothing, that we’re helping start conversations about feminism 4,000 miles away.”

How has your business adapted to continue operating?

Like many parents, during lockdown Virginia and Chris are working at home while looking after small children. Virginia has used the time to re-focus and plan.

“Our mission has always been about more than just selling. This is a chance for us to double our efforts, to focus on the community and content.”

To connect customers, supporters and friends during lockdown, The Feminist Shop started a self-isolation film club, with a list of feminist films, and held discussions with on Facebook and via video chats.

The Shop has also posted isolation activities, like the Fill The F Challenge, inviting people to be creative and win prizes.

Virginia has continued to create weekly content for the website, concentrating on what visitors need right now such as resources to start conversations at home about equality.

For example, blog visitors can take the household chores quiz to check how satisfied they are with how they split tasks with their partner at home. The blog also lists activities to help visitors achieve equal levels of satisfaction.

There’s also a podcast series in development – a project Virginia started before the coronavirus outbreak and can now dedicate more time to it.

What are your plans for reopening?

The Feminist Shop has already reopened! The company restarted deliveries on Friday 24 April, which they announced on the website, to their email list and on social media channels, warning shoppers there might be delays.

A mug from Shop's new togetHERness collection
A mug from Shop’s new togetHERness collection

To coincide with reopening, the Shop launched togetHERness, a special collection inspired by the coronavirus confinement. Twenty percent of the profits from the togetHERness collection will go to Women’s Aid Northern Ireland which supports victims of domestic violence.

The Shop were existing supporters of Women’s Aid and Virginia was keen to lend extra support now because, with the extra strain on households during the lockdown, charities and the Police are reporting an increase in requests for help from victims of domestic abuse (sources: BBC and Irish Times).

Virginia is optimistic that people know the value of small companies and will support her business:

“As a small business owner, I’m biased. I want to support local companies with good ethics. But the fact is: people buy from people. Business owners can drive loyalty by telling more of their story, by communicating with customers.

“There’s an impulse to buy online while in lockdown, to get that shot of dopamine pleasure. We want to be the feminist and ethical choice for shoppers. If you’re looking to buy something, why not do it and support the values you believe in?”

Feminist books and coffee
Virginia’s lockdown essentials:
feminist books and coffee
(from Instagram)

We at Tide are proud to serve Virginia and wish her and the company every success. For a hit of feminist retail therapy right now, treat yourself or buy someone a gift at The Feminist Shop.

Photos courtesy of The Feminist Shop
Follow The Feminist Shop on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Suzanne Worthington

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer