Stay-at-home orders and supply chain disruptions have rocked the U.S. economy, but Park Scholar business leaders have found unique ways to maintain operations. Across the country, Park Scholars have channeled the entrepreneurial spirit of program namesake Roy Park ‘31 to keep their companies running and their employees paid.
Business leaders Dan Malechuk ’03 and Emily Neville ’20 forged new partnerships to help both their companies and their communities. Malechuk is the CEO of Kalera, an Orlando-based hydroponic farming company, and faced a bleak outlook when 80 percent of his orders disappeared in early April. He partnered with Publix to save 50 employees from being furloughed and bring sustainably grown and sourced produce directly to consumers. In North Carolina, Neville led the development of the Triangle Bundle Project, in which her company, Reborn Clothing Co., partnered with five Triangle-based businesses to craft a package of locally-made products. Sales of the bundle allowed customers to support local businesses unable to open their doors.
Chasta Hamilton ’07, Luke Perkins ’14, and Lindsay Wrege ’21 lead different types of businesses, but all shifted operations when faced with unprecedented challenges this spring.
Dancing Digitally: Chasta Hamilton ‘07, Stage Door Dance Productions
Chasta Hamilton ’07 leads Stage Door Dance Productions and had to find a new way to bring her dance classes to her clients. “The week of March 9, we closed the lobbies and activated our social distancing plan,” she explains. By that weekend, she realized it was time to go digital. “Within 48 hours, we converted our dance studio which serves more than 700 students to a fully digital model without one missed day of instruction.” Hamilton says she was nervous the first day, “but once I had 35 preschoolers smiling back at me in a leprechaun party, I knew that we’d be okay.”
Hamilton shares it was important to keep going. “Our business is founded on the principles of community and connection,” she says. “In an upset world, it seemed important for us to be there to provide some normalcy to our students. Dance helped me navigate childhood trauma, so I recognized the importance of a stable, familiar routine.”
Hamilton has experience with Zoom software from serving on several boards and as chair of Park Scholarships’ sPark Symposium, which aided her in the transition. “We decided to create a series of digital interactive classes, usually 65 or more per week,” Hamilton says. The themes include technique, conditioning, applied creativity, trivia, and even parties and talent shows. Students can take as many classes as they like. Weekly recital rooms allow students to continue rehearsing their year-end routines with classmates and instructors. While the studio has lost students in this temporary transition, Hamilton reports that they’ve also gained new students from a variety of states. Interested dancers can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
On top of pivoting to a digital platform and determining a sustainable remote work schedule for herself and her employees, Hamilton has experienced difficulties navigating the Payroll Protection Program. “If you aren’t in business, you may not necessarily realize the challenges small businesses are facing,” Hamilton shares.
While the balance between managing changing business operations, applying for funding, searching for grant opportunities, and dealing with the occasional power outage can be exhausting, the bright spot is her dancers. “The strongest insight I’ve gained is the inherent adaptability and resilience of children,” Hamilton says. “They’re amazing! They’re creative and genius, and I love how that is being poured into some of our online conversations and projects.”
A Swift Reaction: Luke Perkins ‘14, Swift Sites
Luke Perkins ’14 was in the midst of launching Swift Sites, a real estate technology company that uses software to research properties for land development projects, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered North Carolina. While he has not had to deal with any loss of revenue, he says the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a “major wrench” in his business development plans.
“Starting a company during a global pandemic is obviously not ideal timing,” Perkins reflects. “All you can do is work as hard as you can, and make the best decisions you can make with the information you have.” Perkins is not worried and says that there is never a perfect time to launch a business. “At some point you have to jump, and then you deal with whatever comes when it comes.”
Swift Sites software aggregates information about environmental constraints, regulatory restraints, zoning codes, development ordinances, and more about properties to help real estate developers understand how the land can be developed. “The inability to meet with potential customers and demo the product as we prepare for beta testing has been difficult,” Perkins says, explaining that his focus has shifted to getting the product to market effectively.
While “business as usual” is unlikely to return quickly, this presents an opportunity. Swift Sites automates a research process that usually requires manual work on the part of engineers, land planners, real estate brokers, and developers. Not only can the software help people make decisions faster, but it can reduce the need for many different people to work in tandem on a project—an advantage in a time of social distancing.
Perkins says his time as a Park Scholar prepared him for the challenges he faces today. “The people I’ve met through the program have been amazing resources to bounce ideas off of. The mentorship I gained probably inspired me to do this in the first place,” he shares. Without advocating for anyone to follow in his footsteps, he recalls that he spent some time on the Park Scholar academic probation list.
“When you get used to handling adversity, the next challenge doesn’t look as daunting, and I seem to do better under pressure.”
Adapt and Serve: Lindsay Wrege ‘21, 321 Coffee
The health of her employees was paramount for 321 Coffee CEO Linsday Wrege ’21. When the novel coronavirus started to spread in North Carolina, the company closed its doors to protect its workforce.
321 Coffee is staffed by individuals with intellectual disabilities. “Many of our staff have weakened immune systems, so we are taking extra precautions to keep them safe,” Wrege explains.
While operations were suspended, Wrege kept her staff engaged by sending them resources to practice skills including counting money, describing 321 Coffee, and initiating conversations, so the 321 team could be ready when operations resumed. During a staff Zoom meeting, they also wrote thank you letters to front line hospital workers at the suggestion of one of the baristas. “We are trying to stay tight as a community and get through this,” Wrege says.
Impressively, 321 directors Wrege, Liam Dao ’22, and Michael Evans ’21 made sure their employees never missed a paycheck while the store was temporarily closed. Wrege credits 321’s network of supporters for helping pull that off. “Seeing the community come together to support one another during this tough time meant a lot to me,” she shares. “We are fortunate in that we have seen tremendous support.”
As social distancing measures stretched from weeks to months, 321 needed a way to reopen. A plan was devised for adjusting operations to maintain employee and customer safety. “If a company is able to modify their operations to fit the changing landscape, it’s important to do so,” Wrege says. “In running a business, you always have to be open to making adaptations or pivots. Sometimes it’s because of a new opportunity worth pursuing, and sometimes it’s because of a global pandemic.”
On May 15, 321 reopened with enhanced safety measures including the addition of a plexiglass shield at the register, social distancing markers on the floor, and a procedure where staff pour cream and sugar. The set up was tested by store managers for the first weekend of resumed operations to ensure the new tactics worked smoothly. The entire 321 team has been invited to return to work. Though a few employees have opted to stay home with pay for one more month, many of the 321 baristas will be back starting May 22.
321 Coffee is open Friday through Sunday at the State Farmers Market.