BERKELEYSIDE — The end of November typically marks the beginning of holiday season, when cheerful, wintery tunes play on repeat and shoppers pack Berkeley’s stores in search of gifts for family and friends. This year, the holidays will look a little different, but the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development (OED), Berkeley Chamber, and entrepreneurs citywide are making sure that Berkeley residents can still celebrate with local finds.
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit small businesses hard: more than half of Berkeley’s business owners expected to close permanently if they had to stay closed for a few more months, according to a survey conducted in April by OED and the East Bay Economic Development Alliance. And women in the workforce have been hit even harder than men. In spite of these challenges, Berkeley’s female entrepreneurs have been adaptive and resilient.
Whether they have been in business for a long time, like Diana Gordon of Keter Salon, or if they opened their doors in Berkeley shortly before the pandemic, like Stephanie Regni from FillGood, the women running small local businesses are leaning into the Berkeley community and finding ways to thrive during COVID-19.
Following in her mother’s footsteps as a female entrepreneur, Yo Akino opened her own business — Uchi House, which sells teak furniture — in 2018. Akino watched her mother’s business, Moon Basket, grow out of a room in her childhood home to become a successful Berkeley staple. Akino’s father also ran a construction business, Dolphin Woodworks.
“Having my parents as examples showed me there are many ways you can start a business. It didn’t feel so daunting,” Akino said.
Her mother was the first of many female entrepreneur role models for Akino, who is inspired by the women she has worked with. “The women business owners I knew were self-confident, so I never questioned being able to do business as a woman. And I haven’t had any experiences in Berkeley that have made me feel any other way.”
Uchi House had only been open for two years when the pandemic hit and Akino had to close shop for three months. And though it hasn’t been easy, Akino’s main product — garden furniture — has been flying off the shelves since she was able to reopen her store according to the City’s health orders. The tables, chairs, and other items are built in Indonesia and imported straight to Akino’s store on San Pablo Avenue, in Berkeley’s Gilman District. Akino also curates a collection of home goods and gifts by working with local and international artists.
The Berkeley community has been crucial to the success of these women. From the supportive climate toward women in business to the networking opportunities with other business owners, these entrepreneurs wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else. “I get the best of both worlds. I appreciate that small-town feeling of the community and that Berkeley is accessible from everywhere,” Akino said.
Gordon, who started Keter Salon 20 years ago, praises the Berkeley Chamber — where she is now the board chair — and its subgroup, the Women Entrepreneurs of Berkeley, as both have long been sources of connection for her. Since the pandemic, Gordon has also forged ties with salon owners, many of them women, locally and around the Bay Area. “We all reach out to each other to share what we know and that feels really good,” Gordon said.
Gordon is no stranger to overcoming adversity: she opened her salon on Fourth Street in West Berkeley the day before Sept. 11, 2001. To get through a difficult time and kickstart her business, Gordon introduced herself to her neighbors and offered free haircuts. Those free haircuts turned into repeat, paying customers, some of whom continue to get their hair cut at her salon.
That difficult period prepared Gordon to get creative during the six months that hair salons were closed in Alameda County. Before curbside pick-up was allowed, she drove all over the Bay Area delivering color kits, hair products and gift cards, which provided her the income required to cover staff medical benefits.
“It’s been the year of pivots,” Gordon said. She went from delivering hair products to setting up outdoor hair-cutting stations, only to finally open her salon indoors with new health and safety protocols.
Now, the salon is now open, but moving at a much slower pace: there are partitions separating each stylist, clients sit more than six feet apart, and stylists only wash clients’ hair when they receive color services (to minimize the number of clients at the shampoo bowls). “What felt like a really, really busy salon feels so calm.” And while revenue has taken a hit, the reduced stress has been positive for Gordon and her staff.
Among the quaint stores on Solano Avenue is Stephanie Regni’s FillGood, which also feels a little bit different, with only three customers allowed at a time. The store’s walls are lined with home and body products, all with zero-waste packaging. There’s floss made of silk, make-up in replaceable containers, bamboo toothbrushes, compostable sponges, and 200 other eco-friendly products. At the center of the store are bulk lotions, shampoos, and conditioners, where customers can bring their own bottles for refills.
After hearing a projection that there would be more plastics in the ocean than fish by 2050, Regni felt compelled to reduce her own carbon footprint and cut plastics from her life. She started making changes in her home and opened her first zero-waste business four years ago.
“It takes changing habits,” Regni said, “but it’s totally doable.”
Regni takes pride in her work in sustainability, a field where female entrepreneurs like Regni are in good company. Not only does Regni work with women, she also serves mainly female customers at her store. “Most of our customers are women who have the same needs that I did four years ago,” Regni reflects.
During shelter in place, Regni also shifted to making deliveries, but her doors are happily open now. She gets many repeat customers, who have switched to zero-waste home and body products and don’t want to go back. “Customers didn’t forget about us,” she said.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven single-use plastic production up due to the increased use of personal protective equipment and take-out food containers. In this context, Regni’s effort to reduce plastic waste through her business is all the more important, as is Berkeley’s 2019 ordinance to reduce single-use plastics.
These business owners all love their Berkeley community. Gordon and Akino agree: People in Berkeley are supportive of creativity. For her part, Regni praises the community for its support of mission-driven work.
This holiday season, the community can show their support for these businesses—and dozens of others—by purchasing gifts from the digital #BerkeleyHolidays Gift Guide. Even if maximizing safety means ordering online from home, the holidays can still be a community affair.
This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED helps entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley and thrive.