Navigating Crisis Through an Entrepreneurial Lens

by Ashleigh Hollowell, Office of Development Communications

Since the publication of this story panelist Simileoluwa Adebajo MSIDE ’18, had her restaurant Eko Kitchen burn down in a five-alarm fire in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. Eko Kitchen is the only Nigerian restaurant in the city, making rebuilding more difficult than it otherwise might be. Learn more about Adebajo's business»

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation, industry leaders were met with challenges they never saw coming. In a sector all their own, entrepreneurs too were met with several new challenges, but these challenges were ones they met with the same skill sets they used in becoming entrepreneurs: bravery, optimism, and creativity to name a few.

On June 24, the University of San Francisco’s Women in Leadership & Philanthropy initiative hosted a panel with alumni entrepreneurs Carrie Friedberg MAET ’02, the Founder of SF Money Coach, Serenity Thompson MBA ’04, chief of engagement and retention marketing for California Lottery and co-founder of A23 Advisors, an award-winning strategic consulting firm staffed by mom-entrepreneurs and digital nomads around the world, and Simileoluwa Adebajo MSIDE ’18, head chef and owner of Eko Kitchen, San Francisco's first and only Nigerian restaurant and catering company. Moderated by Dr. Vanessa George, associate director of Graduate Career Management for USF’s School of Management, the group explored how the pandemic has impacted them as entrepreneurs and how they have continued to adapt and thrive despite setbacks brought on by the pandemic.

Adaptation is Key, Resiliency is Vital

Friedberg, Thompson, and Adebajo all came from different backgrounds and chose to enter different industries, but they all chose entrepreneurial paths for a similar reason: to build a life they could be proud of and make a difference on their own terms. A pandemic was not going to get in the way of that mindset.

After facing challenges getting a grant or loan prior to the pandemic, Adebajo had just recently put down money to expand her restaurant, Eko Kitchen, to another location. When the pandemic hit, the owners of the other location backtracked and returned the money. Later, her restaurant was even robbed and they lost their tablet used for completing transactions. Adebajo felt more than once over the last few months that she might have to close down entirely before she came in contact with SFNewDeal, a nonprofit created to address the problem of food insecurity in San Francisco. They were looking for new restaurants to join and cook meals for the homeless and elderly and those in hotels who are COVID-19 positive.

“This time period has been a pivot from our normal restaurant business, but we are working to nourish populations who otherwise wouldn’t have meals during this period,” Adebajo said. “I am so glad my business was able to adapt and lift a need the community had right now at this moment.”

As a financial coach, Friedberg was unsure of what would come of her business, SF Money Coach, when the pandemic hit and the economy began to turn for the worse. She lost a handful of clients within days, but this was balanced out with others deciding to double up on her courses to soak up all the knowledge possible about how to better manage their finances during this crisis.

“There are rock bottom moments and times you will feel out of control, but I define success by my level of serenity when facing the challenges of parenthood, marriage, and self-employment," Friedberg said.

Friedberg and Thompson, like many working professionals, also navigated the challenges of working remotely, childcare, and caring for their family members.

“As we navigate change and are called on to change ourselves, we have to understand that doors will close and others will open,” Thompson said. “It’s okay to let those doors close. We are all pivoting on a business level and a personal level right now.”

Redefining Success in a Pandemic

A common thread throughout the discussion was how the world looked much different just a few months ago and how what to expect next is truly unknown to all.

“A holistic sense of success is important in a society now that everything has changed,” conversation moderator, Dr. George said.

Many successes and innovations have come from times of hardship historically. Some of the most successful companies were started during a recession, including Netflix, Trader Joe’s, Microsoft, AirBnB, and Warby Parker.

Those seeking to continue on or to begin an entrepreneurial path, should not give up, advised the panelists.

“Be open minded and aware of the fact that the world that existed three months ago no longer exists now and whatever the world looks like after this is going to be completely different than what we were used to,” said Adebajo. “Whatever business you had in mind will need to change — you will have to adapt. There will be challenges along the way. Some will feel like insurmountable road blocks, but no matter what, step back and focus on exactly what you want to offer the world through your business. There are so many rock bottoms during entrepreneurship, but I promise it will be rewarding if you push through.”

“Revisit your ideas and put them into the context of today,” Thompson added. “Create a shared mindset and have clear goals.”

Watch the full conversation


This panel was hosted by Women in Leadership & Philanthropy at USF. Learn more about this university initiative »