By Ariadna Sandoval
Boston University News Service
Nhi Vuong, 19, never believed she would be a fashion brand owner, much less that it would happen just as a pandemic would happen. But standing in front of her was a tailor’s mirror, wearing a self-designed halter top and pant set; she thought, why not?
“I tried it on, and it fitted like a glove, and then I thought ‘I could make this into something’ because I’ve never really seen this anywhere,” she said.
For many students, 2020 had been a year of dreams put on hold, but for Vuong, it was the start of a new journey with her fashion line Aahlaii.
As part of a gap year in Vietnam, Vuong was less productive like most teenagers and young adults. With the country entering a national pandemic shutdown, she spent her days taking short drives with her grandmother to a trusted neighborhood tailor who brought her dream designs to life.
Her initial goal to sell 20 pieces turned to 50, as more people started to recognize the creativity in her designs.
“It was so surreal because I didn’t know that people liked it that much, so I just kept it going,” said Vuong.
Like Vuong, many other young adults found the silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic. From having extra time to develop their ideas and help from family members, the pandemic brought a surge of young entrepreneurs wanting to be recognized in different industries.
Gabriella Dietrich, a 20-year-old student at Salem State University, had a similar story. She began her business ‘Fresa Rosa’(@fresasrosaa) in April 2020, after the pandemic gave her time to think of ways to profit from her hobbies.
“I was already gifting my chocolate-covered strawberries for fun to my family,” said Dietrich. “I really started my business out of boredom, and the pandemic gave me free time to think about what I like to do.”
The national data confirms the trend of young entrepreneurs on the rise. According to a U.S. Census Bureau, 4.3 million businesses were filed in 2020, a 24% increase from 2019. Ellen Ruppel Shell, director of the Center for Science & Medical Journalism, agrees with the data, as she explains how the pandemic gave young adults time to reflect on their talents.
“The pandemic made people more introspective,” said Shell. “It cut them off from friends but also critics and allowed them to look into their own hearts and minds,” she added.
Shell also explained the critical role of social media in helping young entrepreneurs build relationships with their clientele and create online businesses. Pew Research Center data revealed that 71% of users aged 18 to 29 use Instagram, the preferred social media platform for young entrepreneurs.
For Dietrich, social media played a crucial role in growing her business. She used polls to understand her customers better and arranged orders through Instagram direct messages. Her customer engagement strategies boosted her Instagram followers from 50 to almost 800 from April 2020 to February 2022.
Unfortunately, not all ventures were cut-and-dry, as some young entrepreneurs faced emotional hurdles that discouraged them from taking their first step in entrepreneurship.
Matias Belete, an economics student at Northeastern University from Senegal, started a jewelry accessories business after spending five months convincing himself to take the first step during the pandemic.
Explaining the importance of persistence and determination to overcome these obstacles, Belete said, “If it’s something you love at first, it will be hard. I went through thousands of ideas and stages of doubting myself,” said Belete. “It took me a long time to gain the confidence to start, but that’s the biggest thing: starting,’’ he added.
The pandemic played an essential role in teaching Belete to make mistakes and take chances.
“Sometimes you are going to start, and it’s not going to do well, but you are going to learn and be able to start again,” said Belete. “And I think the pandemic gave our younger generation the freedom to go through that many times with no big consequences.”
Vuong, also a high school friend of Belete, agrees with his point. Sitting at the university cafeteria, the young designer quickly scrolls through her brand’s Instagram account and explains her plans to launch internationally this summer — a project she is doing by herself.
“I’m doing everything by myself, I manage my own Instagram account (@aahlaii),” said Vuong. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s okay, I can do it.”
While the pandemic forced many to stay inside and stock up on toilet paper, it seems Generation Z’s adaptability and determination to win over the pandemic kept them trying to reach their happy-ever-after.
“Just do it, don’t think too much, it’s easier than you think, and it’s okay if it doesn’t work out. If you don’t [try it], you’ll never know if it works out or not,” said Vuong. “I really didn’t know, and it worked out for me.”