- LGBT+ small business champion Rowena Howie on surviving the pandemic and how to build back better.
Running a small business is a rollercoaster ride at the best of times – and it certainly has been for LGBT+ entrepreneur Rowena Howie during the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, so many have lost so much to COVID-19. Some have lost loved-ones and others are still experiencing ongoing health problems they fear may be permanent.
But it has also been a turbulent time for entrepreneurs and small businesses. In particular, many independent LGBT+ companies rely on retail, hospitality or entertainment for their income – all areas that have taken hard hits.
However they are not without champions. And Howie has been one of these. She has spent the pandemic fighting for the survival of her unique fashion boutique, Revival Retro, in central London.
But if that wasn’t a big enough battle, she’s put herself on the frontline fighting for other businesses too.
As London representative of the Federation of Small Businesses she’s argued their corner on TV, in the press and with the politicians. And she’s been an important voice for smaller firms on London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s pandemic Recovery Board.
As a result, when GSN looked for LGBT+ lockdown heroes with Pink Lady® apples for our Digital Pride festival, Howie’s was one of the first names to come up.
Now we’ve caught up with her to find how she’s survived the most uncertain business environment for decades. And more importantly we asked, how she, as an LGBT+ woman of color in business thinks we can truly ‘build back better’.
Working while others baked
Howie’s boutique female fashion store, Revival Retro, is in Bloomsbury, London. It brings the classic Hollywood style of Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rodgers to modern shoppers.
But naturally 2020 has been tough – with the shop first having to close entirely and then re-open with very limited passing customers.
She says: ‘Commercially it is really tough, particularly because our shop is in central London. Central London is very quiet, there is very little footfall and nobody is spending any dwell time.
‘That really affects the money in the till which affects your ability to pay your staff, pay your landlord, every single aspect.
‘I really worked very hard on a plan for the future. And I felt fantastic for it. I worked all through the time everyone was baking banana bread.
‘However, things became very difficult four months in. It becomes very hard to make decisions when you are very tired. And small businesses have to make decisions all the time. That puts a toll on you and if you are in a relationship it puts a toll on your partner too.’
At one of the stickiest points, Howie turned to a novel way to raise essential cash. She says:
‘Back in the very beginning of lockdown, everything for small businesses was about cashflow and whether you can remain viable. We were in precarious situation and it became clear in April that I needed to do something
‘Our small business was not eligible for the government grant that many others got. So I was at my wits end and someone mentioned to me the pay-it-forward campaign.
‘Initially, I was a bit reluctant. I wasn’t sure I wanted to lean on my customers in that way. But it was absolutely amazing. Our friends and fans and customers were so positive.
‘Not only did they give to the campaign but they also left loads of messages about how they couldn’t wait to return to the shop. So it helped financially but it also reassured me the customers will return to the shop.’
Now Howie feels she has come through what she hopes is the hardest time. Being able to bring her team back from furlough was a big boost. Having even a few customers returning to the store has been another one.
A voice at the table for small firms
Meanwhile, she’s had another task on her hand – representing the Federation of Small Business in London.
While that’s involved media appearances and lobbying, she’s been particularly engaged with the Mayor of London’s Recovery Board.
‘It is really important to represent small businesses to have a voice in those conversations when we’re discussing how to “build back better”.
‘We’ve also been quite effective in lobbying the government. We made information available and were at the table when the government made the decision to do the bounce back loans and that has really helped small businesses.’
Build back better means being more inclusive
At the same time, the federation has been looking at ways to update itself. Traditionally it has been dominated by older, white men. However it is keen to move with the times, embracing black, Asian and other ethic minorities, women and LGBT+ people.
Naturally Howie is a passionate advocate for more diversity in the organization and in business generally. She says:
‘I am a person of color but a light skinned brown person who has the privilege of passing as white a lot of the time.
‘In my experience, you can always deal with namecalling and outright discrimination. But what you can’t even see is the insidious, structural problems that take away opportunities without you even being aware of it.
‘I believe that is true as a person of color and as a gay woman.’
Indeed, her personal experience is not of overt hatred. Instead she’s noted an ‘underlying reticence’ from some people to work with her:
‘I personally feel it is still hard to be a woman small business owner. It relies a lot on your networks and your ability to build networks is maybe impeded if access isn’t there.
‘If you have children, your ability to attend networking events if they are held in the evening, for example.
‘Meanwhile every bank manager I’ve ever talked to has been a man. And they sometimes don’t get the business idea. For example, when I wanted to open a little clothing boutique I was treated in quite a patroinizing manner in the early days.’
Passionate staff and customers will build the future
Much of the focus on LGBT+ inclusion in business has focused on big firms. They are the ones that can make headline targets. And they are the ones that can sponsor the more corporately-minded LGBT+ organizations.
But economic recovery – if and when it comes – will rely on small businesses, as it always does.
And smaller organizations may be better placed to deal with the uncertain world we are almost certainly entering.
Howie argues: ‘Small business owners have always got an eye on the future. They are much better than larger businesses at being agile and responding flexibly. They can change things very quickly and then change again.
‘They are asking a lot of the staff right now, it really is all hands on deck. But it really is an asset for small businesses that many of them do have staff and customers who care so passionately about the future.’
‘We will survive’
That flexibility and passion for the future are grounds for optimism. However Howie also expresses reasons we should be particularly worried about the future of the LGBT+ businesses.
In particular, the pandemic could further damage an LGBT+ scene that was already shrinking in London.
She says: ‘It is important there should be opportunities in the future. We want to make sure people aren’t put off going into the arts and starting businesses.
‘I personally really value London’s cultural heritage. I have enjoyed the LGBT+ nightlife for the last 20 years and it would be so sad to see that eradicated. As we recover it is important we don’t lose that either because of the virus or for longer term business reasons.’
As always, survival will mean being open to change. And for Howie, that applies to Revival Retro too.
She says: ‘If people don’t return to offices it will be harder to survive. My own business is a clothing shop but certainly gets footfall from nearby offices. Theatres and entertainment also bring a lot of footfall into London.
‘I am optimistic we will survive but it may not be in the same format. Being a small, bricks and mortar retailer in central London may not be viable.’
That’s why she’s currently working to improve functionality of her online shop, on top of her other tasks.
Howie is like a perpetual motion machine. But with tough months and tougher decisions ahead, all small businesses in the UK capital can be pleased they’ve got this LGBT+ hero in their corner.
About Pink Lady® apples
Pink Lady® apples are known around the world as the delicious, fizzy everyday snack.
This year, Pink Lady® worked with GSN’s Digital Pride to find everyday heroes in our community. The competition online and in Co-Op stores saw people who’d done so much for others getting a luxurious spa hamper package as a reward for all their hard work.
Kyla Flynn from Pink Lady® said:
‘We’re proud of our collaborations and relationship with Gay Star News and delighted to be involved with Digital Pride.
‘We know our Pink Lady® apple fans are part of the LBGTQ+ community and want to make sure their voices are heard and represented.
‘It’s been a difficult and strange time for everyone recently, which is why we wanted to spread a little bit of joy with our pamper hampers. Being kind and respectful to each other has never been more important.’
Pink Lady® is a GSN client.