These young people turned COVID-19 into a business opportunity
From indoor gardens to delivery apps to an apparel line with a purpose, meet 3 pandemic entrepreneurs
When the pandemic upended lives, young people were hit hard, losing summer jobs and service industry shifts, and for those also juggling studies, pivoting to online learning.
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But some took these last 18 months as an opportunity, using the extra time to launch businesses that meet the moment.
CBC Ottawa reached out to three young entrepreneurs who decided to take this moment to launch their big ideas.
Think local, even with food delivery
It was no surprise that entrepreneur and competitive kayaker Ben Lacroix came up with his first business idea at a sports game — even if the final product had little to do with physical activity.
Lacroix, 23, recalls a freezing October day when he and his friends were watching the Redblacks play at TD Place. Friends went to buy food and beers, but the line was so long they missed touchdowns.
By the time the group wanted seconds, no one was willing to leave the stands and risk missing more. Lacroix asked his friends if they would pay a few extra bucks to have it delivered to them, and they all agreed.
Despite being a full-time political science student at Carleton University, Lacroix started working on the idea, juggling studies and entrepreneurship.
"For a year, I was a student and running a startup," he said. "I was drinking six or seven coffees a day. I would wake up in the morning to do my business development, go to school during the day, and then do meetings in the afternoon and into the evening."
Then, COVID-19 arrived and all sports activities were suspended. While in-seat ordering took a backseat, Lacroix decided to pivot to a service that has become increasingly key — food delivery.
"I had two options: I could either sit back and wait for sports to come back in a year or two, or turn this mobile technology into something else," said Lacroix, who dropped out of school to focus on his new venture, a delivery service app called Getit Local, which launched in January.
The aim was to create a service that minimizes fees for both the business and the consumer by charging restaurants a flat monthly rate and passing revenue from delivery charges directly on to the drivers. The app now has more than 15,000 downloads and features 75 Ottawa-based restaurants.
"This was such a big opportunity for me to help the community and grow something that I believed in that I felt it was necessary to put my school on pause for a little bit," said Lacroix.
"Life is always gonna throw curveballs at you. The global pandemic is a pretty big curveball. For myself, it's showing me how to grow, even in the face of adversity," he said, adding that he plans to return to school to finish his degree.
A growing market
In March 2020, server Alberto Aguilar, 24, found himself out of work, alongside many in the restaurant industry. He said he was grateful to be able to collect employment insurance, which allowed him to shift his focus to his startup.
"I was a server at the ByWard Market for the last four years, and as soon as I lost my job, time was the one thing I had the luxury to afford," said Aguilar, who decided to capitalize on the sudden interest in home gardening with a biotech startup.
Plantaform sells kits for indoor gardens where you can grow herbs and vegetables without using soil.
Aguilar said the aim is to make it easier for anyone, even those without green thumbs, to grow their own vegetables at home — and to contribute in a small way to helping the planet.
"The pandemic has brought to our attention that we have to start pivoting towards self-sustainability and green energy," said Aguilar.
"The fact that at a young age I can do a tiny contribution to the world with this innovation is what gets me up every morning."
Though he has had extra time to focus on his new venture, Aguilar said the pandemic also brought new challenges. For example, border closures meant his startup struggled to get materials for prototypes.
So Aguilar and his half-dozen employees figured out a way to make the plastic kits themselves.
"We had to pivot towards making our own resources," explained Aguilar. "We now have six 3D printers and we are creating the prototypes ourselves at home."
Business of basketballs and giving back
For recent graduate and athlete Seun Lawal, 23, basketball has always been an essential part of life. In fact, he and his partner Morgan McKeen, 22, got to know each other playing intramural basketball at Carleton University and often spent weekends out on the courts in the Prince of Wales and Meadowlands area.
The pair said the pandemic's closure of outdoor facilities hit them hard, and made them worry about the impact on younger kids.
"I grew up playing basketball, so I know how hard it can be to get sports equipment," said Lawal.
"Group activities are not a thing nowadays and if they don't have a team, they might not have access to equipment [to practise on their own] — they might not be able to afford it," explained Lawal, who volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club and coached basketball at his former secondary school, St. Pius High School, before the pandemic.
Lawal and McKeen brainstormed how to help, deciding to launch an apparel line that's also a community project — where half of the profits go toward sports equipment for children with low resources in Ottawa.
"Hoopers for Hope is honestly a result of COVID-19 — a positive thing, at last," said McKeen. "We hope to give children a tool to prioritize their physical and mental wellness."
After launching in March 2021, the young entrepreneurs received over 70 orders in two weeks for hoodies and T-shirts. For each six sales, Hoopers for Hope donates one basketball ball to someone who's been nominated by the community.
"Basketball is a safe space for a lot of kids. It was also a safe space for me growing up, so I hope we can help kids and give them direction," said Lawal, who's relieved courts have now reopened.