Alumni Association Launches Alumni-Owned Small Business Directory to Build Support

On April 30, the University of Michigan Alumni Association launched a directory of graduate-owned small businesses to support business owners amid the COVID-19 pandemic. From offering referrals to making donations, the directory includes a running list of actions the university community can take to support small businesses.

Upasna Kakroo, Executive Director of Marketing for the Alumni Association, highlighted the importance of having a large alumni network of over 620,000 alumni to build support and collaboration among business owners.

“Knowing how much Michigan alumni care and want to support each other, we hope that through the directory they can find and support these businesses,” Kakroo said. “Using our social channels, we will continue to promote the possibility of adding small businesses to the directory as well as raise awareness of the directory itself.”

The directory features businesses from across the country and in a variety of industries such as restaurants, fitness, law, art and broadcasting. One of the companies included is Blank Slate Creamery, an ice cream parlor located in Ann Arbor and owned by Janice Sigler, a 1991 college alumna.

Blank Slate was closed from March 23 to April 23 but has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community since reopening, according to Sigler.

“We’ve adjusted our operations to push online orders for pint and sundae kits so we can reduce the number of employees working at the same time,” Sigler said. “We usually sell the pints that we collect each day, which is great. And we’re making ice cream again.

Despite the resumption of ice cream production and the possibility of implementing a minimal-contact ice cream pickup system, Sigler says she and her team lack interaction with customers.

“We’re in this business to see the smiles on customers’ faces when we hand them a jaw-dropping dessert or their favorite flavor,” Sigler said. “So it was a very difficult adjustment.”

Another company on the list is Frameable Faces Photography in West Bloomfield, owned by Doug Cohen, a 1992 college graduate, and his wife. Since the studio closed, the couple have focused on photo restoration, photography training via Skype and Zoom, and consulting with clients about past and future photo shoots. Cohen stressed the importance of maintaining their online presence now more than ever.

“We have always emphasized a strong online presence with social media, including blogging, a weekly email newsletter, live streaming and podcasting, and it has been more important than ever to continue this now by staying on track and staying connected to our community,” Cohen said. “Staying in front of people with helpful content during these stressful times has kept us in (their) minds.”

Second-year business student Shan Shan Chen described some of the issues small businesses are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including xenophobic attitudes some Chinese restaurant owners are experiencing.

“Some (restaurants) might still operate with take-out or take-out orders in order to continue earning a living,” Chen said. “With racism and xenophobia rampant, our family friend had to close his store completely out of fear. They’ve been handing out ingredients and supplies to employees and will have to wait out not just sickness, but likely hate, before they reopen.

Chen explained the urgency of helping small businesses as owners and employees depend heavily on daily sales to earn a living.

“It is crucial that small businesses are supported at this time because they are ‘small’ for a reason,” Chen said. “Owners and employees are highly dependent on every sale to survive… As for how to support still-open businesses that face racism and hate, just buy from them. If a local family business is still in business, support it in any way you can by making a purchase or order.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped new additions to the University’s alumni community from continuing their business ventures.

Promotion of graduates 2020 Jonny Moss, Jared Schacter, Grant Dukus, and Kevin Bhattacharyya started Bombanana, a hot sauce company, in April 2020. The alumni started this business after experimenting with different hot sauces and flavors in their kitchens at the start of their senior year.

According to Moss, launching their business amid the pandemic has come with some uncertainty in their sales.

“During the first month of quarantine, we really felt like we weren’t going to sell,” Moss said.

Despite these concerns, Moss and Schacter were able to sell over 400 bottles and use the current quarantine to launch their product nationwide.

“A lot of people really resort to cooking at home,” Schacter said. “As an alumni network business, we are offering anyone available the opportunity to really try to spice up their meals and not get caught up in the monotony of this lockdown.”

Daily staff reporter Celene Philip can be contacted on [email protected]

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