What I Learned Opening a Business at the Height of the Pandemic

I’m a heckuva lot tougher than I knew.

Kayli Kunkel
8 min readAug 15, 2021


Photo credit from another local, woman-owned small business owner, Adeline Artistry Studio.

It was June 2020 in New York City. In the months prior, perched on my balcony in western Queens, I spent sunsets clapping a chorus of thanks to essential workers, and nights awake listening to the blare of siren after siren, wailing deep into the dawn.

My partner had lost his job working for a WeWork subsidiary. Weeks later I lost my job (on my birthday!) as a marketing director in tech. Our neighborhood, city, and country had lost much more. We were the lucky ones.

I had not considered opening a business. Before my big and emotional job loss, I had a neat and tidy 9-to-5, benefits and security, thank you very much. My career trajectory grew from intern to associate, manager to director over the years. I saw no onus to take a leap until everything fell apart.

I saw no onus to take a leap until everything fell apart.

Suddenly I faced a moment of huge reckoning — with morality, with justice, with sickness, and with my place in a world at its moment of transformation. I listed the things I cared about in my Notes app, and the idea sprung to life. Sustainability, social justice, self-sufficiency, handmade, natural, ethical, local: Earth & Me was born.

I had the idea to open up a small retail store that sold sustainable, small-batch items made by mainly women-owned makers. We would have a refill station so people could fill up on essentials like dish soap, shampoo, and laundry detergent with their own containers. We’d reduce waste and become a staple of sustainable activism in our community.

It’s just about one year since I released my idea into a world that has changed so much, and so has mine. I’ve hired four team members, reached tens of thousands of people, built a sustainability community in NYC and beyond, and made plans to open even more stores. But beginning a biz in a pandemic means everything is in hyperdrive. The challenges are more pronounced, the successes more rewarding. Here are some of the many lessons I’ve learned.

Start small, work lean.



Kayli Kunkel

She/her. Queens, NY. Creating new narratives on mental health and sustainability. Founder of Earth & Me, a zero-waste small business and publication.