Sometimes change can be good. When COVID-19 took hold in March 2020, work began to look and feel different. There were people who kept their jobs in very much the same fashion, while others began working from home. For some, employment seemingly vanished overnight. But some people were able to take advantage of a break in what had been their routines to imagine something new for themselves. For them, the pandemic wasn’t a shutdown as much as it was an opening up — an opening to possibilities, to imagination.
Richmond magazine spoke with a handful of local residents who, for varied reasons, have moved in new professional directions. And for some, new personal directions, too.
Keri and Eli Gray
Founders, Glare Goods
As partners both personally and professionally, Keri and Eli Gray took advantage of the pandemic to nurture a business venture they began in summer 2019: making small, handcrafted mirrors, for the wall and the hand, out of larger mirrors that had been discarded or were being sold at thrift stores. The goal was to make art sustainably, by using primarily found materials.
At the end of 2019, they took their mirrors to a holiday market, with a hope of selling just enough to cover the cost of the $30 entry fee. They sold all they had — fast. “It was enough to put a fire under us,” Eli says.
But there were still bills to be paid, so both continued with their day jobs: Eli at a bar and Keri “doing a lot of little random things, already trying to be self-employed,” she says.
Their focus changed in March 2020.
“We very much were weekend warriors,” Eli says. “When the pandemic happened, it was an opportunity.”
With the gifts of time and unemployment checks, the duo turned their full attention to Glare Goods, showcasing their mirrored creations via Instagram, which led to a strong following and attention of another sort: The company was named a Hometown Hero by national retail brand Madewell earlier this year.
The Grays remain committed to sustainable production and are still the only two staff for the company, which often leads to demand outstripping supply. But they welcome customer proposals, especially if the customer has an existing mirror and an idea for how it can become something fresh and new.
“It has been unexpected to see what we can actually achieve as two people. ... We're juggling marketing, manufacturing, packing and shipping,” Keri says. “Our customers really are the best. I need to remember to give myself and ourselves the same grace that our customers give us.”
Nolan Beck-Rivera opened a graphic design studio right out of college and helped small businesses and nonprofits with design and branding. He was interested in interior design, too, but didn’t exercise that creative muscle until the pandemic changed the way he lived.
“I was stuck in my apartment during quarantine and put a lot of time and effort into making it comfortable,” he says.
The effort paid off. After his Cleveland apartment was featured in the July 2020 issue of Dwell magazine, Beck-Rivera began receiving requests to design other living spaces. He accepted those jobs, acknowledging his lack of formal training in interior design.
“I believe design is a mindset, a way of problem-solving, and a many-tentacled thing,” he says. “I have that design eye. I’m learning how to apply my design chops to a whole new space and a whole new world.”
More change came in fall 2020, when Nolan-Beck and his new partner decided to move to Richmond. “We wanted a [place] where we were both new and we were both learning about it together,” he says. He came here with an eventual goal of opening a home goods store, but everything fell into place sooner than planned. “I met a great couple who offered a storefront for a reasonable price, so now I’m a shopkeeper,” he says.
The shop is Jolene, at 211 W. Broad St., a luxury home goods store with products made from stone, metal, clay and glass, with something for everyone, from those looking for a small accessory to others seeking (and willing to pay for) statement pieces. Nolan-Beck sees the store as a way to introduce himself, and other artists, to Richmond.
“I get to buy things and travel around and meet designers … and bring their work to a new market,” he says. “I was surprised by the hunger for a certain aesthetic or type of design in Richmond; there’s an itch that nobody was scratching.”
Co-owner, Shockoe Wine
Right after college, Ricky Parker worked as a brand ambassador for two high-end alcoholic beverages: Hennessey cognac and Moet & Chandon Champagne “I’ve always had a desire and passion for hospitality, and food and beverage,” he says. “I really had aspirations to grow in the space, but [opportunities] didn’t align.”
Instead, Parker found work at Virginia Union University as an adjunct teacher of marketing and advertising classes. In 2018, he became scholar-in-residence at VUU’s Ruth Coles Harris Leadership Institute and was later named its executive director. But he still felt the hospitality itch.
Spurred by a mentor’s foray into whiskey-making, in 2019 Parker arranged for a grape pressing, intending to distribute the wine only to family and friends. But when the pandemic began, he was able to expand his venture by partnering with friends — Steve Johnson III and Chris Randolph — to develop a “spirited” Black-owned business: Shockoe Wine.
“Having time to sit still in the pandemic allowed us to plan this venture,” Parker says. “As a brand, we’re really led by three pillars: inclusion, community and education,” he adds, pointing to the incorporation of the historic Shockoe neighborhood in the company name. “One of our slogans is ‘Creating Our Own Table.’ This is really a dream opportunity to create wine and create a brand that has an impact.”
The company’s first offering, Red Blend, came to market in May 2021, selling direct to consumers from shockoewine.com. Now available at the Midlothian and Short Pump Wegmans supermarkets, as well as the social club Common House Richmond, the red will be joined in early 2022 by a sparkling rosé.
“The response has been startling,” Parker says, noting that more than 1,200 bottles were shipped in the first four months alone, and orders have come from 39 U.S. states. He’s also encouraged by a recent conversation with a Wegmans employee.
“She said, ‘I’ve been following you [online], and I’m so happy to see you at Wegmans now,’ ” he says. “We are 100% Black-owned … you never know who’s paying attention; there’s a belief in this.
“This is really a dream opportunity to create wine and create a brand that has impact,” he adds. “We are focused on establishing ourselves as a brand that cares about quality product and quality craftsmanship.”
Founder, Poppykock web and floral design
Working as a restaurant event and social media manager, Krystle Simms often created statement floral arrangements that attracted attention for their bold lines and striking compositions. She began fielding requests for weddings and parties and launched Poppykock, a floral design business, in 2019. At the time, her goal was to open a storefront and leave the restaurant world behind.
“But when the pandemic hit, it made me rethink the future,” Simms says, noting the twin blows of supply-chain issues and event postponements and cancellations. With an infant at home, she considered her options.
“I always considered myself a restaurant lifer,” she says. “I was able to take a step back and reevaluate what my priorities are, not just professionally but personally.”
Simms decided to expand Poppykock, adding web design to her floral work. “I’m a pretty creative person, and I kind of wanted to branch out and learn something new,” she says. “I had an opportunity to take a [web design] course, and I really loved it.”
The transition wasn’t always easy, as Simms fulfilled class requirements while the baby slept. “Juggling a lot of different things was difficult,” she says. “I tried to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, taking every day as a new day.”
Now, Simms is designing both websites and floral arrangements, with her floral creations found in art installations, store displays and smaller, more intimate events, instead of large-scale weddings. “I’m one person, I don’t have a team,” she says. “I’m very selective about the work that I do.”
Simms appreciates how her life has changed.
“I was burned out from events in the restaurant industry,” she says. “I was surprised when I made the switch how much of a weight came off my shoulders. I’m very happy where I am right now; everything that has happened has led me to this moment. I have my own business, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”
As long as she can remember, Evana Roman saw auras — colors or lights — around people or things. After an optometrist assured her that her vision was normal, she began to consider what her visions meant, meeting with spiritual mentors and teachers to understand her unique awareness.
“We call it being a psychic medium, because culturally, that is what we can understand,” she says. “What I do is reading energy. My entire life, I had inclinations toward this, but it was only when everything was shut down and silenced that I could allow these things to unfold.”
Roman and her husband, both VCU grads, had been living in Philadelphia, but made plans in early 2020 to return to Richmond. “We wanted to be closer to nature, buy a home, and … build a life here for the long term,” she says, adding they arrived “pretty much the same day as lockdown.” Roman’s husband had a job lined up, but she was considering next steps, as her previous work as a post-production photo editor/retoucher no longer felt right. That open space was critical.
“It was finally the chance to listen to myself and listen to my needs and feel the stillness of what life really is,” she says. “It was a moment to connect with serenity and peace.”
Roman began to focus on meditating — quieting her own brain so she can perceive what comes to her. “I have to be in a receptive state, totally out of the picture,” she says. “I just pay attention to what I see, hear and feel.”
Now, Roman is providing psychic readings, where she assists clients in understanding themselves and their lives, and medium readings, in which she helps people connect to loved ones. She recognizes she is working in the face of cultural stigma and, in some cases, fear, but she believes in using her abilities to help others.
“Customers are looking for an acknowledgement they are not alone — to be seen, to confirm,” she says. “I’m just the messenger. There’s an incredible leap of faith that has to occur in order to deliver a reading. It’s not about me; it’s about these other people who need to heal. So much of this journey is about healing yourself.”
Founder, Legacy Builders S.T.E.M. Academy
As a Black man working in the nuclear power field, Charles Wilson has seen firsthand the lack of diversity in the energy sector.
Following a career in the U.S. Navy working with the Nuclear Propulsion Program, Wilson became certified as a nuclear instructor, enabling him to train commercial operators.
“With approximately 1,600 [certified nuclear trainers], maybe 25 are Black,” he says. “A lot of [the gap] has to do with awareness and opportunities.”
Hoping to change that ratio, Wilson began formulating a plan for a technical training academy that would recruit and support people in underrepresented populations. In 2019, before the pandemic and before he moved to Richmond, he pursued accreditation through the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
“I felt that when the time came, I would be ready,” he says.
That time came in December 2020.
Wilson had moved to Richmond in March 2020 to train reactor operators at Dominion Energy’s North Anna Power Station. But when the pandemic began, Wilson’s son began attending school from home as his wife began working from home, with no reduction in hours or responsibilities. Wilson’s new job had in-person requirements and a rotating shift schedule.
“Something had to give,” he says. “[My] entrepreneurial background experience was the foundation of the courage to establish a business that allowed me to work from home and be attentive to [my son’s] academic and social needs during the school day.”
Observing the construction boom in the Richmond region, Wilson believed the time was right to launch Legacy Builders S.T.E.M. Academy in Chesterfield.
The academy offers training in carpentry and HVAC; two cohort groups have already graduated, and another cohort began in Petersburg this fall. Wilson and his wife used their savings to open the academy’s doors, but funding is now available through a variety of local, state and federal sources. And Wilson has left Dominion.
“I saw I couldn’t have one foot in and one foot out,” he says. “The impact I could have would be greater in the community than what I could do in the industry.”
Moxie LaBouche has held a number of jobs: She ran a goat farm, making soap and other products; she was a burlesque dancer and show producer (hence her stage name); and she worked a variety of retail jobs. When the pandemic hit, she was working in a grocery store but knew she couldn’t stay there, as a chronic health condition put her at higher risk for complications from COVID-19.
LaBouche had started a podcast, “Your Brain on Facts,” in 2018, and thought she could leverage the equipment she had in place for another venture: voice-over work.
“My mother had been an on-air radio personality in the 1960s and ’70s,” she says. “All her daughters can drop into a radio voice.”
LaBouche found jobs through an online freelance marketplace and plenty of networking, especially with other small-business owners. She quickly realized voice-over work isn’t as easy as it, well, sounds.
“I was surprised by how bad I was at first,” she admits. “I thought I could just jump in and be a professional, but my performance was terrible, and the audio quality wasn’t great.”
LaBouche narrowed her focus to corporate and medical narration — “anything that’s not character voice or cartoony,” she says — and worked with coaches to improve her technique. She also came to terms with the reality that the voice is only part of the job.
“You have to find a client, negotiate the job, get a script, understand the script, manage the pronunciations and do the actual recordings,” she says. “Then the fun part: the editing. A 30-second spot can take an hour to edit.”
While she had been warned it would take three years to replace her prior income, LaBouche has found her $12-per-hour grocery income has been relatively easy to replicate. And her new venture can accommodate her health needs.
“I didn’t even know what I didn’t know; every day continues to be a learning experience,” she says. “But if you’re not learning and you’re not worried about screwing up, then you’re not doing what you were meant to be doing.”
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