We Are Generation Edge

Rachna Hukmani, the first South Asian woman to start a whiskey company, shares tips for how businesses can cope during a crisis.

Rachna Hukmani

On March 29th, 2020 my company Whiskey Stories turned six years old. Even though we couldn’t be together this year, we celebrated virtually in a very special way (Whiskey Stories 6th Birthday Virtual Celebration). I find myself going back to this video often because one of my favorite things about Whiskey Stories is our strong sense of diversity and community from our partners and our guests. Like all businesses I’ve been thinking about ways to maintain and enhance this sense of community for years to come. I want to be able to feel this connection on our 25th birthday and our 100th birthday!

I don’t need to tell anyone how hard we all got hit in this pandemic. It’s been an equalizer. We all also know that small businesses were hit especially hard. In turn, minority women owned small businesses like mine had the added pressure of navigating through a flawed often biased government/financial system and perception that doesn’t make it easy for women and minorities in receiving funding or support.

Learn more about Rachna in our exclusive profile.

This is where the solidarity of other businesses and generously hearted individuals has been so crucial. Companies like Bumble Bizz who took notice of our pivot, our story and community outreach via our hand sanitizers and awarded us a grant because they said they saw a unique company worth supporting.

Not only did this move me incredibly, it gave me a chance to take a step back. To really think about how we can be there for people as a company and what this means. Bumble Bizz brought to the forefront for me the strength of solidarity. The need for empathy and deeper understanding even as a business. How we can all come together and pool our resources and say “We’re here to support you because we can and because we must.”

The current global outrage and protests with #BlackLivesMatter also has me  thinking about who we are as a generation and what it means for businesses. The term “Generation Edge” is usually used to describe the younger post-Millennial generation because they are known for speaking up and standing up for what’s important for our survival. Greta Thunberg is the poster child of Generation Edge, thinking beyond her own existence and the impact of her and our actions on the world.

It could be because I am a person of color who has faced bias many times throughout my life or because I was accidentally injured in current protests causing me to pause my business for a week for my own safety. You can imagine what a pandemic and a sudden pause like that can do to a small business. What also really affected is the open bias from certain clients questioning my need to pause for my health and well being. Needless to say I am pretty outraged by this. This has made me realize Generation Edge can no longer be used to describe a new cohort. It has to be a mindset for all of us if we are to survive, thrive and welcome equality. We all have a responsibility. We are all Generation Edge and this has to translate in business practices too.

Generation Edge can no longer be used to describe a new cohort. It has to be a mindset for all of us if we are to survive, thrive and welcome equality. We all have a responsibility.

This is the inspiration behind this article and my desire to speak on multiple panels a week so that I help others as well. This is no longer just about me and the survival of my business. I hope the following helps other small businesses like mine navigate these difficult times.

Over the past three months Whiskey Stories has pivoted in ways with the intent to have greater empathy and even greater inclusion than we already do. Not only does our community include those who come to our experiences but also other impacted local and minority-owned small businesses or gig workers like restaurants, chefs, bakers, service staff, actors, comics, improvisers, musicians and photographers who help elevate our experiences.

As part of this process, I have identified three simple need states when coping with a crisis based on the behavior of 4,000 people from our customer base. Understanding these need states has been the key to pivoting our strategies as a small business to be meaningful and impactful in the long run. I believe these can be applied to any business but especially small businesses.

Although presented in a linear fashion, these can be cyclical as the world slowly opens its economies which could result in a resurge of COVID-19 cases while also battling systemic racism. Seeking to deeply understand our customer base and their need states during a crisis can help build the right level of trust.

Stage 1: Cocooning

When the pandemic first hit, almost everyone reacted in the same way. Similar to behavior during deep recessions, they wanted to make their home a safety fortress. Some opted to feel a sense of control by hoarding 200 rolls of toilet paper. Others equipped themselves with electronic gadgets and digital devices to keep connected with the outside world from the sanctity of their home. How we cocoon varies by our income level, our ethnicity and geographic location. What transcends all that is a need for familiarity, safety and support.

How we cocoon varies by our income level, our ethnicity and geographic location. What transcends all that is a need for familiarity, safety and support.

When a customer is in this cocooning stage, they will most likely not be receptive to any messaging that is overly complex and doesn’t feel like an essential need. That said, there is also a great desire to not feel isolated. As a business if we can address both these needs we can rebuild trust.

For Whiskey Stories, this meant launching our affordable hand sanitizers with a community outreach especially to minorities to meet their essential needs and be relevant. We also hosted reasonably priced virtual cocktail making classes where attendees could feel connected while working with what they had stocked in their homes as part of their cocooning.

In turn, we continued to have direct conversations with our customers if we had to postpone live events rather than give a standard automated response. This is something most small businesses do out of necessity due to lean teams but this gave us a new way of being. It actually gave us an unexpected edge.

We made deeper connections with our customers. We communicated with nurses who had been wearing the same masks for multiple days due to shortages so we sent them masks along with our hand sanitizer. We communicated with guests who had to be quarantined away from their families so we held virtual events to connect them. This built a new level of trust with our existing customer base. They in turn supported us with donations, product purchases and future services which brought in revenue for us.

During this stage there is a tendency for small businesses to go fully dark or offer existing products or services at such a heavily reduced price that it seriously impacts their ability to survive. If we can decide what our minimum threshold needs to be to stay afloat it can actually inspire new products and service offerings that meet new needs. Are there ways in which you can pivot your business to bring in new offerings that allow your customers to feel safe and also bring in revenue for you?

Stage 2. Tread Lightly

I’m a big Breaking Bad fan so I find every excuse to use Heisenberg’s “Tread Lightly” quote. Several weeks after COVID-19 hit worldwide, we started to settle into what this meant. We started to look for small rays of hope and tread lightly. Whether this was the 7pm daily applause for essential workers or supporting businesses that we trusted, we felt the need to be connected in small ways and do our bit in any way we could. Virtual happy hours, comedy shows, cooking shows, work out classes and more started popping up. While a lot of these were free or with suggested donation, what I found was that people were not averse to spending money now that they were past the cocooning stage. It all depended on what value our businesses brought forth and how we acted during the cocooning stage.

Every business had a minimum and maximum price threshold. A minimum threshold is crucial so customers do not think the quality has been affected. The maximum threshold depends on the affluence of your customers and the value our businesses bring to the table.

For Whiskey Stories, this took center stage. What value do we bring to the table? Are we more than a whiskey experience company? People keep coming back to Whiskey Stories to engage in whiskey in a very unique way but the diversity and strong sense of community is what keeps us strong. People have regularly told us that they feel they are part of something very special when they come to our events because it is very well thought out. Even more important is that our customers love attending our whiskey experiences because they love that we regularly host people who look like them because we have a large multicultural and LGBT following.

As a result of this diversity we started collaborating with inclusive networks like SEEMA, Brown Girl Magazine, The Fourth Floor and IFundWomen to bring our virtual events to an even wider audience. We expanded our outreach with like minded networks to share our stories and also discuss plans for our future business pivots (in our case this was our plan to release in-home multi-sensory Whiskey Stories kits to go with our virtual experiences). The result was people really wanted to listen and started to pre-purchase our virtual events with kits before we even launched our kits.

Small businesses have limited budgets for amplification so the best way for us to expand in a crisis is to proactively approach networks like the ones mentioned above to share our offerings, stories and more.

I empathize this can be hard because small businesses have the burden of trying to stay afloat and also scrambling to receive government assistance/additional funding. Also, I know only too well that if you’re a woman owned business and also a minority owned business there is also a big mindset shift that needs to occur. We often feel we are alone or we are less important somehow because we are less likely to receive support. Allow yourself to feel what you feel and then pivot your thinking into appreciating your own value. Seek others for support to change your thinking. While you’re at it let others amplify your business message because they can and believe you have a message worth expressing because you do.

I know only too well that if you’re a woman-owned business and also a minority-owned business there is also a big mindset shift that needs to occur.

Expanding to other networks to help you reach a new audience is actually not that time consuming. It means setting up a specific communication packet that you can share with multiple networks. Once you have a template in place you can reach out to 1 or 2 network platforms daily. The added advantage of also collaborating with these platforms is that they have people who are experts at message amplification. Let them help you. I am always amazed by how people reach out to me daily with the question, “How can I help?”

Stage 3. Inspired Action

I have found it hard to write about this stage because it changed drastically in the weeks in which I was writing it. Defunding police because of one of the most shocking displays of systemic racism caught of video with George Floyd’s death to the daily protests, the tear gas and the curfews along with me getting caught in the crossfire of angry protestors and getting injured, I felt that I can’t call this stage, “The New Normal.” because there is nothing normal about what we are going through and we shouldn’t accept it as such. So I have decided that I will not accept this new normal. What I want to do is take meaningful inspired action to create the world I want to live in. Whether that means protesting, speaking on panels, standing up to clients who try to bully me or my business or pivoting my business for greater impact, I plan to be all in.

What I want to do is take meaningful inspired action to create the world I want to live in. Whether that means protesting, speaking on panels, standing up to clients who try to bully me or my business or pivoting my business for greater impact, I plan to be all in.

What does this mean for small businesses? For one it means people are past the “Tread Lightly” stage (sorry Heisenberg!). It means that we need to support each other beyond what we have always seen. We have to shift perspective, address our own bias head on and think about whether we are truly inclusive.

For Whiskey Stories and me, this means our services that include our kit include items from minority owned and black owned businesses. This means that a percentage of our sales no matter how small will go toward fighting racism in the Black Community. It means that as a business we will continue to support those at greatest risk in the pandemic but also those in our Black Community who have always been at risk. We just weren’t willing to deal with it. It means our business strategies need to reflect that. We have to support each other while the systems within which we live in collapse before our eyes because we all know more chaos is coming. I hope you join all me in creating a stronger, more inclusive community for generations to come. We are all Generation Edge.