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She recognized the need to pivot her business during the COVID-19 crisis

Alora and Veronica May
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Alora May’s business, SAM AND LANCE, which requires heavy travel, took a pivot away from the usual global marketplace and instead moved into self-care kits. Learn her story and how she got there and make the decision to change the trajectory of her business.

(She is pictured on the left with her sister and cofounder, Veronica.)

TAMAR: Hi. So today, May 26, I’m starting to acknowledge dates again. I am currently in phase one of reopening in my city and my state in New Rochelle, New York. And today I have Alora May, she’s going to share a little bit about where she is, what she’s doing, what her life has been like since this craziness hit us. Thank you so much for coming

ALORA MAY: Yeah. Thanks for having me. So, I’m actually in Toronto right now. I think we’re kind of in sync almost in terms of when phases are opening. And we’re just announced the same thing where no street level stores can open. But of course, it’s still a really uncertain time. And with the weather getting warmer, people don’t know what to do with themselves.

TAMAR: Yeah, I actually was considering going to Canada, maybe Niagara Falls or something like that for the summer. And I’m thinking to myself, “Wait a minute. Is Canada going to let me in? Are the Canadian borders still closed?” I guess that might happen for that might be an issue for a while. The annoying thing is that I’m not a threat to anybody in Canada because I had the virus. Yet the borders are still closed because they’re not going to treat one person differently than the rest of the world. So that’s unfortunate. But nonetheless, tell me a little bit about what your personal experience was. Like what you’re doing now, what you do, all those things?

ALORA MAY: Yeah, I’m the founder of Sam & Lance. We’re an online marketplace that has sustainable goods made by women worldwide. So, I was pretty lucky of my day-to-day didn’t change much as I was used to working remotely. My sister is the co-founder, and she works in Singapore. So, we’re pretty separate and virtual as a company in general. But of course, everything else stopped, like I couldn’t go to the co-working space. And we really did just shift our offering as well. We saw this happening with COVID. And we launched what we call a care crate. It’s like a gift box full of self-care items. And for each one purchased, we donate one to frontline health care workers. So, we actually saw a big increase in terms of people interacting with our business. And we saw a big boost because we’re doing this philanthropic effort to help health care workers. That’s what we’ve been doing and hustling and trying to work through in the past couple months. It’s really been great. But I’ve been really lucky that my day-to-day hasn’t been too affected.

TAMAR: Well, that’s you pivoted in such an amazing way. I love idea; me what’s in those care packages, I want to know.

ALORA MAY: Yeah, so we have 5 different items. There’s incense, a candle, there’s a hydrating balm, because of course, with masks and washing your hands, your skin just gets raw. And there’s an essential oil roll-on. And there’s a natural lip balm as well.  So, we tried to make it really inclusive for anybody that wanted to purchase it.

TAMAR: So cool. It’s interesting, you’re doing this as well. My whole story actually had a rise-above- the-ashes, experience. And scent was what brought me out of the depression that was basically a decade long, and then I hit rock bottom. I put on perfume and perfume for me was my awakening. And then I realized that I need to take advantage of my sense of smell and use it for the better. So, I have this podcast called the Common Scents podcast since being the smell of scents. And I’ve been working to build this up for a really long time. And you know, obviously COVID-19 affected us in unprecedented ways. Everybody doesn’t want to hear that buzzword but it’s true. And I was going to launch in first, it was March then it was like, “Who knows?” And I decided on a whim I’m going to do it. Last week I did a soft launch officially because I realized that this is a time you need to do it. Fragrance is very sexualized in general, especially in personal fragrance. I said to myself, that’s not what this is. You need to actually feel you need to have that experience, those experiences through incense, through essential oils. As soon as you said that I realized I have some essential oils in my drawer here and I want to put them on. I just didn’t want to do it. Don’t want to be weird doing it right now. But I totally do want to do it. Because it’s amazing experience. Having your sense of smell is such an empowering thing. So, I love it. I love what you did. I absolutely love it.

ALORA MAY: Congrats on your launch. That’s huge, especially during this time. And, you know, people don’t really realize how powerful scents are. And it’s much more than yeah, just a fancy perfume. It really helps ground you, it can get you through different times. It can bring you back to a certain moment and calm you down. So, congrats on that.

TAMAR: Yeah. Very scary, amazing, like, “Would things have been different? Would I have made more money if I didn’t do because it’s a crowdfunding campaign right now? And would have I made more money under different circumstances?” Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way to know. And honestly, I don’t have regrets when I did it because I think it’s important to kind of acknowledge that we’re not going out with our friends anymore. So, we might not be compelled to put on perfume. And maybe in the retail marketplace, perfume sales will have failed. But if you position the products in a way that it brings you back to your happy place, it hopefully will soar. So, we’ll see.

ALORA MAY: Is something figured out?

TAMAR: Exactly, exactly. You definitely do it for yourself. Yeah. So, tell me how you got to your position in building out your marketplace. And I mean, obviously, before your pivot, tell me a little bit about that trajectory.

ALORA MAY: Yeah, so my undergrad right out of high school was actually in Fine Arts with a minor in Marketing. And when I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do, I fell into Advertising. So, I worked in Advertising for quite a few years as a producer, and then I wanted to do my MBA at the Paris School of Business because I knew that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. But still wasn’t really sure what that was, I came back to Toronto and kept working in Advertising. And then finally just quit. I didn’t have an idea; I didn’t have a game plan. I kind of took some time and traveled. I love traveling as many people do, but one of my favorite things while traveling is going to markets. And seeing the people that are local and selling the things that they make, or the things that they’re really proud of. And I wanted to create a space that would elevate and be a platform for these people to sell their products and get it to a larger audience. So that’s really where the idea was born. And another thing that was really important to me, too, was in these markets. It’s 90% or more women that are creating and selling these products and supporting themselves and their family. So, every product on Sam & Lance is created by women. And I think it’s so important to support women not only locally, but of course worldwide. Because the more that we can support and the more that we can give our consumer dollars to women who found it and own companies or artisans is just so important in my mind.

TAMAR: I love it. And I have to admit, it’s one of the best things when you’re a tourist to just go to these shops and to actually see what people are doing, what people are creating. So, I love the fact that you’re bringing it together. And what’s your representation, like the countrywide representation? Because I assume you have so many different countries and I guess nationalities. I don’t really know the types of people who are represented in your marketplace.

ALORA MAY: That’s a great question. When I started, I really wanted it to be full global marketplace. And we do have quite a few different countries represented. Right now, I say that it’s 60% or more North America. That’s just the people that I met or I’m connected with, but we have artisans from Ghana or from the Dominican or Mexico or different places in the world. But I would love to see in the next few years to make it just really span the entire world and all these different countries there because that’s what’s so fun to me.

TAMAR: Yeah, it’ll be so fun for you to travel and negotiate. That’s actually a lot of fun. I just think you get so many benefits from it. You get the travel, you get the negotiation, you’re going to learn how to negotiate in different cultures because the cultural society is just very different. I’ve worked in many global companies, and we actually have communication seminars and how to talk to people from different countries. So, it’s actually really great skills that you’re going to get. And yeah, just the commerce component and all those other fun things. That’s so cool. I’m very impressed. So, I’m sharing the link, but I’m just super excited to see everything.

ALORA MAY: Yeah.

TAMAR: Yeah, awesome. One of the core components of this podcast is your story where you kind of overcome something that has been very difficult, your rise-above-the-ashes story. So, I’m going to lead into that kind of story and where you are now? Honestly, you sound like you’re in a very good place. You already pivoted; you did some amazing things. Tell me a little bit about that.

ALORA MAY: Yeah, I mean, nothing is easy. When you look at someone’s success story, people just think that they went from point A to point B with no issues in between. But as I mentioned, when I left my full-time job, I was making six figures and I just felt like I needed more. I was also going through a divorce at the time, I was just really lost. And it took me a really long time to even find out that I wanted to do this, that I wanted to create this marketplace. And then even now, I’m putting so much of my own investment into it out of my own pocket because I believe in it so much. But I’m still not paying myself anything from this because I just believe in it so much. And I want the money to go back to all the artisans at this time as we grow. So, yes, I’m so happy and so proud of where we are, but it was a struggle and still is a struggle. But I’m just so happy for the community that I’ve created, the suppliers and the artisans that we have as part of our family, and the people that I have on my team. It is just so beautiful to see it continue to grow and flourish month over month, even during this crazy time that we’re in right now.

TAMAR: Yeah, it’s really important to highlight the fact that the entrepreneurial struggle is real. And unless you’re watching Shark Tank, how many people don’t recognize that we in the beginning we’re just pouring money into it, we’re not getting money out of it. And we’re doing it for some incredible success and their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But you never know. Well, I can’t say you never know, I don’t want to say that right now for myself and for you. But this is what it is, this is our reality. our reality is climbing the side of the mountain and hoping that you’ll be able to hit that peak. I’m sure there might be especially if you’re a novice and you’re not really sure how to climb that mountain. You might hit some rocks and fall a little bit. But then eventually, hopefully, you’ll be able to climb, pick yourself back up and bring yourself to a place where you’re going to be and everybody’s going to be super excited, and you’re going to be super successful. And everybody’s just going to reap the benefits. It’s going to be a win-win for you, for the artisans, for the clients, customers. I think everybody needs to realize that there’s a lot to it. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s grueling work, it’s not easy. The entrepreneurial lifestyle is definitely not as simple as what it seems.

ALORA MAY: It’s funny, every time there is a big struggle or a roadblock, my sister and I always laugh. My sister, as I mentioned, is the co-founder. We’re like, “This is going to be a great story when we’re super successful.” And we can laugh about this happening. So, just realizing that this is the time to grind and to work really hard. And we see the growth and we see what this can be and just continuing moving forward because we really believe in it. And we believe in all the people that we have, all the people that we support, and the mission behind it.

TAMAR: Yeah, it’s important. It’s funny because being new right now, I had incredible self-belief, and I was like, “This is going to be amazing. I’m going to launch this.” This was not a Kickstarter, but I was thinking about a Kickstarter. I’m going to launch this crowdfunding campaign, and it’s going to be incredible.

But then I had some doubts in terms of PR, especially. I have a great story, but I don’t know if the reception is 100% there. And I was very conflicted. And I’m still kind of conflicted. But my friend from college reached out to me last night, and she wrote this completely out of the blue. And she’s like, “It’s amazing, you’ve COVID-19 and now you’ve launched a brand”. And she said the most incredible things. And I said to myself, I need no positive affirmations. I don’t have self-doubt right now. But it’s obviously a struggle. And I decided to screenshot what she shared on messenger and even though there’s a bunch of icons in the way like it’s my wallpaper so I can see that and believe the fact it came from somebody else. It was completely unsolicited and I need that self-belief. So, it’s about those types of things. Those things I think would help your self-belief; reinforce why you’re doing what you’re doing. Because when it’ll be hard, hopefully there will be an opportunity for you to booster yourself up either coming from within, coming from without that sometimes you need to have that external reinforcement to help you push yourself from within.

ALORA MAY: Yeah, I love that. You don’t really realize how much a message mean. When someone sends it to you, it might hit the right time or the right nerve and that’s beautiful. But I love posting it on the desktop background or up on a wall.

TAMAR: Yeah. Well, I would never have thought to do that. But then I said to myself, “There’s nothing else there. It’s just like a big emoji.” And then like this thing that she actually said, I’m going to read out loud, I’m going to actually even call attention to it. She said it’s funny. I’m watching Shark Tank as we speak now. And I always wonder how these people got to where they are. The successful ones are honest, passionate, hardworking, willing to be vulnerable about their journey and courageous to take bold steps with intelligence and creativity. You have all those qualities, and they will make the most important ingredients in your success. I have so much confidence in you. And I said to myself, this is what I needed to hear. And I even thought it looks ridiculous as my locked screen and desktop wallpaper. But wallpapers, I need to see that. And I have been visiting it again and again. Because sometimes you have to write those affirmations and use it, you struggle to believe it. But now I’m believing it because it’s coming from somebody, seriously. I mean the last time I saw her in person was maybe in my wedding in 2005. But 2003 was like when we were in school together. So, it’s been a long time. It’s just nice to hear that 17 years later, it makes me feel beautiful.

ALORA MAY: I love that.

TAMAR: Yeah, so I’m going to ask you this, obviously with your products, and totally this necessity for self-care. Let me ask you the impetus for your pivot to self-care. I mean, obviously, it was important, and I definitely see the value. But tell me about how that happened. And tell me about how you’re doing it yourself. And if anything has changed as a result of the Coronavirus sheltering in place or whatever you’re doing otherwise.

ALORA MAY: Yeah, we all really need self-care right now, and for the care crates, we definitely focused on the self-care items that I mentioned before because we all really need some self-care right now. And it’s one that we should all focus on even if it’s as small as just lighting an incense stick or using a roll-on, lighting a candle, or using a natural lip balm. And also we want to give something back to these healthcare workers. It was just something really small for us. We feel we can’t do anything big, we can’t create a vaccine, we can’t change the world, but we can try to make someone’s day a little bit better by giving them a few tools to maybe help with their self-care, maybe help them calm down after a long shift in the ER or whatever they’re doing to help our world right now. So, we really focused on self-care with those care crates, and then in terms of my own self-care, it’s definitely shifted, and with all of this going on, I used to wake up at six or quarter to six and go to the gym for an hour and come home and go for a run and do all of these things. Go to yoga, go to a yoga class quite a few times a week, but now I just don’t have the energy or the motivation to wake up that early or to do an hour-long workout at home or even do anything like that. So just giving myself permission to take what I need and take the time that I need, whether it’s just going for a 30-minute walk and giving my mom a call and catching up with her or doing a 20-minute yoga workout at home and maybe three times a week instead of every single day. So, I’ve just really shifted into allowing myself to self-care less than I was doing before and knowing that that’s okay. And then I’ve also been scheduling it into my calendar like 7:30 in the morning. I’m going for a walk 2 pm to get some fresh air.

 

TAMAR: It’s good. I think the calendar is a commitment. And that’s where we should come from. Right? I don’t know, I’m making it up. But it’s funny for the last couple of weeks, given the fact that we’re almost in or it’s March. Yeah, April, May, June, we’re almost hitting three months for us. We had it early because I live in the city that had the first confirmed case of community spread of Coronavirus. So, I’ve actually been quarantined since March 3. With everybody else, that’s like the end of March. So, everybody was going to the gym, and I wasn’t. I remember calling the gym up initially and I told them I’m in quarantine and they freaked out. They’re like, “We need to call the Department of Health. Don’t worry, we’ll be able to get you back in soon.” And so, it was hilarious. And then they shut down. Like finally my quarantine ended. Or so I thought because then I found out I had the virus. Well the quarantine began for the rest of the world. I had a mild case. I definitely had shortness of breath, and it was difficult. So, I also found myself running and then I was walking and then against the COVID-19 weight wise because I’ve been helping the restaurants stay in business by feeding members of my community and I felt financially obligated to support them as well. So, I ended up getting quite a few things. So, yeah, quite a few things. That’s an understatement. But anyway, this past week, I found out that there’s this thing called the NYCRUNS Subway System Challenge. Basically, the subway system in New York City is 245 miles long. And they decided to say, between Labor Day and I guess September when school starts, that you should be committed to running or walking 245 miles during that time. So, I’ve been pretty lax, like really, really lax, and I decided to try to do it. So yesterday I ran two miles, today ran four, so I’m so proud of myself because the max I’ve ever run is four.

 

ALORA MAY: Wow.

 

TAMAR: But the fact that I’m showing up I think will motivate me to start really getting back into self-care regimen even though there’s a lot of gyms   right now that are not yet allowed to reopen. But some of the gyms are allowed to reopen outdoors. I don’t know if I’m so keen on working outdoors when it’s 90 degrees outside. Even now it’s in the mid-70s and for me, that’s too much. My cutoff is 75. So, we’ll see. Obviously, I have to improvise as much as possible. There’s still zoom classes, there’s these things someone was telling me about, body pump. I’ll figure it out. But I do want to get back to a committed self-care routine. It’s nice. It’s nice to hear what you’re doing because it’s in the direction that you’re still showing up. You’re not doing what you’re doing because I’m not waking up early. I’m not working. I’m not saying I’m waking up at six o’clock in the morning. But things are different. And I love what you’re doing. And I love the fact that you still haven’t completely neglected everything because right now it is very easy to neglect everything.

 

ALORA MAY: Yeah, I try things even if I’m really bad at it. Like I’m trying to meditate. I will check my phone every few minutes during that 10-minute meditation to see how much longer I have. But I’m still trying, I’m still putting paint on and pressing play. But I might be horrible at it.

 

TAMAR: Well, I got to say that’s amazing. Thank you for validating something that I’ve been doing. I always meditate. I can do it either. I actually have a lifetime subscription. And I haven’t done it for a while. I was very committed to doing it probably the first two months of the year. I was going to their daily meditations. But March came along. I used to save all of them because once you save them, they’re daily, so they rotate. So, I have to heart them. And if you don’t heart them, they disappear. If you heart them, they’ll show up. They’ll stay there. And I said, “Forget it. I’m not doing it anymore.” So that’s better than me. I say kudos to you. Even if you’re checking your phone, you’re still doing it. Yeah, awesome. Let me ask you a wrap up question. If you could tell an earlier version of yourself, give her a piece of advice, what would you tell her?

 

ALORA MAY: I would help her realize the future isn’t what you had envisioned. And that’s okay because it’s even better. I think that all of us have this idea and have this plan of what your life should look like and what your 10-year plan is. And sometimes you can just throw the plan away and allow for 10-year things to happen or for good to come in or change to happen. Because that’s really where the magic and the beauty sometimes lie.

 

TAMAR: I like that a lot.  I don’t know what I would say, especially in the context of it being better. It definitely is better but it’s so different. I majored in Computer Science thinking I would be a computer nerd. Well, I don’t want to say computer geek or something for the rest of my life. And now I’m here creating a personal fragrance brand. It’s just, I’m happy where I am. But it’s such a different plan than what I had thought my earlier version of myself would have thought just like looking at the detail. It’s very, very crazy.

 

ALORA MAY: I love that kind of learning from your past and your past experiences. It’s not that any of it is invalid because you’re doing something completely different. All of that was learning, all of that was amazing. And now you’re just doing something that you didn’t expect you to be doing, like creating a fragrance. How cool is that?

 

TAMAR:  It’s all about growth. Everybody grows in a different way. And they’re just building upon a better version of themselves. You know, we’re better than we were before. Yes, sure. There’s going to be struggles along the way but you just have to trust the process. Trust the process that you’re creating is self-created. All of this belief systems that you have, the things that you’re doing is all about what’s in your head and what you’re pushing yourself to do. And you should be pushing yourself. Cool. Well, yeah, I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to add?

 

ALORA MAY: No, this is great. Thank you so much for padding.

 

TAMAR: Yeah, thank you. Thank you so much for coming. And I wish you the best I hope that gyms reopen soon. And, yeah, I understand where we need to feel accountable to ourselves. And sometimes you just have to do it in the context of a group. That’s what I’ve been doing. So of course, we can do it on our own, but it’s not that easy. Yeah.

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TAMAR.