Alumni Association launches alumni-owned small business directory to boost support

Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 9:13pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

On April 30, the University of Michigan’s Alumni Association launched a directory of alumni-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 do to support small businesses.

Upasna Kakroo, Alumni Association executive director of marketing, noted the value of having a large alumni network of over 620,000 alumni in strengthening the support and collaboration between business owners.

“Knowing how much Michigan alumni care and want to support each other, we hope that through the directory they’re able to find these businesses and support them,” Kakroo said. “Using our social channels, we will continue to promote the ability to add small businesses to the directory as well as raise awareness for the directory itself.” 

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

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

“We have adjusted our operations to advance online orders for pints and sundae kits so we can reduce the number of staff working at one time,” Sigler said. “We typically sell out of the pints we’ve scooped each day, which is great. And we are now producing ice cream again.” 

Despite resuming ice cream production and being able to implement a system of minimal contact ice cream pickup, Sigler says she and her team miss customer interaction. 

“We are in this business to see the smiles on customer faces when we hand them an eye-popping dessert or their favorite flavor,” Sigler said. “So that’s been a really hard adjustment.” 

Another business on the list is Frameable Faces Photography in West Bloomfield, owned by Doug Cohen, 1992 University graduate, and his wife. Since the studio’s closure, the couple have shifted their focus to photo restoration, photography training via Skype and Zoom, and consulting with clients on past and future photo sessions. Cohen stressed the importance of maintaining their online presence now more than ever. 

“We have always put a focus on having a robust presence online with social media including blogging, a weekly email newsletter, live streaming and podcasting, and it’s been more important than ever to continue that now by staying the course and staying connected to our community,” Cohen said. “Staying in front of folks with helpful content during these stressful times have kept us on (their) minds.” 

Business sophomore Shan Shan Chen described some of the issues small businesses are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including the xenophobic attitudes some Chinese restuarant owners are experiencing. 

“Some (restaurants) could still operate with takeout or pickup orders in order to continue to make a living,” Chen said. “With the widespread racism and xenophobia, our family friend had to close down shop altogether due to fear. They distributed ingredients and supplies to employees and will have to wait out not only the disease, but likely the hate as well before reopening.” 

Chen explained the urgency of assisting small businesses because owners and employees depend heavily on day-to-day sales in order to make a living. 

“It is crucial that small businesses are supported right now because they are ‘small’ for a reason,” Chen said. “The owners and the employees depend heavily on each sale in order to survive...In terms of how to support the businesses that are still open who are facing racism and hate, just buy from them. If a local family business is still operating, just support them in any way you can by making a purchase or order.

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

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

According to Moss, launching their business in the midst of the pandemic came with some uncertainty in their sales.

“For the first month of quarantine, we were very much under the impression that we were not going to sell,” Moss said. 

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

“A lot of people are really resorting to cooking at home,” Schacter said. “As a business in the alumni network, we’re providing an opportunity to anyone available to really try to spice up their meals and not get drudged down in the monotony of this lockdown.”

Daily Staff Reporter Celene Philip can be reached at celenep@umich.edu.