ASTORIA, QUEENS — After Kayli Kunkel was laid off this summer from her corporate job, in the throes of a coronavirus-crippled economy, the Astoria resident found her next career opportunity within her own four walls.
She made a list of all the things she cares about, that she would want to build a career in, and decided to venture down what may seem an unlikely path in a recession: starting her own small business.
In the same rooms where she’d been working remotely as a marketing director, she had started making her own laundry soap, lip balm and lotion, using a book titled “Simply Living Well” as her guide — both a way of penny-pinching after her layoff and building a more sustainable lifestyle.
Then the thought: why not build that into a business?
On Aug. 10, the 27-year-old launched an online store, Earth & Me, selling a curated collection of affordable, eco-friendly home and beauty products designed to help consumers cut down on waste and reduce their environmental footprint.
The items are handcrafted by small business owners, nearly all of whom are women, and packaged using zero-waste or reusable materials. Many of the items cost less than $15. Her most expensive product, at $36, is a set of bamboo cutlery with a stainless steel straw.
Even her shipping method is eco-friendly: Kunkel delivers the products by bicycle.
“I want zero-waste options to be accessible to people, fun to use,” Kunkel told Patch. “A lot of times the zero-waste movement forgets its privilege. Not everyone can buy a bamboo cutlery wrap or a really nice set of beeswax wraps, or whatever it is.”
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have shuttered an estimated 3,000 small businesses in New York City, and hundreds of thousands across the country, but Kunkel is among a growing contingent of entrepreneurs starting their own business against that backdrop.
Applications for the employer identification numbers needed to start a business and other new filings have both increased this year compared to the same point last year, according to the Wall Street Journal, which profiled a group of those who have started businesses during the pandemic.
As businesses are wiped out and consumption patterns change during the crisis, a void forms that someone else can fill.
“A lot of people are saving and trying to be frugal, so a big thing for my business is offering affordable products,” Kunkel said. “It’s definitely a time to think about how you can get people things that bring joy or fulfill a necessity at an affordable price.”
To Kunkel, it’s also the time to find ways to serve the community you live in — a value instilled in her by her parents, both small business owners back in her Iowa hometown.
She is hosting pop-up shops at other small businesses in Astoria, like Fern Botanica and an upcoming one at Newtown HQ, and partnered with local composting icon Rocky the pug on an organic cotton tote bag, with part of the proceeds benefiting the composting program.
“My dad really prioritized bringing your values to work, so I think that’s been really important to me, too,” Kunkel said. “When you have a small business you really do need to be embedded in your community and building relationships and doing good. It’s not about your personal success it’s about the success of the community.”