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A Tale of Two Sumi(s) – When COVID19 Flatlined the Desi Beauty Business

Sumi Patel opened Sumi Beauty in 2007 and ran a thriving cosmetology business

Sumi Beauty Salon in Mountain View

on El Camino in Mountain View for more than 13 years. A single mom with two children, Sumi built a steady stream of customers seeking beauty treatments designed with desi clientele in mind. On offer were services like threading, waxing, skincare, and facials, as well as special heritage henna treatments and make-up for brides to be.  Her salon was popular.

“I’ve been going here for over a year and have always been so pleased with the results! The women who work here….both do great jobs at the Indian beauty salon,” says a testimonial on her website.

As Sumi’s clients became regulars, she hired an aesthetician to help with the increased workload.

And then the pandemic hit. On March 15, 2020, Sumi Beauty shut down as Governor Gavin Newsom’s pandemic regulations were enforced, flatlining Sumi Patel’s source of livelihood.

In Southern California, Sumita Batra, the CEO of a successful, family-run chain of beauty studios called Ziba Beauty, made a tough decision even before Newsom issued his statewide lockdown orders. She shuttered all 14 branches of her stores and laid off her entire team of 144 employees so they could file for unemployment benefits. Batra used her personal savings to fund their final paychecks and to keep her business afloat.

Threading service at Ziba Beauty

As the pandemic placed communities of color under siege, minority-owned small businesses like the ones run by Sumi Patel and Sumita Batra were among the hardest hit.

While workers of color were impacted by job losses, women’s job losses were significantly higher than men’s, reported Chad Stone, Chief Economist at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), at an ethnic media press briefing on March 12. Stone co-authored a study which found that “Workers born abroad, especially women, were more likely to work in the industries hit hardest by the pandemic and have suffered disproportionate job losses.”

For both Sumi(s), the impact of losing a lifetime of work was devastating.

Ziba Beauty had been in business for 33 years since it first opened shop in Artesia, CA.  It had served more than forty-five thousand customers out of its 14 studios. Batra describes the experience of closing her stores as going “into a complete meltdown.” Losing her business felt “like losing a family member.”

Sumita Batra, CEO, Ziba Beauty

Batra applied for PPP funds “using every contact in her book and everything in her power,” but it still took several weeks to arrive.

In Mountain View, Patel negotiated a deal with her landlord to pay a lower rental rate to tide her over the pandemic and applied for a loan from the Paycheck Protection program for Small Businesses.

“But my business is very small, so I did not get that much,” said Patel, who had to let her aesthetician go.

One year after the pandemic hit, the business has dwindled at Sumi Beauty. Before the pandemic, Patel would see at up to 20 to 25 customers a day. “Today, I saw one person,” she notes, after which she waited for 3 hours for a walk-in customer. Customers aren’t calling to make appointments Patel added. She does not understand why.  On weekends, business picks up a little. “Maybe I’ll have 4 or 5 customers.”

Her salon can only accommodate one person at a time, as pandemic restrictions are still in place.

She briefly reopened last year when restrictions were lifted before shutting down again as infections rose. “My business is reduced to only 10% of what it was before the pandemic. We’re not back to 100 %. This whole year has been very hard.”

Ziba Beauty remained closed, announcing that its priority was the safety of customers and employees.

In March 2021 Biden signed off on the ‘American Rescue Plan Act’ -a  $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Bill which the CBPP predicts will help millions and bolster the economy.

Chad Stone reports that the coronavirus relief package and its new round of stimulus payments are aimed at “getting the virus under control,” so that life can get back to normal, reducing the levels of hardship many Americans have endured over the past year, and which has been particularly acute among people of color and immigrants.” It will provide a stimulus for an economic recovery that had stalled “only halfway back to full employment,” he added.

But the Congressional Budget Office projects that the economy won’t return to its full potential until 2025. Today’s labor market, says the CBPP analysis, is much weaker than the headline numbers suggest.

According to the CBPP, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell recently testified that “The economic recovery remains uneven and far from complete, and the path ahead is highly uncertain. . . . There is a long way to go.”

Sumi Batra agrees.

“Touch services coming back too soon will be one of the things that end up spreading COVID.”

At the risk of losing her 33-year-old brand after shutting down last year, Batra was adamant that she would not reopen until it was safe to do so. “I’m not going to feel comfortable opening up my stores and risking my team as well as my customers.”

Touch services like threading operate in ‘intimate spaces’ says Batra, where aesthetician and client sit in close contact. So a ‘phased opening is the right approach’ because a threading artist works differently from a hairdresser.

Unlike e-commerce companies, touch service industries need a phased reopening to facilitate a safe recovery post pandemic. Batra is calling for a separate stimulus for the beauty and nail industries, and suggests they need to come together to create a recovery plan that will ensure the safety of practitioners and clients.

Sumi Patel says though her salon now is fully open her customers are ‘scared to come back,’ even though she has implemented health and safety changes. When threading eyebrows on a customer, for example, she wears a mask and anchors the thread around her neck instead of holding it in her mouth, which is the traditional technique. She attributes the drop in clients to the fact that many of her customers from the IT industry, may not need beauty services now that many work from home, do not socialize, or travel.

At Ziba Beauty which has gradually reopened about 6 stores, Batra is using  PPE and stringent safety measures. At the start of each day, each studio is thoroughly sterilized by a UVC robot, and bookings, payments, check-in and check out are contactless.

For Sumi Patel who has two kids to support, the loss of income has been a challenge

“Right now it’s a tough time. My only hope is that my business will come back – I hope.”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Anjana Nagarajan Butaney contributed to this report.