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This is a lonely time to be a leader. Here’s how I’m saving my business while I recover from COVID-19

The founder of women’s collaboration space Luminary tells how in less than two weeks, the global pandemic forced her to temporarily close the doors and pivot the business all while she recovered from having COVID-19.

This is a lonely time to be a leader. Here’s how I’m saving my business while I recover from COVID-19
[Photo: Nadasaki/iStock]

A month ago, I was preparing for a speaking engagement with women entrepreneurs and small-business owners about career pivots and building a company. I left my two-decade career in banking to start Luminary, a company focused on advancing women in the workforce through community from our 15,000-square-foot space in New York City.

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I would soon face one of the swiftest and most difficult business pivots of my career. While we began taking all of the necessary health precautions, in less than two weeks, the global pandemic forced me to temporarily close the door to a space that I had opened just a year ago.

In that first year, we held over 200 events and workshops to give our community the ability to learn, develop, and connect. I was faced with the need to completely pivot my entire business from offline to online to survive. To say it felt like the world was collapsing around me would be an understatement. How could I have built and self-funded this business to have it fall apart now? Like so many small-business owners, I didn’t have investors or credit lines to leverage, and I needed to act quickly to figure out how to continue to make payroll, retain existing members, and navigate what was happening around us. My team and I found new ways to engage our community, pivoting the entirety of our programming to virtual experiences overnight. On March 17, we held our first virtual session with hundreds of members.

Then I started experiencing symptoms that felt like a cold. I still worked long hours, took dozens of calls a day, and moderated sessions and workshops. I also had to keep our team focused on our community of members while not being physically together. My primary care physician prescribed Tamiflu and Z-Pac as a preventative, but I still wasn’t feeling better. I was exhausted, achy, and could barely speak without spastic coughing. Despite this, I continued emailing our community about how to engage and support one another, how we were helping our members, especially those struggling small-business owners and entrepreneurs, and the many new initiatives we were launching.

This global crisis has presented business owners with a huge challenge of how to balance the need to generate revenue and stay in business while being empathetic to the challenges your customers are facing too. I had to do it all while feeling so ill I could barely get out of bed. I rested when I could, but I wanted our members to know that we were still here for them and wouldn’t skip a beat.

One day last week, after I crawled out of bed and into the shower, I realized that I had lost my sense of smell and taste. After an appointment at an urgent care facility and a “presumptive positive” for COVID-19 from the doctor, I sat with a mask over my face and stared in disbelief. I’m a healthy 44-year-old woman, yet we are all at risk. I walked home with my medication as well as an inhaler. Rest, rest, and more rest were the doctor’s orders, or I risked a longer recovery, or worse, a secondary infection that could put me in the hospital. My only thought was, “How can I rest when I need to keep the company afloat for my team and my members?”

I’m now learning to lead and manage while quarantined at home with this illness, but it hasn’t been easy. It’s important to prioritize your health and the health of those around you during this time. In case you are leading from home and perhaps you or someone you know has been diagnosed, these are some of the ways I am navigating it all.

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Manage your stress levels and lean virtually on your team

Trying to save my company with no safety net while pivoting the entire business online while I’ve been sick was something I’d never experienced. When leading your company through change and crisis, it’s natural to want to be involved in every aspect of it all. Yet we are all experiencing so much uncertainty and fear that causes stress and anxiety. It’s hard to make tough decisions to ensure the financial security of a company when you are stressed and ill. So it’s critical to delegate and manage stress levels to make smart choices.

I’ve had to delegate so much to my team as well as our partners. It has been the right decision, both for my health and for my team. I lean on them, and they meet every challenge. I trust them, and they have stretched their skills. Their innovation and creativity are thriving during this time. Sometimes when leaders step back a bit, it gives their team the runway and opportunity they need to lead.

Community and partnership

“At times like this, we have found tremendous support from our members and partners. Knowing what each stakeholder can provide—and making the ask—has been key to pivoting Luminary,” said our Chief Impact Officer, Surabhi Lal. You must work together with others in order to triumph. I’ve made it a priority to collaborate with over a dozen other women’s communities and spaces around the country, not only to share in our struggles but also to provide advice and tips to help us all get through this trying time. Opening channels of communication and the ability to share ideas provides an opportunity for all of us to succeed.

This is one of the most difficult economic environments in history, and we are all trying to adjust to how this will change our lives. I am experiencing this virus firsthand, trying to process the tragic loss of life, and witnessing the devastating threat to the lives and businesses in so many of our communities. As a New Yorker, I’m an optimist and find comfort in our resilience and unity. I’ve never been more confident in the community around me, and that we will come out of this stronger together.


Cate Luzio is the founder of New York City-based women’s collaboration hub Luminary.

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