A salon owner making face masks, a chef crafting sanitizer gadgets, and a CEO consulting on COVID-19 safety showcase local innovation.
Renee Robinson was in the midst of a difficult time last spring. In January, her husband died from what is now presumed to be COVID-19. In March of 2020, when the state shut down, so did her White Plains hair salon. Robinson was waiting in a long line in a store, surrounded by other masked customers, and as the Best of Westchester award winner thought forward to when her salon would reopen, it occurred to her: There’s no way I’m going to work with this. I cannot do this.
It was then that the Greenburgh resident got the idea for a more workable mask for her business. She wanted one that would be more comfortable on the face and ears and wouldn’t require constant adjusting. On top of that, after years of accumulating knowledge about the dangers many salon products pose to people’s health and the environment, she wanted a mask that would be safe and eco-friendly, noting the potential landfill problems on the horizon from disposable masks.
Within weeks, Robinson was working on prototypes for her product, the Strapless Disposable Face Mask. She used savings left by her husband after his death to invest in different materials to test for the masks. She gave free hair appointments to longtime customers in exchange for their feedback. Eventually, she settled on the patent-pending design of two-ply organic cotton with a medical-grade adhesive made from wood. The masks are biodegradable and free of dyes and pesticides.
When summer came, and her salon could reopen, it quickly became clear that it wouldn’t survive the pandemic. As a small business without a lot of savings to fall back on, the salon was “living week-to-week,” she says, and so she closed it permanently last July.
Robinson describes a “numb” feeling about the closure: “I appreciate the history of [my time owning the salon], but I believe it is time to embark on something else and use what I learned from that to press on and learn as much as possible in a new career.”
With a limited budget, Robinson is learning by doing everything herself (with the help of family members), from making the masks in her home to setting up her own corporation and doing her own advertising. She calls the start-up costs “nothing compared to if I were to outsource it.”
She pulled the masks from Amazon due to the site’s fees, saying it was “cutting into what we are trying to achieve.” Robinson instead sells the masks on her own website (reneehairstudio.net), alongside salon treatments.
The same do-it-yourself ethos inspired Westchester chef Mogan Anthony to create OLO, a wristband that dispenses hand sanitizer. The CrossFit enthusiast and culinary director of the Village Social Group (Village Social, Locali, Pubstreet, Fatt Root) recognized a need for a more efficient sanitizer dispenser for fitness fiends and restaurant workers alike.
When COVID restrictions came into effect last year, and his restaurants’ business dropped by about 80% overnight, Anthony had the time to focus on addressing this need. So, the self-described “creative animal” dug into his savings and got to work with his wife, designing the product to replace cumbersome sanitizer bottles with a refillable wristband dispenser.
Without a formal educational or business background, the restaurateur from Malaysia has relied on drive and creativity to make it everywhere from Singapore to Japan to NYC. “I have always had that kind of mentality of: This is a problem. Let’s figure out a way to try to solve it,” Anthony says.
The well-traveled Anthony is feeling his way through uncharted territory in many parts of the business. “This is a learning curve,” he says, “but I like learning, so I kind of took it as a challenge.”
Anthony outsources much of the work for OLO to freelancers around the globe, many of whom are out of work since the pandemic. He’s also set up third-party logistics to deliver to customers’ homes. After working regular hours in his since-reopened restaurants, he and his wife often spend late-night hours on the phone with their manufacturers in Asia.
After initially envisioning the product filling a niche in the fitness/lifestyle space, Anthony found unexpected interest from travelers, students, and PPE suppliers for local colleges and sports activities. “What I had in my mind and who were actually the customers were very different,” he says.
What’s turned out to be a “cool, young-kids’ product” has attracted so much interest that Anthony had to suspend preorders on the website (oloband.com ) out of fear he wouldn’t be able fill them ahead of the February 2021 launch.
Meanwhile, New Rochelle’s Peter Cantone, founder and CEO of Pandemic Solutions (pandemicsolutions.net ), likewise sees a “huge market” for his company, which consults on and distributes products in a “comprehensive approach” to pandemic safety. The company sells and trains clients in using such pandemic technologies as large-area disinfectant sprayers, air purifiers, and health screeners.
With a background in business and sales in industries ranging from truck accessories to spray-foam insulation, Cantone’s spent his career being ahead of trends like energy conservation. And last spring, when the pandemic hit, he saw a new need emerge. “Whenever there’s a crisis, there’s an opportunity,” he says.
His endeavor launched in May, when he teamed with a manufacturer of special-effects equipment for Disney and Broadway who was converting some of their spray equipment that is normally designed to make fogs, clouds, and snow into sprayers that dispense EPA-registered disenfectant. With funding from a relative (who maintains 25% ownership in the company), Cantone continued to invest in high-tech, effective, eco-friendly pandemic solutions. These include thyme-oil-based botanical disinfectant spray and advanced purifying technology that produces healthy ions indoors that inactivate bacteria and viruses such as the coronavirus.
“The focus was always ‘Let’s figure out what the best solutions are,’ because that’s where you build the most value,” Cantone says. The company assembled an advisory board of experts from fields such as healthcare, facilities management, and entertainment. With a small office in downtown New Rochelle and three full-time employees, Cantone plans to grow his company. By adding staff and acquiring office space in Midtown Manhattan, ideally, his company can expand into new markets, including P-12 schools and colleges, as well as the hard-hit industries of commercial real estate and performing arts.
A common theme for these pandemic entrepreneurs is an expectation that their businesses will be part of a new normal. Robinson predicts an increased emphasis on PPE moving forward, on par with the focus on sexual health after the AIDS epidemic. “Masks are like the condoms of the face now,” she says. Anthony has a similar viewpoint, stating that while his sanitizer wristband is born out of the pandemic, it will likely have a place in the lives of gym rats, travelers, and young urbanites moving forward. And Cantone predicts that pandemic-prevention technology will become a mainstay in public places, and likely private homes, as the world continues to grapple with this “psychological crisis” and the possibility of future virus outbreaks.
“Most of the time, we remember things when we’re really happy or really scared or sad. In between, we kind of forget a lot,” Cantone says. “But when your emotions are moved, you tend to remember those things. And so what we have right now is more than a year’s worth of memories that we will never forget.”