Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, small businesses have struggled to stay afloat. Because of this, Rashu Jain, a business honors, finance and math junior, and Niti Malwade, a business honors and computer science junior, came up with a way to help and to give back to local business owners — through storytelling.
Inspired by the popular photoblog Humans of New York, where residents share their personal stories, Jain and Malwade started Stories of Austin — a storytelling platform on Instagram and Facebook that highlights the stories of small-business owners. Their goal was to focus on the passion and resilience displayed by local owners rather than on products and services.
“We thought this would be a great way for the Austin community to feel connected to the small-business community and then hopefully go and support them,” Malwade said.
The pair spent the summer reaching out to over 30 business owners and conducting interviews over Zoom, growing more inspired by each story they heard. As they posted photos and stories to the Stories of Austin social media accounts, they began receiving an abundance of positive feedback from friends and followers alike.
“It’s happened a few times where people message us saying: ‘Oh, I read your story. I’m going to go to this restaurant. What do you recommend?’,” Malwade said. “Or they’ll say, ‘I didn’t even know this store existed,’ or ‘I had no idea this business had such a cool story.’ So just hearing these anecdotal testaments has been really touching to hear.”
In the fall, Jain and Malwade expanded on their idea while taking the Women in Entrepreneurship course through the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute. In the class, they formed a five-person team and spent the semester conducting research and establishing plans for their business, including a revenue model. The course, co-taught by professors of practice and entrepreneurs Jan Ryan and Kendra Scott, provides hands-on, tangible tools to equip and empower female entrepreneurs. During the course, the team was given the opportunity to pitch their idea to the Kendra Scott executive team and members of the greater Austin entrepreneurial community. They say the assistance, feedback and mentorship provided through this course have been pivotal and monumental to the growth of their startup.
Other organizations that have made a significant impact on their entrepreneurial journey are Genesis, a student-alumni partnership that provides student startups with equity-free funding to pursue their ventures, and the Social Entrepreneurship Learning Lab (SELL) Fellowship program, which assists UT undergraduate students in building social impact-focused organizations.
The pair cites the UT community as one of the biggest inspirations on their entrepreneurial journey thus far. “Just being surrounded by a lot of people that are extremely motivated, hardworking and generous with their time and their advice has also been very helpful,” Malwade said. “Having peers that we can bounce ideas off of and get help from has been really great.”
Brainstorming ideas on how their platform can benefit the Austin community is something Jain and Malwade are consistently doing, and they were able to put some of those ideas into practice during the recent “Winter Storm Uri.” When students in West Campus were left without electricity due to citywide outages, the pair reached out to their small-business connections, sponsors and growing social media following to fund 632 meals for UT students in need, in collaboration with the SELL Fellowship program.
To Jain, this passion project turned business venture is more than just a business; it’s personal. “I’m from a town where it’s very franchised, and there’s not a lot of local things. The small-business culture is what I really love about Austin and a reason why I’d like to stay here in the future as well,” she said.
Malwade, an Austin native, says that for her, getting to learn the backstories of small businesses that she has frequented her entire life has been eye-opening and rewarding. “A trend that I’ve picked up on is how hard it really is to be a small-business owner and an entrepreneur,” she said. “As an owner, you have to take care of everything, including finances, marketing, social media, sales and more. I didn’t think about that before we started doing these interviews. It’s been really humbling to hear stories about the amount of hard work it takes.”
So what are their hopes for the future of Stories of Austin? “For both of us, the ideal future would consist of people walking by a business and checking the story on our platform,” Jain said. “We want Stories of Austin to become a household name and give people the chance to really connect with the local community because of the power of storytelling.”