Life had stalled La Kesha Wash's dream of working in interior design.
More than a decade later, she decided to give it a go — amid a global pandemic that was hammering the economy and shutting businesses.
"I was like OK, you're not getting any younger, so this is the time," said Wash, who quit her job as an Alameda city employee to focus on starting her business, Meticulous Designs.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected women, with significant numbers laid off, leaving their jobs or reducing work hours to care for children being schooled at home or other family members.
It had another effect too: Women, especially those who had never before started a business, took up entrepreneurship, spurring a wave of first-time business ventures that experts say is a pandemic silver lining worth investing in.
For women who are the primary income earner in their household and whose jobs were affected by the pandemic, taking that leap was a financial necessity. For those who are part of dual-income households with a greater financial cushion, the pandemic gave them time to think about what they really wanted to do with their lives.
"The pandemic just created a little more space for people to pursue the things they've been thinking about or wanting to do," said Hayya Lee-McDonald, chief executive of Next Chapter Property Solutions and founder of the Women Small Business Owners Network group on LinkedIn.
Human resources platform firm Gusto found that 49% of people who started businesses during 2020 were women, up from 27% in recent years, according to a May survey of about 1,500 business owners who used Gusto's software.
The most recent census data on female business owners nationally dates to 2018 so it's difficult to quantify the trend, but many women who run entrepreneurship groups on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook have reported scores of new members, many of whom are first-time business owners.
The Women Business Owners Supporting Women Business Owners group on Facebook had about 1,000 members in November 2019; by August 2020, there were 15,000; and today, there are about 21,000, said Amber Powers, the group's founder and president of Powers Digital Marketing.
New female entrepreneurs have gravitated toward coaching, virtual assistant and e-commerce businesses, particularly as remote work and virtual conferencing software became the norm, according to founders of women's business groups on social media.
The pandemic's emphasis on virtual connections helped Jessica Bruny and her mindfulness coaching business, JessBeU, reach people when and where they were. "This virtual presence has also opened a plethora of doors for people to connect," she said. "It's like no other."
A March survey conducted by Gusto and the National Association of Women Business Owners found that of the women who started new businesses during the pandemic, nearly half were women of color. They were more than twice as likely as white women to say that they started their businesses because they were laid off or worried about their financial situation.
"This is a very inspiring trend of women of color turning obstacles into opportunities and creating new businesses, but ... we have to find ways to support these new business owners," said Luke Pardue, an economist who wrote the survey report.
Spurred by the setback women have faced in the workplace during the pandemic, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Brit Morin started Selfmade, a 10-week online entrepreneurship seminar for women. Since June 2020, nearly 2,000 women ages about 20 to 70 have gone through the program.
Esmeralda Jimenez went part time at her property administrator job to focus on her Mexican pastries and bread business, Clementina's Sweets. She started it in late 2019 as a passion project for off-hours. After the recent deaths of family members and friends, she decided to take the leap.
"Life is not easy," she said. "Doing what you love, that's what makes life."