Holiday Shopping Season: Young Entrepreneurs are Optimizing Their Business with STEM

Women and Non-Binary Owned Small Businesses on the Rise

Atziri Pena (pictured middle) founded Barrio Drive with their sister Yaya Pena (bottom right) as a way to tell their story and uplift the immigrant community. They are pictured here with their parents and uncle.

It’s official: holiday shopping season has begun and young entrepreneurs are digging into their STEM skills to keep businesses successful. While millions of consumers across the U.S. will take advantage of deals from nationwide companies, the holiday shopping season is especially important for young women and non-binary-owned businesses, which are on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic hit, women have consistently founded half of new U.S. businesses every year. Prior to the pandemic, an average of only 29% of new small businesses annually were piloted by women.

Another significant change to the makeup of small business owners is the increase in visibility of young entrepreneurs. As of 2019, only 6% of small business owners were under the age of 34. While this percentage hasn’t changed much, the pandemic highlighted what’s possible with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. The shift to remote work also spotlighted the importance of STEM-related tools to grow small businesses, like social media, which owners have taken full advantage of to increase their brand awareness.

Representing the Immigrant Community Through Small Business Ownership

25-year old Atziri Pena, also known as Jacks, started their company Barrio Drive with their sister Yaya Pena in 2017. As an undocumented and Latinx-owned business, Barrio Drive aimed to represent and uplift the immigrant community. “We saw that there was a lack of representation in the undocumented immigrant community,” they share.

Barrio Drive Collection at the Holidays
Barrio Drive Collection at the Holidays

“Growing up, a lot of what I heard from my teachers and counselors was that there wasn’t really a future for me because of my status,” Pena recalls. “For me, starting a brand that represents the immigrant community…is a way to show people that there [are] other careers that we can go into without having to always become that future lawyer [or] doctor that everybody wants us to be so that we can show…that we are worth having here.”

When it comes to the worth of small businesses from the standpoint of economic growth, there’s no question about the impact on creating jobs and growing the economy. Women-owned small businesses alone provide over 10 million jobs to people across the U.S.

Barrio Drive creates t-shirts, dresses, posters, and other accessories, many of which involve advocating for immigrant rights and uplifting immigrant experiences.

While Barrio Drive has been a creative outlet and a way to make income, it hasn’t come without challenges. Pena, who uses the pronouns they/them, shares that sometimes, they have to bring their dad to make sure they don’t get overcharged for materials. “It’s a man-run industry,” Pena tells Built By Girls. “Sometimes when we go buy our blends, we have to take our dad so that they don’t try to overcharge us and so they can take us seriously as customers.” Pena adds that when they go with their sister, they wait longer than when a male figure is present.

Despite the challenges, Pena is grateful to be able to use their business to represent immigrant communities. “We were able to go on Univision, which is the main news channel for Latinos,” they said. Because Barrio Drive is a social first brand, being on TV was a way to reach an expanded audience and show their success in a way that older family members could understand. “Being able to be on something that my parents could relate to and see…was really huge for us.”

“Art with a Scientific Touch:” Creating Handmade Jewelry Through a STEM Lens

Kiki Rodriguez has always been fascinated by crystals. One year ago, she decided to put all of her energy into creating jewelry, her best-selling product from her previous business. Now 21 years old, Rodriguez’s business, Ruby and Zen, has over 200 handmade designs available to shop from. She’s grown a social media following of more than 50,000 people, all while using STEM as the foundation to create her product.

Rodriguez uses crystals in her jewelry, which are naturally created by atoms coming together. This scientific process determines each crystal’s shape, size, and appearance. “I like to sell crystal jewelry because I love [its] properties,” Rodriguez explains. “It’s like creating a beautiful piece of art with a scientific touch.”

Rodriguez is fascinated by the variety of characteristics among gemstones and believes they make for a dynamic and beautiful piece of jewelry. “I feel like everyone should feel their absolute best when they put on a piece of jewelry.”

Thinking back on her small business journey, one of Rodriguez’s most memorable moments was doing a ribbon cutting ceremony with family and friends to celebrate Ruby and Zen’s opening day. “I had a bunch of support from customers from my previous business and it was just such a memorable and awesome day I will never forget,” she tells Built By Girls.

As a young entrepreneur, Rodriguez explained that it can be challenging to establish work-life balance, since running a small business can be all-consuming. However, she also feels that her youth, passion, and enthusiasm are what equips her to run a business. “Because I'm young, I have a lot of energy…and [I can] pour all of that energy into my business.”

Science and Social Media in Small Businesses

STEM plays a big role in business growth for young business owners. At Ruby and Zen, Rodriguez has used social media and technology to connect with a wider audience than she’s able to reach offline. “The most beautiful part about social media is that I can make a post from here in America and it can reach someone all the way [in] Australia. I get orders from all around the world and I have only social media to thank for that.”

Meanwhile, Pena details how they use behavioral science to best cater their website design to customers. “You have to think about the behavioral science of your customers,” they explain, while discussing how STEM shows up in their business.

Pena is referring to research-based practices that can be used in website design to get visitors to buy more products and spend more time on the site, such as minimizing the complexity of navigation and displaying popular colors near the top of the page. At Barrio Drive, they use behavioral science in their design to encourage customers to spend more, to get free shipping.

“We have a free shipping banner and every time somebody adds stuff to their cart the banner tells you how much money you have left to get to that 100 [dollars] to get that free shipping,” Pena illustrates. They explain that this tactic makes it easy for customers to see the product value of their carts and gets them excited about spending more to get the free shipping perk. “We see that as something super little but it plays a huge role [in the effectiveness of our shop].”

The Potential of Young Entrepreneurs

The average age of small business owners is still over the age of 50, with millennials and Gen Z combined representing only 8% of U.S. small business owners as of 2023. However, young entrepreneurs are making a name for themselves in the small business space, taking an approach that centers on new technology and digital tools to build their business. By understanding how to use modern tools to their fullest, young women and non-binary people in STEM are growing their businesses faster and more efficiently than many small businesses have in the past.

The best part of small business ownership is that in theory, anyone can do it. It takes hard work, organizational skills, and great time management, but small businesses give creatives like Pena and Rodriguez a way to monetize hobbies and take control of their careers.

Looking back on their experiences, there are some things Pena and Rodriguez wish they would have known starting out. However, neither would go back and change a thing - skills and knowledge can be learned, passion can not.

“I wish I learned to dream bigger as we started. I think we were very cautious of everything we were doing and sometimes there were products that I wished I launched and didn’t wait [to] launch,” Pena said about their experience starting in small business ownership. “I think that’s great advice for people, to just do it and dream bigger…it’s important to really bet on yourself.”

Though Rodriguez wishes she had spent more time learning about the finance side of running a business, she emphasizes that determination is the most important thing for young entrepreneurs. “If this is truly your passion, please do not give up,” she asserts.

Rodriguez recognizes the challenges of small business ownership as much as anyone but she encourages entrepreneurs to overcome them by leaning into their courage and passion for their work. “There are no working hours for people who are extraordinary.”

Hailey Dickinson (she/her) is a freelance writer for Built By Girls and has been writing for the publication since January 2023. She is a creator passionate about using writing and digital platforms to build community, make connections, and ignite positive social change. Outside of Built By Girls, she manages communications for organizations in the food education and community organizing sectors. She is a Communications Major at the University of Minnesota and will graduate in December 2023.