Back-to-school shopping season is crucial for this small business


When the pandemic forced schools to close and learn to move online last year, it brought a lot of changes to those in the school supply industry. Nneka Brown, founder and CEO of Innovative Supplies Worldwide, which makes art notebooks, saw sales drop 60% as a result.

“A lot of teachers didn’t hand out homework in person, so a lot of parents didn’t buy school supplies and let kids do everything with laptops,” she said in an interview with David Brancaccio of Marketplace. .

Brown said sales are starting to pick up as families prepare to return to class this fall, but it’s not quite where it used to be.

“I see a pickup. But I also see that many students, parents and teachers are still hesitant to go digital. [world] absolutely, ”she told Brancaccio.

Army veteran Nneka Brown of Innovative Supplies Worldwide hopes families invest in school supplies this fall. (Courtesy of Nneka Brown)

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: When the pandemic hit and schools got far away, I can’t imagine it was good for your business, selling paper notebooks. What happened to you?

Nneka Brown: It was not good at all. A lot of teachers didn’t hand out homework in person, so a lot of parents didn’t buy school supplies and let kids do everything with laptops – which, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily the best way to go. proceed, because now children are not getting the correct levels of writing experience that they should be getting. And it almost seems like it’s become a dinosaur method of writing things down on paper.

Brancaccio: Is not it? When you got out of the service and considered going into different businesses, you would have thought that one sure thing is that every August people have to buy paper notebooks for school. And yet we are living in strange times.

Brown: Absoutely. It was one of the first things that I think solidified my career choice. I knew that every August was going to be my year to shine and carry it over to the next year. But now, as everything goes digital, it seems like I’ve had to fight to keep the tradition alive.

Brancaccio: Now the students are going back this time around. Do you see a pickup?

Brown: I see a pickup. But I also see that many students, parents and teachers are still hesitant to go digital. [world] absolutely. So that’s where I come in and plead for there to always be a note-taking presence as well as a digital presence.

Brancaccio: So how do you do this? Do you go through the teachers or through the families?

Brown: I feel like I just need to get my point across on our social media platforms. And then also, like you said, talking to students and talking to teachers and parents. So go to some of the parent teacher organization meetings and just advocate and let them know that it is a beneficial aspect for students to record their cognitive thoughts on paper.

Brancaccio: You mentioned your military service – you spent nine years in the military?

Brown: Yes, as a human resources specialist. And then the last three years of those nine years, I served in the 82nd Airborne Division jumping from planes.

Brancaccio: And you came out with a handicap.

Brown: Yes, I have suffered several head injuries which forced me to quit the military earlier. I had executive functions affected by concussions, problems with working memory, and sensitivity to sound and light. So being in a booth all day with fluorescent lights was no longer for me.

Brancaccio: How do you feel now?

Brown: Now I feel better because I can take the breaks I need. And so I listen to my body. I listen to my brain. When I know I have to shut down for a few hours and rest or step away from the computer screen, I absolutely do and I don’t feel any guilt behind it.

Brancaccio: Ms. Brown, what do you need most right now as a business owner?

Brown: What I need most right now are quality connections. I don’t feel that as a military veteran my voice has much influence in the community. As a single mom, I feel like a lot of people in the community look at me like they don’t think single moms should be entrepreneurs. And also the financing. I have been fundraising for my business for five years and have only raised $ 3,000. And to be a manufacturer, you need over $ 3,000 to get a head start in this America right now.

Brancaccio: I know your focus on the Louisiana area, but can you take business elsewhere?

Brown: Yes, our business is online. And one of the most important things I do is work with artists all over the world and showcase their art on the covers of these notebooks giving them a portion of the profits. And so not only do I sell to clients all over the world, but I work with artists all over the world.

Brancaccio: Because when you get these notebooks, they are quite striking.

Brown: Absolutely, and it’s amazing to see anything other than a soccer ball or a dog or a cat that we still traditionally see inside stores today.

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