How a Local Artist’s Social Justice Advocacy Led to Global Brand Recognition

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February 11, 2021 | Jim Magats, SVP Omni Payments

The past year has been full of changes and challenges for small businesses, and many of these businesses have had to quickly find ways to adapt to the new retail landscape. At PayPal, we’re fortunate to work with more than 29 million businesses around the world, many of them small businesses, and I’ve been impressed by how adeptly these businesses have navigated these evolving challenges.

In honor of Black History Month, I’m spotlighting inspiring Black small business owners as part of my SMB Q&A series to hear how they’ve pivoted their business strategies, their advice for other entrepreneurs and their goals for 2021.

Nadia Loyd
Toronto-based artist Nadia Lloyd

For Toronto-based artist Nadia Lloyd, the events of the past year led to new growth and name recognition, even as art commissions ran dry and she was forced to cancel exhibits. Realizing she needed to quickly pivot, and wanting to create art that could help people during the pandemic, Nadia began to create masks with her signature designs of the Toronto skyline. A few months later, as protests and calls for equality and social justice broke out following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, Nadia, who is of Egyptian and Haitian descent, began to design masks in support of the Black community, with profits going to the local Black Lives Matter group. As a result of her hard work and commitment to giving back, her customer base has grown exponentially and now includes the Toronto mayor and members of the Toronto Raptors basketball team.

We recently caught up with Nadia to hear more about how her business is doing.

Jim Magats: Can you share a bit about how you started your business?

Nadia Lloyd: I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was six years old, when I started to sell handmade pencil cases to my classmates to make extra money. Before I became an artist full-time, I owned a successful gym. But I burned out and in 2010, I sold the gym took a sabbatical. A few months into my sabbatical, I came across an abstract painting that inspired me to start painting. Within six months, I was selling my art, within two years, I was printing my art on fabrics and by 2013, I was running large-scale art exhibits. Before I knew it, I was a full-fledged designer and artist with a collection of over 27 products featuring my art.

JM: How has the pandemic impacted or changed your business?

NL: With the onset of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, I saw everything dry up overnight. I received fewer commissions and I was forced to cancel the art shows I’d been planning. I panicked a little bit, but I didn’t want to let it take over.

At the time, there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). I had some fabric in the studio left over from making cushion covers, so I thought, “Why don’t I start making masks?” I shared the masks I created on social media and started receiving requests from healthcare workers who wanted to buy them. Once healthcare workers reached out, I knew I could do something useful, something that would make me feel helpful instead of helpless. I started by donating the masks, but then switched to selling them once I noticed how the production costs were adding up.

Social media has been an important part of my business strategy. In mid-May, I decided to start designing fabrics for the masks, starting with a Pride mask featuring the Toronto skyline. Within a week, I received a DM on Instagram from the Toronto mayor’s office asking for a Pride mask for the mayor. Today, the mayor and other city officials continue to wear the masks and even some clothes I’ve designed, and they tag me on social media. I was also able to connect with the Toronto Raptors basketball team on social media. I wanted to make an impact following the racial justice protests last summer, so I created a Black Lives Matter mask with the goal of giving the proceeds to the Toronto BLM group. After the Toronto Raptors players started to wear the masks, people from all over the world started contacting me to order masks.

JM: Can you share more about the impetus for your work to advocate for racial equality?

NL: I’m a biracial woman with Haitian and Egyptian ancestry, and the death of George Floyd hit me hard. It was horrific and never should have happened. It made me relieve some of my past experiences with racism. I have a young son who is also biracial, and I found myself having to explain racism to him in a way that would instill awareness, but not fear. We talked and decided to design a Black Lives Matter mask to help start conversations like ours, and we gave part of the proceeds to BLM Toronto. The mask is black, white and gray. This was important to me because as someone who is biracial, this captures who I am – because my mother is black and my father is white, so I see myself as gray, a combination of the two.

We wanted to reach as many people as possible, and we thought one of the best ways to do that was by partnering with the Toronto Raptors basketball team, who have been vocal advocates for BLM. We posted photos of the BLM mask on social media, asking if anyone had connections to the Raptors and within hours, I was contacted by Roberta Nurse, the wife of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. She said she loved what I was doing and refused my offer to donate the masks to the team. She said they wanted to buy them and support me, a Black female business owner. Coach Nurse and some of the players started wearing the masks to press conferences and to and from the stadium, mentioning me at every opportunity.

I’ve now sold masks across the world and I recently added ten new BLM designs to my collection, including T-shirts, leggings and sweatshirts. We continue to donate proceeds to BLM Toronto on a monthly basis.

JM: You’ve clearly adapted your business as the landscape has evolved over the last year. What lessons have you learned about operating a business as a result of the pandemic and how will you apply those learnings moving forward?

NL: We were all dealt unexpected cards in 2020, but it taught me the importance of creativity. You have to find ways to adapt, still be relevant and re-shape your business to meet the current needs of people so you can keep clients and acquire new ones. For 2021, “creativity” is the key word. Moving forward, I want to do more work that allows me to get important social messages out there and encourage people to engage in conversations. I’ve been receiving hundreds of DMs and emails from people telling me how my masks have given them a platform to speak out and stand for justice.

JM: How have you managed the growth in your business?

NL: The increase in business has led to a lot of paperwork. The last thing on earth I want to do is spend hours at my desk doing bookkeeping. I’m an artist, I don’t want to be doing accounting, I want to be creating. It’s important to have tools to help you do the administrative work like tracking how your money comes in, bookkeeping and sending invoices. I started using PayPal to help manage this and it’s been a lifesaver. Not only do my customers love paying through PayPal – about 55 percent of my clients pay this way – but frankly, I wouldn’t be able to run my business without it. PayPal alone saves me about 20 hours of administrative work a week and gives me an easy way to track how my money comes in, do my bookkeeping and send invoices. It’s not just about having the right team, but it’s about having technology to keep all of this sustainable in the long term.

JM: As an entrepreneur yourself, do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs or people looking to start their own business? 

NL: Have active social media accounts. A website alone is like having a car in the middle of the country, without highways and roads that drive people to your brick and mortar. What we now know is people buy emotionally – the more they feel connected to you and what you’re doing, the more they want to be part of your story. It’s that human, personal touch.

I also encourage other entrepreneurs to give back to their communities. Over the summer, I acquired a new fanbase, and I’ve used that to continue giving back. For instance, I recently started a GoFundMe page to raise money for a local foodbank. For every little bit you give back, the universe always pays you back tenfold.

We’ll be publishing another interview with an inspiring small business owner next month, so be sure to check back in. And feel free to leave a comment with your takeaways or questions about operating a small business.

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