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Dayton small-business owners in conversation with each other, sharing their experiences, hopes and fears about running a small business during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bouncing Back: Now And Zen DIY Studio

Paula Willis and Alleah Cooks
courtesy of Paula Willis and Alleah Cooks
Mother daughter team Paula Willis and Alleah Cooks run Now and Zen DIY Studio.

In this installment of Bouncing Back – Dayton Small Businesses Survive the Pandemic, we meet a mother daughter team named Paula Willis and Alleah Cooks. Their business revolves around their love of plants and they specialize in terrariums –works of art made with living plants. Before the pandemic, they hosted make your own terrarium workshops and parties and when that was no longer possible, the sales of their do it yourself home terrarium DIY kits took off.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Alleah Cooks: A lot of people had time to slow down and to share something creative with someone else, and so they'd buy it as a gift and give it to your child or give it to your grandchild or give it to a friend that's far away that you can't see, it's a way to reach out and it's a way to give them something, an activity or something to do.

Paula Willis: We can't wait to get back to it. Our customers ask us all the time. We get requests online. People come in and say, when can we come in again? When will you do workshops? Can we just have a private workshop? It's only going to be five or six people. And we have respectfully said, not yet.

Alleah Cooks: I can't wait till we return back to normalcy, return back to getting to see our customers create because they take our DIY kits home, and we used to see that process, seeing someone be unsure about themselves while they're creating and see that grow and see them being satisfied with their end result and being proud of it. And we used to be able to see that whole process with the workshops in our studio. And so I'm ready to get back to that.

Paula Willis: You know, when we had to adapt, we leaned into that.

Alleah Cooks: I don't even know if we even talked about it. We were like we had to go to DIY kits and we both knew. Right?

Paula Willis: Right. That is kind of how it happened, yes. We're pretty good at being nimble.

Alleah Cooks: We were able to revamp the website to reflect the change in our business plan to the DIY kits from the workshops and started selling those online. And that coupled with Downtown Dayton Partnership offering curbside pickup areas for small businesses. So we were able to rely just on our e-commerce business. So my mom didn't have to be exposed in any sort of way. We feel very lucky. The reason why I wanted to work with my mother is she's been an entrepreneur all her life.

Paula Willis: I have been a serial entrepreneur. I have never wanted to work for anyone else, though I did for a little while. But most of my life I've been self-employed. Then at some point shortly thereafter, we started this business. So Alleah has seen it all, been through it all. She's seen the good times, the bad times, but she also has seen how resilience and hard work has paid off for our family.

Alleah Cooks: I want it to be carried on, the tradition of entrepreneurship and creative spirit. Partnerships in themselves are not easy all the time, and especially when you have a dynamic like a mother-daughter, father-son, or, you know. I think it's it's hard to transition into a partnership when my mom views me as her child. You know, she sees me as a kid, you know, and I'm thirty something years old. But I think my mom is very aware of that. And I'm in this with my mom, and her health and safety is of the utmost importance to me.

Zen DIY Studio was able to restart their in-person workshops on March 19, 2021.

Bouncing Back was produced by Jess Mador, at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO, in collaboration with Audrey Ingram at Launch Dayton, a network supporting entrepreneurs across the Dayton region.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding America initiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.