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College students used Instagram to sell face masks and other products during the pandemic

Youth unemployment skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting some entrepreneurial college students to turn to side hustles to make ends meet.

Unemployment for young people (in the 16-24 age range) hit a high of 27.4% in April 2020 — that’s nearly 1 in 3 who were unemployed.

Meanwhile, Etsy reported that the number of sellers on its platform nearly doubled to 4.4 million by the end of 2020. They don’t break it down by age group, but Etsy reports the average age of its sellers is normally 39 but last year when creators started selling goods during the pandemic, the average age dropped to 33. That says a lot of young people were turning to Etsy for a source of income. 

Face masks, sanitizing kits, homemade household items, care packages and even virtual hugs were some side business students created in the pandemic. They sold them on e-commerce sites like Etsy but also directly on social media platforms like Instagram.

Instagram says 90% of its users follow a business. And, 50% of users surveyed by Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) said they are more interested in a brand when they see ads for it on Instagram.

Madison Klimchak, a senior at the University of South Carolina, started “Masked by Madison,” selling face masks during the pandemic.

Source: Madison Klimchak

Madison Klimchak, a 20-year-old rising senior at the University of South Carolina majoring in finance and risk management and insurance, sold personalized reusable masks to sororities and other organizations. She promoted them on Instagram and her typical order was 150 to 400 masks at the height of the pandemic in March. She sold them for about $10 each and a portion of the proceeds was donated to the Emotional PPE Project, which connects health-care workers with mental-health services. 

Klimchak said she chose Instagram because she already had a following and it was easier to promote on her personal accounts.

When business started to slow down as mask mandates eased up, college entrepreneurs like Klimchak had a decision to make: Do you pivot to another type of business or shut it down? Ultimately, she decided to close up shop and focus on her career and obtaining her Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).

“I will think about going back, but for now I will focus on studying for my GRE,” Klimchak said. She noted that experience helped her understand the business world and gain skills for her future.

More from College Voices:
Generation Hustle: Young entrepreneurs got creative during the pandemic
How college students are turning hobbies into side hustles — and extra cash
How I started my own successful YouTube channel reviewing tech products

Jacqueline Cabrera, a 23-year-old former student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, also sold masks during the pandemic. She sold them in uptown Manhattan, both through her personal Instagram account and the one she used to showcase her fashion design portfolio. 

Cabrera said she chose Instagram because she already had a following.

“I already had an Instagram page/website for my fashion design portfolio where I occasionally showcased some of my work, so this is where I began selling my face masks,” Cabrera said. “I also promoted it on my personal Instagram, where I had more of a following so that definitely helped to draw more attention to my business.”

Cabrera’s business lasted a successful 8 months and was able to take in $2,000 to to $3,000 in sales. But, as the number of mask sellers rose and sales waned, she ultimately decided to pivot back to her career in fashion design.

Jacqueline Cabrera, a recent graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology, sold face masks during the pandemic using her skill in fashion design.

Source: Jacqueline Cabrera

“The market for them became very saturated over the pandemic once it went from no one selling them to everyone selling them,” Cabrera said.

“The fashion industry is where I aspired to grow as a professional, so I thought to myself: Why not put my skills to use and follow the example of the industry I wanted to be in?” Cabrera explained. “I was able to land my first full-time position in the fashion industry as an assistant designer.”

Cabrera said she has certainly thought of going back to her business one day, with a focus on apparel or accessories.

For other college students who already had side hustles when Covid hit, like 22-year-old Grace Williams, the pandemic actually forced a pivot.

Williams graduated from Farmingdale State College with a bachelor’s in business management amid the pandemic in 2020. She had created a slime business freshman year of college – several years before the pandemic. She advertised on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, which allowed her to connect with followers and grow relationships. She also attended slime conventions in person across the U.S, selling in-person to thousands of ticket holders.

Grace Williams, a recent graduate of Farmingdale State College, started a successful slime business but shifted to Tik Tok video content during the pandemic.

Source: Grace Williams

“It was great that my product was handmade as costs were low and I was in control. But it had its downside once the pandemic hit and everyone was nervous about germs,” she said.

Sales started to fall.

So, Williams pivoted: She started making content on TikTok and looked for brands who were looking to promote their products. There were a lot of benefits to this move: She no longer had to create physical products and manage inventory, and she could work remotely from anywhere. 

“This is when I completely turned my hands-on business to hands-off, relying on technology and creating content from my phone,” she said.

 “I have always had a passion for creating content and making others smile through my videos,” Williams said. “This allows me to work remotely from anywhere in the world and influence others in a positive way.”

Starting a business when the economy is suffering could be far from easy, but these young entrepreneurs reflected upon their experience and have advice for college students who may be thinking about launching a side hustle.

“Plan and learn how to manage your time,” Cabrera said. “I would recommend having inventory instead of ‘made to order’ products.”

Klimchak says don’t be afraid of failure.

“Create a plan and implement it with being open to new ideas and innovations, and watch it transform into something you never imagined was possible,” Klimchak said.

CNBC’s “College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Jessica Coacci is a student at Stony Brook University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is an intern on CNBC’s breaking news desk. Her mentor is Cat Clifford. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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