So what if businesses are closing across the country and the unemployment is still above normal? Now is the time to start or invest in a business.

Sounds incredibly risky, doesn’t it?

Not at all, entrepreneurs say. Americans are starting more businesses than ever during this era of COVID-19. Innovation is happening in Acadiana and elsewhere for lots of reasons, mostly out of sheer survival by people who might have lost a job, had their hours cut or simply see an opportunity. 

Americans are starting a business at the fastest rate in more than a decade, the Wall Street Journal reported. The U.S. Census Bureau reports more than 3.2 million applications for employment identification numbers have been filed already this year, surpassing the 2.7 million at this point in 2019.

In Acadiana, the number of people seeking to register a limited liability company has risen since April, said Heidi Melancon, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

It's also meant a flood of business ideas, like the displaced oil and gas industry worker who was interested in starting a plate lunch business, she said. 

Sure the economy is still in recovery, but it’s turning more people into entrepreneurs and just plain hustlers.

“You have to be,” Melancon said. “Think about it. I don’t like to look at disasters as opportunities because it’s people’s misery, but people are starting roofing companies or debris cleanup companies. This is the time. Or tree removal. Lots of opportunities can be had right now because, hey, there’s a need.”

Here are four stories people in Acadiana who are finding business opportunities and trying to capitalize on them.

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Kelsey Sanders plates chicken alfredo, one of the many dishes she prepares in her kitchen for her business Eat Fuel Fleurish, Tuesday, October 13, 2020, at her home in Carencro, La.

Kelsey Sanders, Eat Fuel Fleurish

Kelsey Sanders put this down on her Vision 2020 board back in December: Start a meal prep service.

If only it was that easy.

But you have to start somewhere, she thought. That was when she was commuting to her job with Sprint in Lake Charles as a phone technician. So her first step was to establish the business, Eat Fuel Fleurish, and she started with only four regular clients each week.

But then COVID-19 hit.

Her hours with Sprint were reduced. When she was working, it wasn’t even a full shift. So she started cooking lunches on Fridays, her day off. Once restaurants had to close their dining areas, things really started happening. In March, she made 100 meals, but that blossomed into 100 meals in one weekend in April.

But the job hits kept coming. T-Mobile bought Sprint during the summer, and she was offered a sales rep position, which, she admitted, "I had absolutely no desire in doing.”

Sanders left that job Aug. 8. She’s been working her meal prep business full time since.

“I think COVID hitting was a blessing for me,” Sanders said. “The reason I didn’t start my business sooner was I always had things planned. Traveling is what I like to do, but that was also taking time away from me to devote to my business. Having things shut down forced me to work on my business plans.”

Sanders, also working toward a MBA at UL, does the cooking in her Carencro home. She sells health-conscious meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner, including air fryer chicken and waffles, shrimp tacos, turkey meatloaf and burrito bowls.

The menu items, you should know, are personal. Her father, who was diabetic with poor eating habits, died during her senior year in high school. She wants her menu to prevent someone from a similar fate.

“For me, honestly, I watched him kill himself,” she said. “He didn’t have the proper guidance. I just wish somebody was there to help him. I just want to be that person that helps somebody know they can change their life and not go down that path.”

What's next? A commercial kitchen, for starters. She may need to hire an employee or two soon.

Oh, and she graduates Dec. 9.

“Taking on this project was already a challenge,” Sanders said. “I’ve learned so much stuff. I’m constantly learning how to be more efficient in my business. My goal is to have a distribution center. That’s where I want to take this business.”


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Mitzi Guidry, owner of Lilou, is pictured Wednesday, October 14, 2020, at her new coffee and thrift shop in downtown Lafayette, La.

Mitzi Guidry, Lilou concept thrift store

You might be looking at the whole pandemic wrong. The quarantine, says Mitzi Guidry, was a chance for lots of people to re-evaluate things.

“I kind of joke and say people have kind of come out swinging,” she said. “At least entrepreneurs.”

That’s her story, anyway. The Louisiana native who spent years working in the fashion industry in Los Angeles over time became concerned about the industry’s effect on the environment. There’s lots of waste and carbon emission in the fast fashion industry, she noted.

It was her last corporate job at Wrangler when she discovered the incredible sustainability of leather. Leather, she noted, is the only byproduct that is also a renewable source. Products made with leather are made to last forever.

Her entrepreneurial spirit first kicked in when things went bad during the 2009 recession. Wrangler closed the plant in Los Angeles and put about 400 people out of work. But Guidry and others who worked there pooled their resources — they came out swinging, you might say — and bought some of the equipment to start Los Angeles Leathercraft, where she is head of leather goods development.

And as the business grew and younger workers came on board, she picked up on something.

“I started having these conversations with them a few years back and became fascinated with their genuine interest in the environment, climate change and how that was affecting their buying habits,” Guidry said. “I just started to dig deeper into that and discovered that the second-hand fashion market was growing at a rate like 21 times faster than traditional retailers in the last three years. I thought that was very interesting.”

Guidry moved back to Louisiana last year after almost 20 years in Los Angeles but still holds her position with Los Angeles Leathercraft. In June she signed a lease for a small spot in downtown Lafayette at 535 Jefferson St. to open Lilou, a concept thrift shop.

It’s a shoebox of a space, just 14 feet wide and 55 feet deep, but it works. She can be creative as an entrepreneur and maybe catch a trend of second-hand clothing or just catering to anyone who is looking to save money on clothing.

“In times like this everybody is just trying to be more mindful about spending and just making their dollar stretch a little bit more than ever before,” Guidry said. “The environmental piece of (thrifting) is always something to consider. In terms of where money might be a little tight, I think thrifted clothing is an awesome option.”


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Lottie Francis with Malmak Domestic and Commercial Services poses with a electrostatic machine to offer deep cleaning for clients on Saturday, October 17, 2020 in Carencro, LA.

Lottie Francis, Malmak Cleaning Service

Lottie Francis’ cleaning business, Malmak Cleaning Service, is her side hustle while she does billing work at Azar Eye Clinic. But business at Malmak, like so many others, has slowed some since the pandemic hit.

So she’s trying to fight back and find more opportunities. One solution? Take a chance and invest in an electrostatic machine and offer a deep clean, or a COVID clean, to sanitize and disinfect offices. It’s a machine that you wear on your back, and she’s hoping the $350 purchase can lead to more opportunities and more revenue.

“I saw it as an opportunity to increase clientele,” Francis said. “I started seeing on Facebook that some companies were doing it. Then I had another friend of mine. He was into flooring. He had the machine. He gave me some pointers on what to do, and that’s when I ordered the machine.”

If she can hustle up more clients through the investment, it won’t be the first time. She launched Malmak — named for her children, Malika and Makiya — after she got laid off following her move back to Lafayette from Houston in 2012. A friend who had a car detailing business knew how serious she was about keeping a clean house and connected her with a client who lost a housekeeper.

She found more houses to clean and then offices. A side hustle was born.

“I’ve been doing this for so long,” Francis said. “It’s a relationship instead of just a cleaning. My people are older. They’re real sociable. I go shopping, and we do stuff. It’s a little more than just cleaning the house.”

Francis also recently consulted with Corey Jack with Jack & Associates, who then connected her with marketing students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who will do marketing work for her as part of a school project.

She had three employees but had to let one go after she lost an office client. But she’s hoping the investment can lead to three more office customers.

“The plan is to grow the cleaning service," she said. "I’m going to have the crew and I’ll be there monitoring and supervising and go in when needed. The plan is to not be doing a whole lot of cleaning myself.”


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Brock Thibodeaux, the founder, president and CEO of Regal.Tech, talks about the Google AI-powered mapping technology he deveoped to track and predict Covid-19 outbreaks Monday, October 12, 2020, at the Opportunity Machine offices in Lafayette, La.

Brock Thibodeaux, Regal.tech

Brock Thibodeaux was the 48th person in the country to test positive for the coronavirus.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate was living in the Seattle area having just begun working for Microsoft when the first cases were reported in the United States there. He lived near the Life Care Center nursing home, which became the first hotspot for the virus with at one point 81 of the 120 residents testing positive, leading to 31 deaths.

He recalled a walk to Walgreens when the dry cough began — “It felt like eating a bunch of Pringles with no water in your body” — before other symptoms followed. He went to the emergency room, got tested and sent home to recover before getting the call that he tested positive.

“Two weeks on the couch and my temperature averaged 102, 104, 103,” Thibodeaux said. “February 28 was when I literally thought I was going to die. I woke up and I couldn’t breathe. I had been hallucinating because my fever was so high. I’m having really, really vivid hallucinatory bad dreams. It was bad.”

It was that time at home and watching the virus spread around the country, including in New Orleans after Mardi Gras, and the responses to the virus that Thibodeaux, a former U.S. Army Ranger, decided he had to do something to help.

Thibodeaux, who earned a graduate certificate in cybersecurity from Harvard University’s extension school, eventually landed $25 million in venture capital funding for his technology startup company that gathers hospital data and other data and can follow where cases are, where the hot spots are and predicts where the next outbreak is going to happen.

His startup, Regal.tech, has five employees and is currently housed at the Opportunity Machine.

“It’s basically a huge decision-maker,” he said. “You punch in a bunch of information at once. If you had COVID right now and went into the ER, you live down the street, you’re going to walk your dog every day maybe. Or this is the area you’ve been in the past week. Or let’s say your mom lives in Abbeville. Let’s say all the hospitals are owned by the same company.

“We look at patterns at that ER, put that all in a big decision maker, and once it punches out information, it builds algorithms. And over time, it says, OK, this is what could happen.”

But right now his technology is looking for a home. Thibodeaux says the technology can be used in the oil and gas sector in finding where to drill next.

“We’re going to get there, man, but the whole idea was to start right here,” he said. “I wanted to be in Lafayette. It’s going to take time. We’ve got solutions. Once we get it started, it’s going to be nice.”

Acadiana Business Today: Why these Acadiana entrepreneurs are starting or investing in new businesses amid coronavirus


Email Adam Daigle at adaigle@theadvocate.com.