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Founding A Business At 19: How COVID Called Me to Action

by Rana Elling

Starting a business when you're 19 is an achievement in itself. Starting one at 19 in the middle of a pandemic as a different challenge altogether. We spoke to Rana Elling, founder of swimwear brand BukawaSwim about what it was like to start an earth-conscious brand in a locked down world. 

I never envisioned starting a business at the age of 19 during a global pandemic. Who would? But doing just that was the start of a life I never knew I could achieve. 

At the beginning of March 2020, I was in Los Angeles studying at college. Almost before I knew it I found myself on one of the very last flights home before the entire world shut down.

After spending weeks indoors, my mother turned to me and said: ‘Ok Rana, what are you gonna do with your life now?’ 

I live in the moment — I had never thought that far ahead. I thought I would finish college and figure it out later. Until ‘later’ became now. 

Modelling BukawaSwim swimsuit

Finding My Passion Project

I began brainstorming and passion searching until I realised the answer was right under my nose the entire time. 

I grew up in the South of France in my parents’ hotel. A surreal, breathtaking place filled with nature and beauty, it is surrounded by sunshine, blue skies and crystal clear water. Living there meant spending a lot of time in a bikini and in the water — I even learnt how to swim before I could walk! 

Over the years, I collected (read: hoarded) way too many swimsuits, and was always in search of the perfect one. I realised that to find the perfect swimwear – and my new direction in life – I needed to stop searching and start making.

I knew I wanted to create something that paid homage to the amazing place I was lucky enough to grow up in. I found watercolour paintings of the hotel, and instantly knew that I wanted to include them in my first collection. 

BukawaSwim 1

I was also on the hunt for ways to make products that were confidence-boosting yet comfortable and sustainable. 

Growing up near the ocean, I have always been extremely eco-conscious, with a mum who would always reiterate how important it was to protect our earth and how small steps make big differences. 

Thus began the journey of BukawaSwim. 

Launching A Business In A Locked-Down World

Lockdown meant I had to start working on BukawaSwim from home and communicate with my colleagues over dreaded Zoom calls. 

We knew we wanted to use eco-conscious-materials and manufacturers, but since travel was impossible we had to trust in our suppliers and what they told us. Factory closures and delays in the postal services meant it took so long to receive samples — and when we did manage to get them, the costs were much higher than usual.

After months and months of sampling, we finally had what I believe to be the perfect collection and it was time to work on the marketing and create our first campaign shoot. 

Building An Inclusive Brand

I chose models that I thought fit the brand well. One of the most important things for me was to make sure we were body inclusive. I for sure lost my confidence post-COVID, and knew that other people in the world felt the same way. 

The pandemic changed everyone’s life in a split second and the experience made me realise and appreciate that the way you look is not what matters, what matters is how you feel in your skin. It was crucial to me to make sure BukawaSwim preached the message that ‘EVERY BODY IS A BIKINI BODY’.

It was extremely exciting to see our products come to life but the process was not easy. Travel restrictions were still in place and ticket fares were high. Only one member of our team was able to attend the shoot, and she had to take a suitcase filled with our products with her to ensure that nothing was broken or lost. 

Navigating Challenges

Our campaign shoot was all done in one 12-hour day, and consisted of real time FaceTimes and photos being sent back and forth for approval. Luckily, I have the best team and with everyone’s help, it all went smoothly. 

Once we got all of the photos and videos back, it was time to create the website and start building our audience. This has been one of the most difficult aspects, as so many new brands were created during COVID and people didn’t want to go on holiday and wear swimsuits - they just wanted their normal lives back. The question we kept asking ourselves is ‘How do we make sure we stand out?’ 

I’m very grateful that I have friends and family who helped spread the word, and we could see a growth in our following and interactions online. 

Prioritising Gratitude

Overall, launching BukawaSwim should have taken around 2/3 months. Because of the pandemic, it took us almost 2 years to launch. 

COVID was a horrible time, and there were points where I thought we’d never see a normal future again. But without it, and the way it forced me to change direction, there would be no BukawaSwim.

As a team, we learnt a lot of lessons trying to launch a business during the pandemic and the experience has actually allowed us to be quicker and more efficient now. We also have the ability to work from anywhere in the world as we are used to online meetings and doing everything via our phones and computers. 

Looking Forward

If a 19 year old me knew that I would be a founder of a beautiful eco-friendly swimwear and lifestyle brand, I would be in shock. I never knew I had it in me until I was put in a situation where I had no choice but to take leadership and get on with it. 

It is not a journey I expected to be on, but I am so grateful that I get to continue building the brand and am so appreciative of everything I have learnt so far. 

I can’t wait to watch BukawaSwim grow and I hope you will join us and follow along!