With internships canceled and job offers rescinded, experts offer advice about how to launch your own business and create your own opportunities

By Wendy Grossman Kantor
June 01, 2020 10:00 AM
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Katie Sprague Photography

PEOPLE’s Real Tips for Real Life presents practical answers to some of the most commonly asked questions around finance, employment and preparing for the future — even when that future can seem very uncertain.

Taylor Graustein is the first to admit she had "high hopes" during her senior year at Wake Forest University — but when all her plans fell apart, the 21-year-old turned to a side hustle that became her saving grace.

“Everything happened at once,” says Graustein, who found her spring semester classes and an internship opportunity both canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. “It was just immediate panic and anxiety. Where do I go? What do I do? What’s going to happen?”

After an extended spring break with a friend in Orlando, she drove back to campus in North Carolina, grabbed her belongings and some toilet paper from her dorm (because her dad said he couldn’t find any) and went home to Harrison, New York. She tried searching for other job opportunities — but there weren’t any.

“Getting any jobs or interviews or speaking with companies is so not what’s going on right now,” says Graustein, who majored in communication and minored in psychology and entrepreneurship. “It seems so unlikely that anyone is looking to hire.”

Instead, she hired herself. From her family's home in Westchester County, she is now devoting all her time to a side-hustle she launched in January. Benefiscent, her hand-dipped candle company, donates 20 percent of sales to research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — where Graustein’s mother received treatment for brain cancer prior to her death when Graustein was in the eighth grade.

Taylor Graustein
Katie Sprague Photography

The more time she devotes to her business, the more she thrives. Graustein says the efforts have even resulted in higher sales.

Across the country, recent college grads like Graustein are in similar shoes, reporting canceled internships and rescinded job offers.

“It’s tough graduating into the worst economy in our lifetimes,” Ramit Sethi, the 37-year-old author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, tells PEOPLE.

But don’t just wait out the bad economy, advises Dr. Rebecca Gill, a communications professor at Wake Forest. She believes now is the time to pick up a side hustle, create your website and build your brand. In short, use this time to create your own opportunities.

“What you do now matters,” says Gill, who teaches a course about side hustles and the gig economy.

Gill, 43, encourages people to think about what they'll say at a job interview six months or a year from now, and ask themselves hard questions: What will you tell potential employers about what you did after graduation when you couldn’t find a traditional job? Are you going to tell prospective employers that you watched every episode of Tiger King 17 times? Or are you going to tell them you made and sold face masks, tutored underprivileged kids, homeschooled your younger siblings or ran your own company like Graustein?

Katie Sprague Photography

The first step is to stop worrying — everyone is in the same boat.

“There’s not one universal way to handle this,” says Gill. “Everybody is having a different experience and taking different pathways. Be creative.”

Read on for the next steps to launching your side hustle, according to experts speaking with PEOPLE.

Build Your Brand and Your Website

If you can’t find the work you want to do, just start doing it.

“It’s a great time to start building your portfolio,” says Genevieve Ryan Bellaire, the 31-year-old founder and CEO of Realworld, which seeks expert advice on a range of topics to help people navigate adulthood. “Create your own website, whether it’s on Squarespace or Wix."

Genevieve Ryan Bellaire
Techstars NYC Demo Day

Your website can showcase your projects and portfolio and help you create your own work experience.

“In this competitive job market, if you are straight out of school, and your career has stalled for a moment, it’s a great way to show that you can hit the ground running,” says Bellaire.

When Tori Dunlap graduated college four years ago, she couldn’t find her dream job — so she took a six-month contract gig and launched her own site, HerFirst100K.com.

“It was something I could put on my resume, even if it was experience that I entirely created on my own,” says Dunlap, 25. “If it’s not working out where you’re finding an already established side hustle, create your own. If you want to be a social media marketer, build up your own social media. If you want to become a writer, start writing, start your own blog."

Tori Dunlap
Karya Schanilec

After three years, Dunlap — now a millennial money expert — was able to quit the full-time job she landed and work for herself.

“Don’t limit yourself,” Dunlap says.

Network, Network, Network

Reach out to everyone you know, even those you only slightly know. Talk to your friends, your parents’ friends, even people you’ve just tweeted, Sethi says. Search through LinkedIn and message alumni who have the job you want, asking them for a 15-minute virtual coffee date.

“Over 90 percent of people you reach out to will say yes,” adds Sethi. “Experienced people love to speak to college students and college grads.”

Ramit Sethi
Chris Newhard

One silver lining of the pandemic is a lot of people who normally might be too busy to talk to you might now be home and available. When you talk to people who have your dream job, ask them to tell you how they got to where they are now. What’s a career path they recommend? Who else they think you should contact?

However, do not straight-up ask them to hire you, Sethi says, because that might be considered poor etiquette for an informational interview. Let them take you down that path if they're interested.

Dunlap advises turning to your university’s career center.

“That’s totally what it’s there for,” she says. “Take advantage of that.”

Discover Your Side Hustle

As a college grad, you have tons of skills for which people might provide compensation. “You graduated from college, so that means you know how to get into college,” Sethi says.

Parents may be willing to hire you to help work on college application essays or walk their teenagers through the application process, he says. You could also tutor high school or college students in your major.

Even the time you spent on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter helped you develop marketable skills. When Sethi graduated school, he taught people how to use MySpace and YouTube, which were new at the time. People might pay you to take over their company’s social media.

Still not sure what your side hustle should be? Sethi suggests texting five friends and asking, “What do you think I’m really good at? What do you come to me for advice for?”

“The answers will surprise you,” Sethi says. Maybe they will say you have amazing style, or give great relationship advice, or are the best at organizing closets.

“You can turn each of those into a six-figure business,” says Sethi, who offers more side-hustle building advice on his website, Earnable.

Another strategy is to think of the various problems you’ve solved that you might be able to help others conquer, says Nick Loper, the 37-year-old founder of sidehustlenation.com.

Nick Loper
Brooke and Bryn Photography

For example, a woman on his podcast hated picking up her dog’s poop, so she started a pet waste removal side hustle.

“It’s bringing in $1,000 a week,” Loper says. “She has 80 recurring, weekly customers at $15 to $20 a dog.”

Side hustles come in three categories, Loper says: You can sell a good, sell a service or build an audience-based business, like becoming a YouTube star. Of course, the later takes time.

“If you need to ring the cash register quickly, selling a product or a service are going to be faster,” Loper says.

There are still plenty of ways to earn money and stay socially distanced — like mowing lawns, Loper says.

If you’re not afraid to glove and mask up, delivery apps — Instacart, DoorDash, Shipt, UberEats, Postmates, etc. — are hiring.

“All the delivery apps are really hot right now,” says Loper, who points out that you could earn about $25 an hour.

Keep Learning

Gill says you could use this time to learn new skills and make yourself more marketable to potential employers. Consider taking an online class, learning how to use Excel or earning a certification.

When you’re outside on a socially distanced walk, listen to some new podcasts that could provide inspiration and help you build your business. Gill recommends Brené Brown's Unlocking Us, Reply All, How I Built This with Guy Raz and Radiolab productions. She especially likes The Pitch.

“It’s a podcast version of Shark Tank,” Gill says.

Rebecca Gill
Ken Bennett/ Wake Forest University

Don’t Take No for an Answer

Your internship might be canceled, but you don’t have to walk away. Come up with ways you could still be helpful to the company. For example, one of Gill’s students found out his engineering lab internship was canceled due to coronavirus and then convinced his employer that he could do remote, internet-based research instead.

"Offer some ideas,” says Gill. “Show that you’re proactive. There’s lots of ways a student could say, ‘Sure, I understand I can’t do that anymore. But how else can I help?’”

Be Positive and Smart with Your Money

Shannon Welch started her side hustle selling clothing on Poshmark during her junior year of high school. When Welch graduated from Texas A&M University in May 2019, the economics major didn’t think she’d be happy in any of the financial advisor jobs her professors suggested.

“Two weeks before I was about to graduate, I was in a panic,” Welch, 23, remembers. “I just realized I have this thing I know that I’m good at. I know that I can grow. I’m happy doing it. Why not keep doing it? It was definitely a big leap.”

Shannon Welch
Shannon Welch

She decided to move to Austin and make her side hustle her full-time gig.

“I’m so happy I made that decision,” she tells PEOPLE.

Welch says she earned $127,000 in 2019 and $250,000 since she started selling.

“The biggest thing you have to do is be super confident in yourself and believe you can do it,” says Welch. “I see a lot of people just get really down on themselves and they fail.”

Once you start earning money, don’t blow it all at once — reinvest in your business and set some aside for savings and quarterly tax payments, Welch warns.

“From day one, I’ve been really smart with my money,” says Welch, who invests 25 percent of all earnings in her business, puts 25 percent directly into savings, spends only 25 percent and keeps the last quarter for emergencies or surprise expenses.

Shannon Welch
Shannon Welch

Welch doesn't want anyone to be afraid to ask other people for help, advice and support.

“It can be very, very intimidating. There’s so many other people doing it,” she says. “Remind yourself that they had to start somewhere. It’s easier than you think.”

Don’t Forget About Health Insurance and Retirement Savings

There can be many benefits of a side hustle — for starters, a flexible schedule and being your own boss — but health insurance and a 401(k) aren’t among them.

Once you graduate, you usually can’t stay on your school’s health insurance plan, but you can stay on your parents’ health insurance plan until you’re 26, points out Realworld's Bellaire.

If you’re married and your spouse has a traditional job, go on their insurance or buy your own.

“Make sure you don’t have a gap in coverage,” Bellaire says.

That's because bills could drown you in debt if you're in a major accident or you get really sick.

As for retirement accounts, look into opening an IRA.

“Something I wish I had known when I was working — and not in a full-time job — is any earned income can go into an IRA,” Bellaire says. “It’s pretty easy to set up. And the reality is, if you start at age 22 versus age 33, you’ll have more money.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Maybe your side hustle will make you a millionaire, maybe you won't make $100. Regardless, it will look good on your resume should you decide to seek a full-time position when the economy makes a comeback.

"You don’t have to become Steve Jobs or Elon Musk over the summer,” Gill says. “And nowadays, failure is often seen a badge of honor. You tried."