Alumni in Action: Laura Wainman ’10 spreads kindness while supporting local businesses

The generous journalist finds a way to lift up her community and local businesses when they need it most.

Do whatever you can with whatever you have wherever you are. That is what Laura Wainman ’10 has been doing since the start of the pandemic. As a self-described Enneagram Type 2, a personality type that tends to be generous, empathetic and a caregiver, Wainman “thrives on taking care of people, so feeling helpless is not an emotion [she] tolerates.”

Wainman is a journalist in the Washington, D.C. area and during the last few years, she has covered the lifestyle industry, focusing on food and dining. When the pandemic hit and many of the businesses she covered suffered, she began to feel helpless. Inspired by a fellow Elon alumna, Wainman realized she could make a difference by supporting those local businesses and then giving away her purchases to brighten someone else’s day. This act of generosity has exponential benefits, sending ripples of kindness throughout her community and beyond.

This quiet, unassuming yet impactful and meaningful series of intentional acts highlight just how truly special Elon alumni are. Wainman has since recognized a new opportunity to help those in her community who are hurting. She recently shifted her focus to support Black-owned businesses in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Read on to hear more about her movement and maybe, just maybe, you will be inspired to make a difference right where you are by creating your own waves of kindness.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your “Pay It Forward” movement – what is involved and what inspired you to start it?

I know what a struggle it is to keep a small business alive even under the best conditions, so when the pandemic hit and I had to see some of the toughest, strongest, most resilient entrepreneurs I know struggling to stay afloat, I felt totally helpless.

I got the idea for the “Pay It Forward” movement after interviewing a fellow Elon alum for a work story about how she and her fiancée’s businesses were adapting to new times. She just started a bread business as a side gig and her fiancée ran a full-time hydroponic farm that sold rare herbs and micro-greens to restaurants.

When nonessential businesses were told to shut down, his business disappeared overnight and he had to completely change his business model to survive. She said it was devastating to watch him comprehend that everything he worked for for years was taken from him just like that. She was originally going to use the extra money from her bread business to put towards their wedding, but instead, decided to sow her profits back into his business to show her support.

I loved that sentiment and thought, I might not be able to offer Jeff Bezos’s level of support to local businesses, but I can funnel the money I’m saving right now by not commuting to work, not going to happy hours etc. back into the businesses I love and want to see make it through this. Plus, I loved the idea of sending “surprise gifts” to brighten the days of friends who I knew were having a tough time under the new regime of quarantine.

The first business I supported was the bread business of the fellow Elon alum who had inspired the idea.

Although some businesses are starting to reopen, have you been able to continue the movement as people move into Phase 2, particularly in the current climate?

In the current climate, I’ve felt called to focus support on Black-owned businesses. I want to launch a second round of “pay it forward” to both educate myself on some local businesses that I may not have been aware of previously, and to stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I have not launched yet as I am still in the research phase of which businesses I want to support.

I like to be intentional with my donations, and I also like to personalize the gifts I’m sending to match the interests of the friend receiving. For example, for a friend who is a freelance writer and takes great pride in supporting literary endeavors, I’d like to find a Black-owned independent bookstore and introduce her to a new author I think she’d enjoy.

What was one or two of your favorite reactions to your surprise gift? How did it affect those you served?

One reaction really stands out to me: A coworker of mine posted on social media that she was really struggling with taking mental health breaks during the pandemic. I thought a scented candle would be a great surprise gift for her to be able to decompress and take care of her mental health. I found a small business that was selling all natural soy wax candles online and sent one her way. When she got it she posted about it on Instagram, and another one of our coworkers saw it, liked it, and asked me where I found it. She wound up buying some things and supporting the business too!

Supporting small businesses was the whole goal of the initiative, so I was thrilled that new customers were discovering the business. Plus, both of my coworkers said the candles helped them de-stress, which made me so happy!

What have you learned about yourself or your community through this experience and the pandemic?

Watching small businesses that I loved and respected pivot on a dime and find a way to simply make things work no matter what was awe-inspiring and showed me that I couldn’t just sit idly by. If nothing else, this time has reminded me that we all have a role to play in keeping community alive, and no matter what your resources are, you can find a way to help.

As much as I wish I could have made large donations, that wasn’t going to happen on a journalist salary, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t help. My contributions to local businesses were so small in the grand scheme of things, but I hoped that leading by example would have a ripple effect and encourage others to find the businesses in their community that they wanted to help as well.

What do you hope will last through your small acts of kindness?

One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the emphasis placed on checking in with one another and operating with a little more leniency and grace towards each other. People have gone to great lengths to connect with loved ones, and even people that they may have lost contact with over the years. I hope that this emphasis on fostering genuine connection and walking through life with a little more empathy extends well beyond the pandemic, and that we all look for ways to bring a smile to someone’s face when they are least expecting it.