Stories of Austin highlight local business, push community engagement

Zoe Tzanis

At 3 a.m. one morning in late March, inspiration struck Rashu Jain. The math and finance junior rushed to her computer to email her hero, Brandon Stanton, creator of the well-known social media project, “Humans of New York.”

As Jain and Niti Malwade, a computer science and business junior, saw many local Austin businesses struggle to keep their doors open amid COVID-19, they wanted to help but didn’t know how.

That night, Jain had an idea for a project similar to “Humans of New York” that would boost morale and help her community out. She called it “Stories of Austin.”

“I cannot tell you how motivated I was the night I emailed Brandon Stanton at 3 a.m. I felt like this was my peak,” Jain said. 

Sadly, Stanton never responded. And Jain, busy with school and other projects, said she slowly gave up on the idea. 

Then in May, amid Black Lives Matter protests, Malwade said she had seen lists of Black-owned Austin businesses that needed financial help circulating on social media.

“In my mind, I thought, ‘What can I do?’” Malwade said. “Maybe I can offer free consulting, web design or marketing services to some of these businesses that may be struggling? I ended up reaching out to over thirty different businesses.”

She asked Jain if she wanted to help. Without question, Jain agreed but suggested they could make a greater impact with her original “Stories of Austin” idea. 

The project would follow a “Humans of New York” model, highlighting local business owners and sharing their personal stories with the community.

“Ultimately, we decided that what we wanted to do was to encourage the Austin community to shop local more frequently, and we want to do that through storytelling,” Jain said.  

They spent the next month interviewing local business owners, starting with Malwade’s original connections. 

In July, they launched “Stories of Austin” via Instagram, updating the page weekly with new stories of local business owners for Austinites to support. 

Since then, the project has grown immensely. They’ve gained over 800 followers, traction and tons of positive feedback. 

“I can see the impact directly,” Malwade said. “My friends or people I know have come up to me or messaged me and said, ‘Oh, that restaurant or business seems so cool. I tried it out and I really liked it. The owners were awesome.’”

The duo said they are considering expanding “Stories of Austin” to be more interactive, possibly by including a podcast or video series.

One featured business was Moonstone Baking Co. Kelsie Jones, the owner and founder of Moonstone, started her small business three years ago using her family’s old Czech pastry recipes, handed down over four generations. Jones sells her homemade kolaches at different farmers markets in Austin. 

“I really admire them for using their personal time as college students and choosing to shine a light on those of us in Austin who own small businesses,” Jones said. “Especially at this time, it's really important.”

As they continue interviewing and expanding Stories of Austin, Malwade and Jain said they hope their work inspires Austinites and UT students to engage with the community.

“What we want to do is make it possible for people to have this emotional connection,” Jain said. “Forming these connections with business owners is something that only a project like “Stories of Austin” (could) do.