On Wednesday August 2nd 2017 I had one of the most significant experiences in my entrepreneurial journey. I was seated next to some of the most successful businessmen in America. To my left was Mr. Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a few seats away was Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, to my right was Dr. Michael Porter, esteemed professor at Harvard Business School and across the room was Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs. I had to pinch myself, because this was beyond my wildest dreams. How did I go from whipping up shea butter lotions and potions in my kitchen for my eczema prone children, to sitting in a room with people whose net worth exceeds that of small countries?
They were all gathered to celebrate my success as a new graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in Baltimore City. I was one of 59 local entrepreneurs graduating from this inaugural class, and I had the honor of being selected as the speaker for my cohort. This honor won me the best seat at an intimate brunch right next to Mr. Warren Buffett.
We began our company to solve the problem of eczema and successfully created a line of premium natural formulas that work wonders on dry skin. We use shea butter as our key ingredient and we source this butter directly from women who run cooperatives in West Africa. Our business provides economic access to women so they can feed, clothe and educate their children. I have always believed that the products we put on our skin should be good enough to eat; the simpler and cleaner the ingredient list the better it is for our customers and the environment.
Michael's words tell me that as we grow and out of necessity I become less involved in the day to day operations, I should never be too far from the heart of what makes my business run, and that is the people.
During the years of building my business I have run into roadblocks, frustrations, and barriers not uncommon to many entrepreneurs. The issue of access to grow my company at times seemed insurmountable. Michael Bloomberg affirmed that small businesses like mine make up the majority of American jobs and that we are the engines of innovation and new ideas and we form the backbone of successful cities. So here I am sitting at a table slowly picking at my kale salad with successful entrepreneurs, experts and captains of industry who are telling me that my entrepreneurial abilities and the ability to create a brand like Shea Radiance is meaningful to the economy, and that is why they are providing support to small businesses not only here in Baltimore but in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas and many more.
During our time together, I shared that the Goldman Sachs program allowed me to be very clear about our business opportunity and the value we were providing to our customers. I also shared my plans for growth and how I planned to finance it by seeking angel investors. Warren and Mike expressed their thoughts on equity and their concern that giving up equity could lead to losing control of the business and what made the business great in the first place. Warren told me that he started his business with a $2,000 loan and grew from there. I definitely took what was said about preserving the culture and values of our brand to heart. My vision for Shea Radiance is to be the gold standard for natural and organic hair and body care products. Our mission driven journey will attract not only customers but the most talented employees - creative, socially conscious team players from diverse backgrounds eager to help build the women-led supply chain that will provide an economic pathway for over 16 million African women to take control of their own economic destiny.
How did I go from whipping up shea butter lotions and potions in my kitchen for my eczema prone children, to sitting in a room with people whose net worth exceeds that of small countries?
However, I struggled with the fact that getting a loan from the bank is no easy task. It is a downright barrier for a business like mine where bankers are not equipped to assess the value of my business outside of the traditional parameters. My business is “too risky" for traditional banks and so I have had to look to the equity market for investors who share our values and understand what we are trying to accomplish. If they “get it", there is an upside for them in a number of years for taking the risk. Bringing on angel investors should not mean loss of control if they are the right partners. Any investor that has a need to control is probably not a good fit for us.
I loved Mike Bloomberg's insights on the importance of corporate culture. He talked about the importance of valuing each employee and seeing them as members of your team with valuable contributions. “Never ever give the impression that because you are the boss you are above doing certain types of work". It's important that your team knows that you not only value what they do, but you can do it too. As a manufacturer, his words rang true to me. Unlike most service or tech companies, my business requires a wide range of skills and talents, from the savvy digital marketing gurus to the sure handed and focused bottle fillers, labelers and box packers. As a business owner I am not far removed from many of these tasks and my team knows that I can roll up my sleeve at anytime to get the job done. Michael's words tell me that as we grow and out of necessity I become less involved in the day to day operations, I should never be too far from the heart of what makes my business run, and that is the people.
I enjoyed hearing Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs acknowledge that the day-to-day entrepreneurial struggles are real. Even though he never started a company from scratch and always had tremendous resources at his disposal, he truly appreciates the struggle and tenacity of the small business owner. It was nice to hear people that I respect and look up to affirm the value of my not so glamorous CEO life. Listening to men who are successful and who in hindsight can confirm the principles that are time tested for building a sustainable and success enterprise was priceless.
This article was originally published September 5, 2019.
WRITTEN BYFunlayo Alabi