It doesn't matter what culture, race, or group you identify with, the concept of small efforts leading to big results is a common one. Whether it's from the Bible (look up Matthew 17:20) or quotes from people like Oprah (who said that small steps can "take on greater meaning"), we all know that small efforts toward a goal can lead to big wins.
If you need proof, let's just take a look at recent happenings in the life of a very talented 24-year-old chef. Keanu Hogan, who became a contestant to reckon with on the 20th season of Hell's Kitchen, got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not by efforts of grandeur, desperation, or viral foolery, but by simple, authentic action. The Baltimore native was one of the youngest on the show to make it as far as she did, and she represented proper for Southern melanated queens, cooking up dishes like smoked shrimp and grits while rocking box braids with baby hair laid and lip gloss popping.
After paying quite a few dues, Keanu had finally gotten the chance to spread her wings and learn from one of the best in the culinary industry: Gordon Ramsay.
At the time, she wanted a change, and she knew she had to do something in order to prepare for whatever transitions were coming her way. She had worked in clubs, bars, and restaurants on the super-tough, appearance-focused Los Angeles scene and had become disenchanted. "My confidence suffered a lot, and I compared myself to a lot of the women who were out there," Keanu recalled. "There was a lot of [focus on] plastic surgery and competition. I just missed home. I was in the process of trying to move back to Baltimore and decided that, before I moved, I would really work on my business."
"I started cooking dishes and my best friend would take pictures of everything. We'd be up all night. All we had was a ring light. We didn't have anything else."
Her urge proved to be right on time. Once she started being more strategic about creating a brand presence on Instagram, she'd built up a following of just 250 when she was contacted via direct message by producers of the hit show. "They just asked, 'Are you interested in being on Hell's Kitchen?' In the beginning, I thought it was a joke. I responded, and I got an email. I did a Skype interview and then did another interview. I was back and forth, visiting with family and traveling to LA, and I was selling meals from my home. I sent the producers what they asked for, and they said, 'OK we're going to fly you out to Vegas for your third interview.'"
After not hearing from producers for weeks after, Keanu said she thought she hadn't made the cut. She finally got a call where she was instructed to pack her bags for a three-week stay. The experience allowed her to not only be in front of millions of Fox viewers, but to solidify her confidence in her craft and abilities.
"A lot of people don't get one-on-ones with the Gordon Ramsay, even in past seasons. I just remember him looking me straight in my eyes and he has this way of seeing you for who you are. That was really liberating."
"He told me that I was a firecracker, and I didn't know he noticed," Keanu added. "When you're around this figure you're inspired by, you tend to want to put on your best self, and a lot of us did that, so sometimes we were trying to be so perfect. To hear him say that I'm this assertive individual with a tenacious might [was] amazing. He was also impressed by my story, knowing that I was from a small city where people usually struggle and that I was able to move out of that and do my own thing at 23. He said I need to step up and assert myself more and be a leader. I will never forget that. "
While on the show, Keanu drew from her experiences growing up in Maryland, as well as her training at Monroe College in New York as a collegiate team competitor.
"My youngest memories are centered around food and the kitchen. They stuck with me. I remember birthday cake when I was four, peanut butter sandwiches my great grandmother made for me after school, and the sausage and biscuits my grandmother would make from Bisquick."
"Watching someone prepare something for me—I just loved the intention that was put into food prepared by my family," she added. Keanu would begin to help in making some of the family's meals, and was always under the nose of anybody who was in the kitchen. "I learned how to make sweet potato pie before I was 10 years old. We went fishing and camping a lot and we would grill. My mom always had a cast-iron pan just so we could have scrambled eggs and bacon in the mornings. It was just something that I didn't realize made me feel really good, no matter how young I was."
Though she didn't come out the victor on Hell's Kitchen, she was able to tap into a larger audience, gain exposure, and hone in on monetizing her passion in a way that would be lucrative. Today, she has more than 10,000 IG followers along with two thriving businesses. Tastee Towers, offers unique, small-batch desserts that take you back to the days of treats at grandma's or sweets you'd get from your local candy lady back in the day. "We focus on nostalgic desserts that you grew up eating like an oatmeal creme pie, s'mores, strawberry banana pudding, or egg custard snowballs, and we make layers of it. We don't use refined sugar and we make everything from scratch. We just layer on the fun," Keanu said. "We also sell water ice in the summer months, and we will have a storefront really soon."
Thee Perfect Bite, is a full culinary experience that focuses in on the vibes, feelings, and memories behind enjoying well-prepared meal—one made with ethically sourced and organic ingredients. It was launched at the onset of the pandemic due to increased need for fresh meals prepped for home delivery.
"It's not just about the small portion, but having it like that allows people to focus on more than the food and realize it's really about the energy, love, care, tribe, community, and culture. It's something that someone put love into. It's sacred."
Keanu has also hit another major milestone, becoming a mom to a 16-month-old daughter. "While I've been nurturing her, I've been learning new techniques. I've been eating a plant-based diet because I'm trying to make sure she has good eating habits. I'm showing her that good food doesn't have to be processed. This journey in business and my career taught me a lot in that regard. Everything I do now, motherhood reflects in it, and that includes being a chef and a businesswoman."
Find out more about Chef Keanu Hogan via her Instagram @Follow_theleeda.
Featured image courtesy of Chef Keanu Hogan
For most Black women, the journey to find positive reflections of themselves begin at an early age. We choose dolls that match our curls and complexion, we tune into TV shows with main characters who resemble our girlhood plights, and when it comes to our career, we search for role models as guiding lights for what's possible to achieve.
With every new upgrade and evolution on our journey, the need to see ourselves in these spaces deepens, long before we ever arrive. For Marty McDonald, founder of Boss Women Media, her search began on her ascend through the corporate ladder, when she came to a rattling realization. "I didn't see myself because there were no other women who looked like me in leadership at the organizations that I served in. Instead, I was the only one who had to put on a hat every day and code-switch into who someone else wanted me to be," she shares candidly.
"When you don't see someone who looks like you doing what you want to do, you don't see possibilities."
Coming to light with this truth has since guided Marty into a career pivot to help other Black women ascend into their pursuit of purpose.
Courtesy of Marty McDonald
The birth of Boss Women Media came just as Marty's corporate journey was coming to an end. It was around 2016, Marty recalls, that she began questioning her corporate surroundings and looked inward for the answers. "I knew that there had to be other women really suffering from this imposter syndrome. How do you find your voice? How do you find yourself in spaces and in systems that were not built for you?" The turning point came while attending a women's conference that, to Marty's surprise, was predominantly and overwhelming, white. She reflects, "When I walked into that space, I knew that I needed to create this for Black women. I came back to Dallas on fire and on mission to help women solve problems around entrepreneurship, side hustling, and growing their corporate career."
"When you don't see that, you don't see possibility or you gain the mindset of it's only one seat available to you. It's only that one seat that you have to crawl and fight for, and when there's only one seat, it's hard for you to navigate how to pull up a chair for someone else."
Cut to now and it's clear that Marty has achieved that and more. What started off as an intimate brunch experience with 25 business-minded women, has since catapulted into a blooming storytelling organization and conference, the Black Girl Magic Digital Summit. The two-day experience, sponsored by Capital One and Amazon, celebrates and supports women in their professional, entrepreneurial, and collegiate pursuits to tackle areas of financial well-being, generational wealth, career development, and more.
This year, the conference had keynotes from actress Yara Shahidi, to Naturi Naughton and Candace Parker. But more importantly, it created the space and platform for Black-owned businesses to be amplified and have grant money put into the hands of their founders. And for Marty, the mission to fund small businesses is simple, "It's because I didn't have it. There's so much power in, I didn't have it, so let me help my sister out. Because I know that this will change her life." She continues, "I want to make it easier for another Black woman. I want her to win because when she wins, I win, we all win."
xoNecole: When it comes to Boss Women Media, what space did you hope to fill with the organization?
Marty McDonald: It's really a storytelling company. It's telling the story of women who are creating spaces and places, whether they're in corporate America or entrepreneurship so that other women see possibility in themselves.
We're telling stories of women who have done what damn near feels like the impossible. We're telling stories of women who are paving the way for others, but not only are we just telling those stories, we are also giving our community resources on how they can do it too. Because it's cool to hear the story, but you've got to know how can I do it. That's our purpose. Our mission is to change the way when we connect through the stories of other women.
You’ve mentioned before that, “When you don’t see someone who looks like you, doing what you want to do, you don’t see possibilities.” Could you tell us more about what this means to you?
It's really a two-lane street: It's through the lane of entrepreneurship and thriving in corporate America. I always say we need Black women in corporate America; they are the trailblazers, they are the voice for Black women across the world. Their space [in corporate] is so pivotal, but only 58 percent of Black women are in corporate America. As a woman who's sitting in these spaces, you connect over stories, you connect over experiences. So when you don't see that, you don't see possibility or you gain the mindset of it's only one seat available to you. It's only that one seat that you have to crawl and fight for, and when there's only one seat, it's hard for you to navigate how to pull up a chair for someone else. Even with entrepreneurship, Black women are the fastest-growing entrepreneurs, but we make the majority at the poverty level in our businesses.
So if I don't hear the stories of Black women who are navigating venture capital, who understand how to get SBA loans, who are killing the game with bootstrapping - if I don't see that, again, I don't see possibilities. It's beyond important for our stories to be told, to be heard, and to be seen to be spoken in order for change to happen and to know that this is possible for us.
There’s been a lot of recent talk about “quitting” as it pertains to the arena of Black women and their careers. But often, quitting can be confused with being a quitter. From your experiences of stepping away from your corporate path to pursue entrepreneurship, what are some things that you learned about “quitting” and how has it shaped this half of your career?
When I left corporate America, I never saw it as "quitting." Instead, I found it as a moment to evolve as a woman; to take control over my finances and finally have the freedom that I deserve. As I've grown as an entrepreneur, from that girl who got $500 sponsorships to now, the girl who's getting a quarter of a million-dollar sponsorship, I know that my walk away [from corporate] was a part of my purpose. Corporate America taught me how to pitch, how to get allies, how to influence - I can never take any of that back. It was a part of the marathon that I was on, in terms of giving me the tools that I needed to create the business of my dreams.
But I'm telling you this: burnout is real. As an entrepreneur, you have to take breaks; it is not a sprint, it is truly a marathon and you have to breathe. I am a new mom, I have a six-month-old and I can truly say that I am exhausted at this very moment right now because I have been grinding and going so hard. But I know that because I am self-aware of my burnout, that I have to take a break. Taking a moment and pausing is not quitting, it is realizing what my body needs. This world will put such a weight on Black women to achieve more than anyone else in the world when in actuality self-care is needed for us and burnout can easily happen to us.
"Taking a moment and pausing is not quitting, it is realizing what my body needs. This world will put such a weight on Black women to achieve more than anyone else in the world when in actuality self-care is needed for us and burnout can easily happen to us."
Courtesy of Marty McDonald
Your trajectory had led you on a path to refine your purpose and zero in on the mission of creating a legacy and rallying for women. For women who feel like their purpose is still a little unclear, could you share what helped you get clarity on your vision?
I was 30 when I first started this entrepreneurial journey. It's something so interesting that switches when you're entering your 30's when you're searching for your purpose and that impact that you're going to make. For me, it was a connection with God. I could tell you stories of people who have placed my name in rooms that I've never even entered before and that's an encounter of God. I can't take credit for it. I am on a God-driven mission in what I'm creating and really who I'm creating it for.
My purpose is aligned to what my values are and I really had to go on a search and be in prayer and constant connection with God, asking him, "What do you want for my life to be?" But when you ask that question, you have to be prepared for what the answer is. Be prepared for how hard it will be to navigate. There's been plenty of times when I have felt like, should I be doing this? Why is it so hard? Why am I experiencing no after no? Through me finding my purpose, I've learned that you have to stay consistent. Consistency will bet the most talented person in the room every day of the week. Consistency is the key to how you win.
For the woman who's out there who's looking for what is my purpose, you get into alignment with what your values are, your skills, your passion, you figure those pieces out so that you can follow in line with your purpose. And when you find that purpose. You stay consistent every single day.
"Consistency will bet the most talented person in the room every day of the week. Consistency is the key to how you win."
You have an amazing lineup of panelists in this year’s summit. What was it about these women that made you go, “I want them at my event this year?”
This year the Black Girl Magic Digital Summit is all about The Upgrade: upgrading your mind, your voice, your money, and upgrading your wealth.
Yara Shahidi is a powerhouse. This young woman is transforming her generation, she's decided that she is the voice and that no one will tell her differently. She's wise and she realizes her space and her place. Candace Parker has upgraded from, not just a WNBA player, but I'm a mom and being multi-faceted. That's what this summit is about: it's about seeing the stories of women who are not taking the road often traveled, but less traveled, and saying that I'm upgrading myself through this experience.
The stories of these women at this event this year are absolutely magical and will give anybody who is tuning in goosebumps. It's all about how you, too, can upgrade in 2021 and go beyond the norm of what the world tells you you are.
When you envision the outcome of this year’s event, what do you hope that the women who attend your summit are able to take away from it?
On next Monday morning, I envision a million women who have tuned in and connected to our programming, who realized that they can create the career or business of their dreams, that there is nothing that will hold them back anymore.
Most importantly, that they have been able to connect with another woman who was also a part of the summit, and that they support another Black-owned business because that's how our community collectively changes the landscape of poverty of wealth and mindset through connectivity and support.
Featured image courtesy of Marty McDonald
When it comes to the fashion world, there's no denying the direct influence and contribution of Black women.
Although recognition and credit tend to go unsaid, the simple truth is: Black women are the blueprint. As the tides shift within the industry, the true measure of sustainable progress will be weighed by how well the new class of designers and emerging brands are embraced and amplified. However, it's important to note that this isn't a request for permission: this is an announcement. Black designers aren't waiting for a chance for their stories to be told, they're letting their brands speak for themselves. And if you truly want to know where the future of fashion is headed, you must first tap into the rising voices who are creating history today.
Meet Sadé Lewis and Shaniya Charles, the design duo behind the self-titled fashion and lifestyle brand, Sadé + Shaniya. When the two Brooklynites met in their high school English class, their bond was formed over their shared interest in extracurricular activities, like Modeling Club and their desire to dissect the ambiguity of the industry they aspired to break into. As Sadé shares, "I feel like we align on things that we didn't like about the fashion industry and how it real mysterious and superficial, as well as not really seeing people that looked like us at the forefront."
Shaniya Charles, left. Sadé Lewis, right.
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
As graduates of the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology, FIT, the pair have been able to combine their talents beyond the textbooks, weaving their story into the fabric of their take on accessible high fashion and ready-to-wear pieces. Drawing inspiration from their personal journey, Black culture, and womanhood, the complex and nuanced experience that Black women share serve as a natural muse for everything they put their hands to.
Their signature design, the Mora Bag, tells a story of the duality of Black womanhood that serves as a stylish and metaphorical reminder to pack light and be light. "The color palettes that we looking into were [colors] that would trigger us to be soft and more vulnerable. There's always the notion that the Black woman is hard, she's strong, and she can do all these things. And she can, but she also has to step into the power of being vulnerable, being open, and being able to feel like you can release," Shaniya shares.
When the innovation of two Black women joins forces, there's no limit to the possibilities that they can unleash. Luckily, xoNecole has a front-row seat to the beginning stages of these dynamic designers, destined to dominate the fashion world on their own terms.
xoNecole: As Black women, sometimes we don't always have control over our narratives. With storytelling being such a huge part of you all’s design process, how does Black womanhood play the role of muse for you two?
Sadé Lewis: The origin of our collections, everything is based off a real story or feeling. For example, The Looking Glass [collection] was very much about looking yourself in the mirror and seeing this multifaceted person. You don't have to fit into one version of yourself, or one version of what people think you should be, you are many things. So that was our individual journey during that time. Literally, accepting us being women who can be everything at once, you know? It definitely always comes from something that we're going through. We don't try to pressure ourselves to create timing. It just comes when it comes. And yeah, it's always from within us, navigating our own lives, then figuring out how can we make a physical manifestation of how we feel.
Shaniya Charles: We also grab inspiration from the woman that we talk to, the people that we deal with on an everyday basis, and the majority of them are Black women. We try to make sure that we're telling their stories as well. Although it's our narrative, we want to make sure that our consumers are connecting to what we're putting out and feel or see themselves in what we are creating.
Sadé Lewis: As Black women, we want to be safe, we want to be able to control our narratives and our lives. This brand for us isn't just popularity. It's so we can have the freedom to be our absolute selves and create how we want to create, tell our story how we want to tell our story, and live how we want to live - and be an avenue for other people to do the same. The overall goal is to be able to support other women and other creatives in their endeavors.
"As Black women, we want to be safe, we want to be able to control our narratives and our lives. This brand for us isn't just popularity. It's so we can have the freedom to be our absolute selves and create how we want to create, tell our story how we want to tell our story, and live how we want to live - and be an avenue for other people to do the same. The overall goal is to be able to support other women and other creatives in their endeavors."
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
Let’s get into your short film which premiered on the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)! That was you all’s first short film too. What was the inspiration behind the 'Green Eyes'' story?
Shaniya: First and foremost, we both love Erykah Badu! Green Eyes is one of our favorite songs. Sadé was listening to the song in the shower. And she came out and she was like, "I have an idea. We're going to create a visual fashion show based on this!" From there, we just started planning out what we wanted the story to be, the garments we would create for it, and how that would be an introduction to our actual collection that was coming up. We partnered with a Black woman to create the film; we wanted to make sure that although it's our story, that the people involved in it were also authentic and Black.
Sadé: That shower moment was literally me listening to the song. It almost felt like I was in a trance. There's no visual for that song, so it was just me envisioning alone and in a way pleading to this man. When it comes to communication between a man and a woman, sometimes it's just not there. We have egos and pride. The story that Erykah was telling was a matter of pride. It's not time to put your pride out there when you really feel this is your person. This is your soulmate, but your pride is literally ruining everything.
It was really cool to work with the director, Kyra Andrews. She has a theme about her work where she does love stories and Black romance shorts. It was really cool to tell her about our ideas and how we connect to the song and see how she could visually support that the film. It was very hands-on for all of us, even the actors in the film. We did it in one day, in the middle of a snowstorm, but it was really fun. Seeing the end result was like, wow.
As two Black women and emerging designers, I’m sure there have been obstacles that you’ve had to overcome through your trajectory. What are some of the challenges that you all experienced starting out?
Sadé: This is an industry that in all honesty, a lot of the cultural, creative, and artistic design aspects do come from Black people - we are at the forefront of a lot of those things. It's also hard as women to be respected and to be taken seriously. I don't know when those challenges will ever end for our people. So when things get hard and we might feel like our message is not getting across or things didn't perform as well as we want it to, we do have each other to remind us why we're here and that we're in it for the long run; we're not in it to be a quick trend.
You both have been friends for over a decade. How has it been working together and while maintaining your friendship? How do you all make it work?
Shaniya: Our communication has always been at the forefront. From high school, we've always been very honest with each other. We make sure that we are each others' open and safe space. Even if something's bothering me, or something's bothering her, we try our best to communicate that. And I think the communication aspect and comfortability that we both have in each other allows us to explore different avenues of friendship and business partnership.
Sadé: We don't really have much of a system in place because I know it's important to separate business from friendship; it's not much a strict structure. But I think the both of us know when it's time to talk business and just time to just be friends. We have a good sense of understanding each other's needs. Just having that grace for each other and knowing when to read the room.
"I think the both of us know when it's time to talk business and just time to just be friends. We have a good sense of understanding each other's needs. Just having that grace for each other and knowing when to read the room."
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
The whole “networking across” concept that Issa Rae famously coined has really become a collective mindset for many creatives. For those who are looking for their creative partner-in-crime, what are some tips that you would give to finding one successfully?
Sadé: I would say, be open and honest about your needs. I think a lot of times when people are doing something creative, or looking for a service, they go to Google and type in, "Photographers. NYC." And it's like, you might know someone from your high school or your college who's into photography. I think we have to have more of a mindset of working together. If we all came together with our respective interests, we could be so powerful.
It's not necessarily always about looking up to these big names. Because a lot of the time, they're not going to have the same respect. Or uphold your ideas and your project to the same reverence as someone who is grinding just like you. And then you'll learn who you can really build with. Just be open to the people around you and what they can offer.
Shaniya: Be authentic to who you are. It's a lot of pressure and there's a lot coming at you at once in terms of being creative, but I feel like you should just be authentic to who you are. If you like photography or designer, you'll align with the people that you're supposed to align with. We have so much pressure around us now from social media and a whole bunch of different outlets saying, you should do this, you should do that. But just be authentic and true to who you are as a person. And whatever is supposed to align with you and the people that you are supposed to meet will come your way and those relationships will foster and grow to be what you need them to be.
"It's not necessarily always about looking up to these big names. Because a lot of the time, they're not going to have the same respect. Or uphold your ideas and your project to the same reverence as someone who is grinding just like you. And then you'll learn who you can really build with. Just be open to the people around you and what they can offer."
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
It’s really encouraging to hear that you all are able to lean on each other through the ups and the downs of your journey. Is there anything that you all tell each other to keep each other motivated?
Sadé: We have these little moments where we'll just go to each other and we'll be like, "Girl, you the sh*t." Or, "Wow, you really my best friend, you a bad b*tch." Stuff like that. Also, because we put a lot of storytelling and meaning behind our collection, we use that to align ourselves. This work comes from a place within.
It's always from a place based on the story that we're telling and our experiences together. I feel like that is our anchor; reminding each other that you're creating from a real place. And also, we both come from the fashion industry. We studied it in college and we also work in it. It's like, you really know what you're doing. Just trust yourself and keep going.
To stay connected to Shaniya and Sadé's upcoming collection, and cop a Mora Bag of your own, click here.
Featured image courtesy of Sadé + Shaniya
If there's one thing Historically Black Universities are known, it's fostering a sense of interconnectedness for collaborative genius to thrive. Of all campuses, it was on the soil of The Mecca, Howard University, where She'Neil Johnson-Spencer and Nicolette Graves rooted their friendship and aligned their passion for beauty and natural brains. Today, the two have founded a skincare brand of their own, Base Butter, that has not only carved out their niche space in the market but rallied a community of women to glow from the inside out.
It all started with a Facebook message. In the midst of the buzzing anticipation of her inaugurate college year, She'Neil was on the hunt for a roommate with a particular aptness to live with, "Someone who was clean and possibly a Leo because I'm a Leo. And [Nicolette] answered my call."
When the two graduated, there were few Black-owned indie brands on the market, which compelled She'Neil to develop one of her own, "I was really inspired to create something for us, by us with clean, safe, and effective ingredients and celebrated our beauty," she shares. As an escape from her mundane work life, She'Neil followed her curiosity and began to explore her true passion: beauty. What she landed on was a quaint makeup line called, Color Cosmetics, which, although short-lived, led her to the real winner, "I had all these raw ingredients in my apartment and I was like, what am I gonna whip up with this?" What prevailed from the leftovers, was a homemade, natural butter that serviced the body from head to toe.
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
The roomies turned business partners when She'Neil sensed that her multi-use skin butter line, Base Butter (the product), was in need of some serious scaling. Meaning: it was time to call in reinforcement. Recalling Nicolette's background in product development, She'Neil knew there was no better person suited for the job than her bestie. As Nicolette recalls, "There was an interesting interaction between wellness and beauty at the time. I was consistently sending [She'Neil] trends and data that I was seeing at work then coming home and being her guinea pig."
The two knew that it was time to develop a product that would keep customers coming back for more, and looked no further than their growing community for the answer.
She'Neil and Nicolette conducted a survey called, Skin Struggles, which accumulated the insights of over 3,000 women to learn not only what ailed their skin, but how they could create a solution. "The women ended up sharing what their skin struggles were, what products they're using, what they hate about the industry, what they loved, and that was the beginning vision of the Base Butter 2.0." What they landed on was their "Hero Product," the Radiant Face Jelly, a staple for their oily, combination, and acne-prone skin to rejuvenate and restore.
xoNecole chatted with co-founders, She'Neil Johnson, CEO, and Nicolette Graves, VP of Product, to learn the secret sauce of running a successful business with your bestie.
xoNecole: For those creatives who are looking to find their business partner, what are some traits that you would recommend them looking for in that person?
Nicolette Graves: You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. Early on, when She'Neil brought me on, I would always joke like, "Oh my god, [Base Butter] is like your first baby." And I felt really protective of her first baby. Therefore, I was very clear on being intentional about how I came into it helping. You have to trust that the person you're working with has the appropriate decision-making skills in general. There's also the spiritual component.
It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest. There were some points in time where She'Neil wasn't feeling it and certain times when I wasn't feeling it, so you have to be able to communicate that and know that there's no hard feelings. It's being able to flex between those things and I think we've been successful because of the love that exists in our friendship and the level of respect.
She'Neil Johnson-Spencer: And you have to know that people's track record. I was able to officially live with Nicolette over the past 10 years because we were roommates in college together. So I knew at the end of the day, Nicolette would get it done - she graduated with a 4.0. She knew when it was time to work and when it was time to play. I think that's really important because there are signs when you meet someone and you want to work with them, and sometimes people ignore those times. So since I've been, I guess, "interviewing" Nicolette for 10 years, I know who she is, in and out.
"You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. There's also the spiritual component. It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
I’ve heard the term “Hero Product” come from entrepreneurs who describe the product that changed the game for their business. For you two, it’s the Radiate Face Jelly. How did you all know that you had something special with the Radiate Face Jelly?
She'Neil: When Nicolette came on, we were really like, "OK, what problem are we solving?" So from the Skin Struggles survey, we knew that 50 percent of our customers had oily, combination, acne-prone skin. We knew that we needed a solution for at least those skin types. It was also great because it was the type we also identified with and so it was kind of like a personal decision as well. For those with acne-, oily-prone or combination skin, a lot of times we're really scared to moisturize and hydrate our skin because either it's going to leave us oily or greasy or clog our pores. It was that revelation that led us to create Radiate Face Jelly.
She’Neil, you’ve once mentioned that at one point of your journey, you challenged yourself to just put things out there and not be such a perfectionist. What were some steps that you took to overcome perfectionism and how has that paid off in the long run?
She'Neil: I came into the business with a very strong design background, so for me, everything is about design, aesthetics, and being perfectly curated. It would be terrible to the point where I would spend so much time on maybe one graphic just to post on social media. But it got to a point where our brand became a business and I had to really look at the numbers and the bottom line, and make decisions based on what was making us money. That's really when the shift came. Even to this day, I don't want to do anything design- or aesthetics-related with the business because I just don't want to go back there; to being a perfectionist.
At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. That gave me some room to chill out some. I also became the CEO of my business and learned that everything is trial and error. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned.
"At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
One common misconception about starting a business and working for yourself is that you have to quit your job and let your business catch you. But for you two, how did having a full-time job help you all build your business?
Nicolette: I'm a single Black woman living in New York and therefore, I need money. We've gone through all the phases of broke entrepreneurship, making money, and all the ups and downs. One of the things I realized is despite having the goal of building this business to be as big as it can be, there are other things I want to do and that takes money and savings and being able to use those resources strategically. In addition to that, I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things.
In my [current] 9-5, I do Product Marketing for a B2B company. Through that, I've learned a lot of interesting things that I get to bring back to our company. Because I've always worked in the startup world, it's allowed me the ability to think of solutions ahead of a problem that might present itself so we're not being reactive, and we can be proactive. It's been like a really interesting space to continue to learn and find inspiration in the weirdest places, while also making sure that I'm financially setting myself up for success as it relates to the wealth gap.
"I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
She'Neil: I started Base Butter with a 9-5 and ultimately, that funded the start of the business. But when Nicolette and I were laid off, we lived there until our lease ended. I had to make a decision: do I go and find a new job or do I still take this risk and make decisions to still work on Base Butter. Ultimately, I ended up staying in Philadelphia because my expenses were cut a lot and I had the support from my now-husband to build my business. I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good.
I thought early on in my business, that I'd just never pay myself until that "one day" we make it big. I thought it would be OK to be broke, broke, broke until we hit a million, but it honestly doesn't work like that. I had student loans, some credit card bills. So I went back to work with the goal of paying down debt, and I had to get very real about the type of life I wanted to live. Nicolette gave me a book called Profit First and from that book we learned how to pay ourselves, no matter how much we were making. Through implementing that model, we were able to start paying ourselves and things got a lot easier from there.
"I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
Most creatives and entrepreneurs are used to only having themselves to look to for support in difficult times along their journey, but you all are fortunate enough to have each other. How do you all affirm each other when in moments of doubt or when you’re questioning yourselves?
Nicolette: We have the advantages of being best friends. We've always said, "If this is not fun anymore, then we'll stop doing it." In addition to that, although we're not perfectionists, I will say we are committed to doing a good job. There's a level of loyalty and commitment to the idea and the vision. Just consistently being aligned or finding room to realign. And understanding that there's no one right way to do anything, so we have to be flexible.
She'Neil: And I also would say we have each other, but because the of the industry being a mix of beauty, entrepreneurship, creatives, [we] do have a community of people who provide insight and advice based off their own experiences.
What’s one thing that you didn’t know prior to becoming business owners that you would impart to aspiring entrepreneurs?
She'Neil: Pay yourself from day one. I feel like a lot of the stress that comes with launching a business and starting a business is really the finances. Like, how am I going to take care of myself? How am I going to feed myself or how to pay my bills? But if your bills are paid, you're eating every day, and have a roof over your head, you can really focus on your business without having to figure out, how am I going to survive?
You want to build your business around what's going to make you happy and keep you satisfied. It's just making sure that you're in a comfortable position so that you can really focus on your business because your business is going to need you to be present. It needs you to be healthy and for you to be wealthy. Build out your financial plan around your business as early as you can to make sure your needs are met.
Nicolette: And to piggyback off of that, I would say there is no one right way to do anything and you have to trust yourself. Going back to the idea of a saturated market, things will always be saturated because none of these ideas are new. It's understanding that whatever you're building is unique because you're unique and different.
But also, I've seen a lot of people taking any and everybody's advice as goals, but you're supposed to sift through that information and discern what makes the most sense for you and your life. In the grand scheme of things, 5, 10, 20 years from now, what do you want your life to look like? Understanding that as long as you feel OK with that, any and everybody else's opinions of the way that they've done it is irrelevant. You can learn things, but it's your journey.
For more of She'Neil and Nicolette, follow them on Instagram @sheneilmonique and @nicolette.camille. Also, check out their brand Base Butter by clicking here.
Featured image courtesy of Base Butter
When Ngozi Opara Sea started Heatfree Hair almost a decade ago, curly and kinky extensions weren't the norm on the market as they seem to be today, especially if you wanted those textures in quality human hair. Beauty supply stores mainly sold synthetic curly hair, and there was a surge of renewal for women who were just beginning to embrace natural styles, taking to YouTube to experiment with new techniques and styles.
"I just knew there was a market out there for women who were going natural, who were big chopping, and who wanted more human hair options for extensions, so that's where Heatfree Hair came in."
Trained as a stylist, she even went as far as traveling to China to see, first-hand, the whole process of manufacturing and shipping hair, and she meticulously came up with the right formula for wigs and extensions to match the beautiful coifs of a client base she was sure would love it.
Image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
Today, Ngozi heads a multimillion-dollar empire that includes the Heat Free Factory, which runs exclusively to manufacture the company's line of products. Customers can get closures, wigs, wefted tracks, clip-ins, and ponytails in textures that range from 3B to 4C. The company ensures you're getting 100 percent virgin hair that can be dyed and styled just as if it were growing out of your scalp, and the versatility is very evident, with options that can go from blow-outs, to twist-outs, to wash-and-gos, to kinky twists, to Afros, and back.
Well, we still can't ignore the fact that the market has also changed tremendously. There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of online vendors selling curly extensions, and so many new hair companies are cropping up via Instagram and Amazon. And some brands that once only offered straight and wavy hair have been diversifying, and even beauty supply stores have finally caught up.
The difference with Heatfree Hair is that it continues to stand out, scaling for longevity in the hair space and building an online community of 200,000-plus to boot. With her factory, she's also disrupting by being self-run and self-managed. (Thus, sis is, essentially, the plug, cultivating what her company offers from start to finish versus adding a custom tag on products that were bought from a secondary source or vendor.)
Image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
"We were―and still are―very selective with what we offer our customers, from how the hair is sourced, to the production, to the marketing. We want our customers to truly feel beautiful and purchase hair that they can be proud of spending their money on."
So, the question is: In what is often seen as a saturated market, how can an entrepreneur remain viable and thrive? Let's take a page from Ngozi's journey with these key points for success. (And a plus: These insights can apply to any business or industry):
1. Authenticity dominates every time.
Ngozi and her team are keen on remaining true to the company's goals of providing premium human hair that is responsibly sourced, with an emphasis on premium and proper sourcing. "When you're dealing with human hair, it's important to know exactly where it came from and to be honest about what you're getting, how you're getting it, and the quality. There's a commitment to really be part of that process and to look at what we're choosing to supply women who are going to use our products to style their hair," she added. "We don't really chase trends or what the next person or company is doing. We like to really target what we do and excel at that."
2. Trends can die but great customer service never gets old.
"We have been able to build a good relationship, and the key to that is great customer service," Ngozi said. "It's really been great because the customers we had in those early days are the same customers we have today. Customers No. 1 or No. 50 are still buying from us," Ngozi said. "And having a customer retention rate of above 40 percent just shows the level of customer loyalty we have as a company."
And what does good customer service look like? It's actually asking your customers what they like, what they would like to see in the future, and getting insights on how exactly they use your products. It's also quickly addressing issues, being relatable, and putting customers first in any initiatives or campaigns you choose to do to market your products or services. A good word on a great experience from one customer can lead to many new customers and thus, loyalty ushers in growth.
Image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
3. Know when to pivot and diversify what you offer in order to continue to show up for your loyal customers―and gain new ones.
"With Covid, we had major issues with the manufacturers shutting down. HD lace had become very popular and everyone wanted it, but we couldn't get lace. There was a shortage," Ngozi said of a recent challenge her brand faced. "Well, we decided, hey, let's offer the headband wigs. And they began to sell out! Our customers really loved those, so we're glad we were able to pivot to offer that since we couldn't with the lace wigs."
For Ngozi, it was a matter of thinking of how she could cater to the needs of her customer when her company couldn't offer something else that was in demand. "It's another product part of our line that can be an asset along with, now, the HD lace wigs and closures. Oftentimes it's about timing and reacting in a way, again, that serves the customer."
4. Forward-thinking is key, and having a vision separates a short win from a long-term one.
"Listen, in 2019, we were thinking of 2020 or 2021. We're always trying to get a step or two ahead in terms of what we dream of doing. We like to strategize what we'll offer way ahead of time," Ngozi said. When you have a vision that focuses on the future, you're not so set on duplicating what someone else has done or trying to be a replica of another concept. Having a mindset that looks to the future and seeks to be a trendsetter vs. a follower of trends, is a must.
5. Do your research and build an understanding of the ins and outs of the industry you're in.
"I moved to China and really got to know all about how they made the hair, how the hair was produced, and the whole business behind it. I like to have a hands-on presence in what I'm trying to do," Ngozi said. It's also a great idea to research the ingredients, processes, and other aspects that will contribute to solving a specific problem or meeting a need. For Ngozi, it was always about being able to give women the opportunity to provide extensions and wigs that could be a positive part of growing one's kinks, curls and coils. "We just want women to enjoy the experience, to wear our products throughout every transition of not only their hair but of their lives, and to enjoy!"
For more on Ngozi Opara Sea and Heatfree Hair, visit @ngozioparasea and @heatfreehair on Instagram or HeatfreeHair.com.
Featured image courtesy of Ngozi Opara Sea
Growing up, Eunique Jones Gibson didn't have to look far for positive imagery that reflected who she was and where she came from. At a young age, Eunique's parents wasted no time instilling the importance of self-love and embracing the richness of Black culture. From her father's afrocentric, Cross Colours-based style to seeing herself through the lens of Lena James, Jada Pinkett's confident persona on A Different World, Eunique's surroundings began to paint a colorful portrait of the worlds that true representation could form. She points out, "That was my entryway into really embracing the culture and understanding the power of who we are and being critical of false narratives." It's no wonder that her work in representation through entertainment and media no less found her.
Early out in her career, the power to influence through advertisement served as a compass to direct her career pursuits, "When people used to ask me what I wanted to do that, I always said I wanted to influence decisions in 30 seconds or less. Because that's what commercials do." But for Eunique, the power to influence doesn't stop after the commercial ends, true impact transcends fleeting attention spans and viral moments that evaporate within the vapor of a swipe or click.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
The creative-entrepreneur proved this to be true, most noticeably through her Because of Them We Can campaign and instant-classic game, Culture Tags. In creating her Because of Them We Can campaign in 2013, Eunique recognized that Black History Month was in need of revitalization, "I wanted to refresh it, make it youthful, engaging, and inspiring. I saw the opportunity to do that through photographs and eventually to evolve it from that point." As the campaign grew in online popularity and potency, it garnered the attention of prominent figures like Oprah Winfrey to Kerry Washington, "I thought it was going to be a 28-day campaign, but I also realized that in order to be true to what I was trying to prove — which was that we need to reimage Black History, I had to lead by example."
The example that Eunique continues to set is one that's rooted in her mission to celebrate culture and community through the highest form of resistance: Black Joy. Her new game, Culture Tags, has served as an instrument for joy as many have looked for a delightful escape in the midst of quarantine. Restoring play and festivity back into our households, Culture Tags continues to find new life as outside reopens, guaranteeing to be the life of any cookout or rooftop party where the game makes an appearance. "As Black people, we've gone through and continue to go through so much as a community that oftentimes joy is all we have to look forward to. It's up to us to preserve it, protect it, and create the space for it."
xoNecole: Your project “Because Of Them We Can,” garnered viral success with the images that you shared of young Black children portraying notable Black figures. You mentioned once that you “wanted to refresh Black History,” could you tell us about that mission to refresh/reimagine Black History and how that’s evolved today?
Eunique Jones Gibson: When I started the campaign in 2013, I didn't see a captivating push that made Black History interesting and exciting and something that wasn't just black and white photos. Black History was relegated to the narrative that in order to make history or be a figure or a person who could be acknowledged in Black History, it was a typical lineup of individuals that we learned about in school but it didn't expand beyond those individuals. It also typically ended up revolving around individuals who, when we talk about Black History Month, were older or people who were deceased and we know that Black History is constantly being made. It's always taking place, it's taking place right now as I'm talking to you.
I wanted to do something that would make it interesting to learn about figures throughout history that paved that way by refreshing those images and allowing folks to see them through the eyes of a child. Because then, you become a little more interested in the story and the individual beyond your bias or what you may think based on what you've heard or haven't heard.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
Because of all the success that you did receive from that campaign, was there anything that surprised you about the feedback you received or the response in general from your community?
I think at the time what really surprised me was the fact that people wanted it to continue beyond Black History Month. It was almost as if it became my responsibility to keep it going. I had started something bigger than what I had initially thought it was. I thought it was going to be a 28-day campaign, but I also realized that in order to be true to what I was trying to prove, which was that we need to reimagine Black History, I had to lead by example. I don't think I expected it when I launched it and I certainly didn't expect to be eight years later to still be building upon that foundation.
Your game, Culture Tags, is one of the hottest new games for us. What inspired the creation of Culture Tags?
We are a big entertainment family; we love game nights and it really just dawned on me at some point that we needed more games! We needed more options that were rooted in our culture. Not games that we can play because we understand the rules and because they're fun, but games we can play because they bring back the nostalgia and excitement because we know that it was made with us in mind.
The inspiration behind Culture Tags is that same inspiration behind all of my work: it's to celebrate culture and community and to make sure we are represented. I started to think about it back in 2019. One day, I was online and saw a really long abbreviation or acronym and all these people were commenting, "Why do I know what this means?" I was definitely in that same group where I was like, "Yo, this is wild, I know what this says!" I've tried to train my mind to see the opportunities beyond what's on the surface, I immediately said, this is a game!
Courtesy of: Eunique Jones Gibson
Your agency, Culture Brands, has recently been tapped to become Hyundai’s African American agency of record. Why do you think it’s important for big brands to tap firms and agencies that are actually of the culture, especially when it comes to portraying our images in advertisement?
Because we exist. We live it, we eat it, we breathe it. It isn't something that we have to study, it's something that we innately know. In order for brands to portray an authentic representation of their customer base when they are targeting Black folks, they should have experts at the table who can present an authentic story and picture. You can't do that when you are not of the culture.
There are certain things that you will miss, certain things that you will overlook, and that will never enter the conversation because you don't have that first-hand knowledge. You have to bring in people who eat, sleep, and breathe it — and people who can respect it. It's one thing to create culturally relevant content but the content also has to be responsible; it can't be exploitative.
Someone who is of the culture should know how to ensure that we are represented without allowing a brand to co-op the culture or present themselves as a culture vulture. There has to be people at the table with a voice to guide in that direction. A lot of times you have people who are in the room but are not at the table or people who are at the table but don't have a voice, or if they have a voice, no one is listening. We have to make sure that when brands invite multicultural or African-American companies to the table, that they are ready to listen and learn and to implicate the learnings and expertise that these agencies are offering.
"It's one thing to create culturally relevant content but the content also has to be responsible; it can't be exploitative. Someone who is of the culture should know how to ensure that we are represented without allowing a brand to co-op the culture or present themselves as a culture vulture."
I was listening to your interview on Luuvie’s IG Live and one of the things that really resonated was when you shared, “You’ve got to trust your vision. People steal ideas all day, but you can not steal a vision.” In your eyes, what is the difference between an idea and a vision?
Ideas come and go, and oftentimes they are inspired by a need. They are inspired by the environment and things that are happening around us but I think that the difference between an idea and a vision is that a vision makes the idea scaleable. A vision makes the idea sustainable; and gives [the vision] value and validates it beyond that moment. And it gives you direction. It helps to guide the direction that you move in. Oftentimes your ideas may change, but they should back into your vision.
Beyond that, I also don't think it's a good idea to fall in love with your ideas. I think you can execute them and like them, but you should not fall in love with them. You should commit yourself to whatever your anticipated goal is: fall in love with the goal, not with the idea that might get you there because that idea can shift, but if you commit to the goal, you might see that there are multiple ways to get there. Which is why you have to anchor yourself in the vision.
"A lot of times you have people who are in the room but are not at the table or people who are at the table but don't have a voice, or if they have a voice, no one is listening."
Something that many creatives may experience along their journey is analysis paralysis in not really knowing where to start with their ideas. What advice would you give to someone who may be sitting on an idea or hesitant to take a leap into their dreams?
I always say, "Date your dreams." A lot of times you can look at an idea as a dream or something that you want to execute or explore and I think you have to date it and spend time with it. You have to obsess over it, analyze it from different angles, poke holes in it. What's good about this, what's bad about it? What makes sense, what makes this crazy? You date it.
I also think you have to be willing to bet on yourself. After you've gone through that process, if you've come out on the other side, you've got to be willing to fail. If you're not willing to fail, then you will never try. If you're willing to fail, then you can take the risk to move forward with the idea understanding that if you failed, you really just learned.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
"Mistakes happen for us to patch the holes, to ensure that our baskets stay full once the blessings start coming in."
What’s something that felt like a mistake in the moment, but turned out to be a pivotal lesson for you along your journey?
I've had multiple moments like that. My mentor tells me, sometimes the thing that feels horrible that we lament over because they happened to us, really happened for us. He likened it to medicine that tastes horrible but at the end of the day, it does us some good. I think it can only do us good if we maintain the perspective that it's all an opportunity to learn and improve and not make the same mistakes that we made before because we are more informed this time.
Failure has been a consistent part of my process and they have been big and small, and costly - whether it's cost me money or peace of mind, they are not inexpensive! But I have learned from each one of them to ensure that I do not make the same mistake again. Mistakes happen for us to patch the holes, to endure that our baskets stay full once the blessings start coming in.
For more of Eunique, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Eunique Jones Gibson