Zeze Oriaikhi-Sao, 28, had a dream to change the perception of the African skin, hair and fragrance markets as more than just great raw materials.
She started Malée Natural Science in 2009 with the aim of creating a world-class African beauty range that was environmentally sound, sustainable and offered the type of products she’d want to use herself.
Her products are free from animal-derived ingredients, don’t test on animals, and the company uses recyclable and biodegradable packaging.
Her flagship store is in Hyde Park Corner Shopping Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Malée range is also available online. Products include bath, body, skin, hair and fragrance.
Oriaikhi-Sao named the luxury eco-spa range of products after her great grandmother. Malée is the Nigerian word for a gracious, learned woman.
Have you always been entrepreneurial? I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak of some sort. I remember as a child drawing comics and photocopying them at my dad’s office and reselling them to earn extra money.
What were you doing before starting your business? I have a bachelor of science degree in informatics (study of the science of information) and worked for British Telecom as a network integrating engineer and then as a database analyst. I realized I wasn’t crazy about the industry so started a small media consultancy with a family friend and, as a partner in the consultancy, my real dreams of being the next global cosmetics giant became real. They weren’t that far-fetched and (were) attainable. When the partnership dissolved, I enrolled at business school for a master’s in international business at Grenoble Graduate School of Business. On completion of my course, my now husband got a job transfer to South Africa. I arrived in the middle of the recession with a unique skill set and found getting a job difficult. This, to be honest, was the catalyst to me biting the bullet and starting Malée.
What kind of planning went into starting the venture? For me there was a lot of planning – it had been years in the making. I started off as a consumer of products and knew what I’d like in a range of beauty products. I started to learn about ingredients out of interest. Business plan writing and the concept of a business larger than a mom-and-pop came from my master’s program. I think this taught me discipline. I believe in business plans in the beginning; they’re a framework for your thoughts and ideas, feasibility studies as a reference point and guideline after you’re up and running.
What was your startup capital? I started Malée from my home. The dining table was my office in the beginning. I drove around a lot, sourcing suppliers, so was on the road often. To put my idea in motion and end with a finished product, with research and development and my first production run, I started with a quarter of a million rand (about $28,000).
How does a new entrepreneur find business leads in Africa and profit from them? I don’t think there is a rule here. If anything, I can say what has worked for me. It’s good to talk, so put what you’re after out there, talk about it and be open to the opportunities that might come your way because of it.
What was your most epic failure in the early days? In the beginning, the most difficult thing for me was finding the right suppliers. I don’t think there’s an easier way of getting around this, but sometimes I made decisions that cost me money and I had to have it redone and pay more money for the same job.
How do you keep yourself motivated? My strong support network, my husband and family. Their belief in me is priceless. A compliment about Malée from a complete stranger makes it all worthwhile.
Which three character traits do all entrepreneurs possess? Belief in their vision or dream, the ability to be persistent and the ability to adapt, learn and get the best out of every situation.
If you could give yourself any advice for starting a new business, what are your top five tips? This will not be easy. You’ll need to be patient. You may believe in your idea but that doesn’t mean everyone else will. You will need to be persistent and be ready to adapt quickly, should the need arise.