Whatever stage of entrepreneurship you’re in — the dreaming phase, the “I’m gonna quit this 9-to-5” phase, the plotting-and-planning phase, or the growing-your-business-to-the-next-level phase — hearing advice from people who have been in the same position is always helpful.
All startup founders began, just like you or me, with an idea. Many started out without any relevant experience, financial backing or network of contacts. Read on to hear advice from four incredible female founders who are changing the status quo — and the world.
Lillian Ahenkan aka Flex Mami, Founder & CEO of Flex Factory
Lillian Ahenkan (aka Flex Mami) is one of Australia’s favourite women. That’s a big claim, but most people would agree. The millennial is some kind of entrepreneurial whirlwind: she's a startup entrepreneur, TV presenter, reality TV star, DJ, author, DIY guru, social commentator, media influencer and podcaster — all this before she's even hit 30.
Ahenkan is the Founder and CEO of Flex Factory, which carries the super-popular conversation card game ReFlex. The game represents her passion for promoting conversations around mental health, identity and intersectionality. She’s not shy about using her platform to tackle taboo topics — everything from body positivity and sexual liberation to identity and critical thinking — to give her followers the tools to be their best selves.
Her advice: Differentiate Yourself!
Around 2018, Lil was enjoying a successful career as a DJ and MTV presenter, but found herself wanting to transition to a career that was less reliant on hype and trends. She looked towards the fast-growing world of social media influencers. Undeterred by the fact that she didn't fit into the typical influencer mould of bikini bodies and inspirational quotes, and with that infectious "Lil confidence,” she carved a space for herself.
“I don’t like to compete where I don’t compare, and there was a very specific look for an influencer that I didn’t have, and so I was like, ‘I need to make my own land," Ahenkan says on the Female Startup Club podcast. "I need to do something completely different.”
I wasn’t just a body and entertainment... I was helping people build their understanding of the world.
Contemplating her strengths, Ahenkan realised that she had always been the type of person that liked to have big conversations. She enjoyed asking hypothetical questions and was interested in the way people think. So she began posting daily questions and sharing the responses with her audience.
“It would start this huge dialogue, and it was so cool to me, because I noticed that what I had that my other peers didn’t have was an audience that humanised them," she says. "I wasn’t just a body and entertainment. I was a person with thoughts, and I was a facilitator of something far bigger than this discussion. I was helping people build their understanding of the world.”
How Do You Win The Day?
“The only way I can properly win the day is if I action off one priority from every business I have," Ahenkan shares. "So it means that everything gets care, and I don’t feel like I’m neglecting everything, but I don’t put pressure on myself to have a game-changing moment every day. And I also know there are not enough hours in the day for me to resource everything equally. So allowing myself to create just small priorities.”
Sarah Paiji Yoo, cofounder & CEO of Blueland
Sarah Paiji Yoo is the cofounder and CEO of Blueland, a forward-thinking cleaning product company that’s on a mission to eliminate single-use plastics. Her name may sound familiar — if you’re a Shark Tank fan, you might have seen her pitch that clinched an investment from Kevin O’Leary. Or you might have seen her on Kim Kardashian’s Twitter account, where she shared her journey, what it was like in the early days, and how she made $200,000 USD worth of sales just in her first month.
Before Blueland, Yoo had spent many years as a serial entrepreneur, as had her cofounder John Mascari. Both were interested in making a positive impact on the world, beyond simply building a new company. As a new mum, Yoo had become a lot more conscious about what was in her son’s food and water. In her research about bottled water vs. tap water, she was shocked that both options contained hundreds of pieces of microplastics. She committed to cutting back on her plastic consumption, but she didn’t find much choice in the stores. The pair set out to look at different ways they could disrupt the market and offer a product that bucked the omnipresent trend of single-use plastic.
Her advice: Don’t Fall in Love with Your Ideas
The duo played around with many ideas, trying to find the right product fit for their vision. Yoo has some interesting advice for budding entrepreneurs: don't fall in love with your ideas. She says that sometimes in the early stages, entrepreneurs can become too fixated on a specific idea to be genuinely open to feedback.
“Cleaning products was the last category that we arrived at. Initially, we threw ideas around — everything from bulk refills, things like shampoo and body wash and conditioner," Yoo says. "We would go out to friends and survey them on the ideas. We would try to be really honest with ourselves, try not to fall in love with ideas, try to be open to the honest feedback that people were giving us.”
How Do You Win The Day?
“A big one for me, in the mornings, is making sure that I have quiet time," Yoo shares. "I try to reflect on a few things that I’m very thankful for. I think it’s just a good way to ground myself each day and give me perspective.”
Maeva Heim, founder & CEO of Bread Beauty Supply
Maeva Heim is the founder of Bread Beauty Supply (or just Bread for short). Bread is a haircare line for curly hair that aims to simplify hair care for those with 3A–4C curls. An article about Heim says it perfectly: “This new hair care line wants to make ‘lazy girl hair’ an option for Black folks too.”
Heim’s journey to becoming an entrepreneur was a long one. She had worked in the corporate world for many years, including within the beauty industry for brands such as L’Oréal. It was there that she spotted a problem she wanted to find a solution for.
“I just got to a point where I was really fed up with the beauty industry," Heim shares. "I was behind the scenes of this enormous corporation, working on some of the biggest brands in the world. And I didn’t feel like those brands were talking to me. There weren’t many foundation shades in the market for women who look like me and women with darker skin tones. I really saw that as, one, a huge problem and, two, an opportunity to potentially start my own brand.”
There aren’t enough Black women CEOs of these big companies that can make decisions to impact the market.
Her advice: You Don’t Have To Be Powerful To Make An Impact
Although Heim had spotted a problem, she initially felt that she had to be a powerful industry leader to really make an impact. But her story, like that of so many others, proved that wrong.
“I felt like you have to be in a position of power in order to really have the effects trickle down into the market," she says. "And I remember complaining about this to my partner one day and saying there aren’t enough female founders in beauty that have massive companies. There aren’t enough Black women CEOs of these big companies that can make decisions to impact the market.”
Her partner gave her a push in the right direction. “He was like, well, what are you going to do about it?" she recalls. "And it was kind of that moment that I was like, oh, well, I guess I could do something about it.”
How Do You Win The Day?
“I think one of my big things is my dog — just having her there and being able to take that break in the middle of the day [to] take her out to the dog park and watch her run around," Heim says. "It gives me so much joy. Aside from that, creating a workspace that feels really aspirational and looks amazing makes me feel so much more legitimate and encourages me to work hard and bring everything to fruition.”
Mimi Ikonn, cofounder of Intelligent Change
Mimi Ikonn cofounded Luxy Hair, one of the world’s biggest providers of premium hair extensions, which she bootstrapped through to a lucrative exit. Following that, she cofounded Love Hair, which provides natural and sustainable haircare products. But that was just the start of her adventures. As a YouTube influencer with over 2.8 million subscribers and over 350 million views, Ikonn is one of the biggest names in the beauty, travel and fashion space. And it doesn’t end there either. Ikonn is now the cofounder of Intelligent Change, which has created bestsellers like the Five-Minute Journal and the Productivity Planner, with the aim to enrich your life through daily gratitude planners and productivity planners. Tim Ferris and Hailey Bieber are among their thousands of fans around the world.
In her late teens and early twenties, Ikonn tried her hand at many things — waitressing, working as a nanny, and later working at a bank. Although she was still searching for the right fit, the one thing she did know was that she loved working with people, so she sought out customer service roles. While working at the bank, she met Alex, wmho would become her future business partner and the love of her life. The two connected on many levels, but most importantly, they both had the same vision for the lifestyle they wanted to have. They both wanted to escape the corporate life, have freedom and flexibility and the opportunity to travel the world.
Her advice: You Don’t Need A Big Marketing Budget To Get Started
Sourcing products from Alibaba can of course be hit or miss. Ikonn ordered ten different samples to consider, and with a stroke of luck, one out of the ten was “sensational.” She had absolutely no budget to put into marketing, but she didn’t let that deter her from thinking creatively.
“It was just me and my sister making YouTube videos, showing people how to use the products," she says. "We never even pushed the products or told people that we own the company. It was simply us sitting down and showing girls how to do all these different hairstyles.”
Without a budget for social media advertising, their next organic marketing strategy was to send free product out to followers as gifts. It was an effective tactic and word of mouth spread quickly. So quickly, in fact, that Luxy Hair turned over more than a million dollars in its first year.
How Do You Win The Day?
“First, it’s just starting the day with gratitude," Ikonn shares. "I use a Five-Minute Journal in the morning and in the evening. If I have a really busy morning, and I don’t manage to fill out the journal, I do it in the shower, and I’m grateful for my healthy body. I’m grateful that I present all the things that I want to embody. I say out loud that I’m grateful for them.
"Also, working out in the mornings has really helped me have more energy and feel more like myself because I find that when I go through periods of not doing any physical activity, I feel more down and more lethargic. You would think by working out, you’re using energy, but it definitely gives you more fuel and fire.”