Meet the female entrepreneur with a hair care business that’s changing lives
How long do you spend doing your hair each morning? Does your routine involve tackling your mane at some ungodly hour whilst glaring at your other half as they catch some extra shut eye, and eventually get office ready with a quick shower, towel tussle and off they go? Sound annoyingly familiar? Sarah Agbantou, a 27-year-old African female entrepreneur from Benin with supreme style and a luscious afro, feels your pain.
When I asked Sarah if she had always wanted to run her own business, she said ‘not really, but I have always wanted to solve problems.’
Working as a management consultant for five years, a demanding schedule meant she was forced to set her alarm at the crack of dawn just to get her hair done before work. These were hours she could have spent exercising or preparing for her work day.
‘I was working in Strategy, one of the toughest departments, and doing very long hours. This meant that I didn’t have the luxury of spending hours at the weekend on my hair. I also realised that this frustration was shared by others,’ she explained.
As a management consultant, developing solutions to problems was her bread and butter. So, naturally, she honed in on the issue, determined to fix it. ‘Black women are used to taking a trial and error approach to buying their products in a store. I want to give back to women of colour time and money so they can spend it on other things, like friends and family, and getting ahead in their careers,’ she explained. And so, Destrand was born: a user led platform that enables busy women of African descent to manage their hair in an easier, faster and cheaper way.
Black entrepreneurship in Africa – Sarah’s fresh approach
Sarah launched Destrand from Benin, a former French colony on the West African coast next to Nigeria. Her corporate mission is firmly routed in helping people out, from colleagues to clients and her local community. It’s a fresh approach to entrepreneurship that is infectious, and is catapulting her towards success.
But, the road has not always been smooth:
‘It is challenging to be a female entrepreneur in Africa, because the community, free tools, culture and environment which are on offer in London or Silicon Valley are very difficult to source. You have to be creative just to get to the same level and to be competitive,’ she said.
Growing up in Africa and sticking out
Sarah was born to a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, who encouraged her to be curious and open minded from an early age. This meant that when she went to school, she stuck out. ‘I was really interested in geopolitics when I was 11 years old and I was questioning the decisions of leaders in Benin when I was 14. In civics class I remember asking the teacher why boys were treated differently to girls.
The global market doesn’t cater sufficiently for many of the difficulties that African descendants encounter.
A numbers game
When she moved to the UK for University in 2007, she discovered her love for statistics, and did a Masters at the University of Oxford to hone her knowledge of data crunching. Reflecting on her time there, she said: ‘I had this preconception that it would be a stuck-up environment, but it was nothing like that. I met open and curious people, and felt more at ease during my Masters than ever before. Young black individuals might think they’d be out of place at Oxford but I would really encourage more black people to apply.
(Not the) nine to five
After University, Sarah decided to put her statistical skills to the test at a ‘big four’ consulting firm. There she started gaining experience which would eventually help her to set up Destrand and set her on the road to becoming a successful entrepreneur. ‘I worked with clients in private equity, international development, health and retail focussing on analytics. I had opportunities to work in different industries and on different continents,’ she said.
The cost of maintaining the mane was also a concern: as Sarah listened to women frustrated by having to spend up to £2000 (AUD$3000) a year on their hair. As cosmetics companies increase their investment in Africa, Sarah saw an opportunity to tackle the problem once and for all.
Want to know how Sarah tackled the problem? Read on!
How to become a successful female entrepreneur
What is Destrand?
I interviewed over 100 women in Africa, Europe and America to understand what worked on their hair and created a database of their hair profiles. Now, women can log on to Destrand, create their own hair profile and receive product recommendations which have been generated by hundreds of other women with the same profile.
We want to give women of colour time and money back so they can spend it on other things, like friends and family, or getting ahead in their careers.
Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I think it is more that I have always wanted to solve problems. It’s not really about the business, but about issues which are frustrating me or frustrating people in my community. If I feel like my frustrations are also encountered by other people, I prioritise them. In my community, we still have a lot of issues to solve. Even in 2017, the global market doesn’t cater sufficiently for many of the difficulties that African descendants encounter. In the beauty industry for example, not enough make up products are made for our skin.
Black women are used to taking a trial and error approach to buying their products in a store, but we are trying to get them to think about choosing a hair product the same way they choose the perfect pair of jeans.
What are Destrand’s results so far?
It’s early days, but since we launched in March ’17 people have been contacting us saying ‘I need this in my life’ and ‘are you sure you only do this for black people’, which shows we are on to something.
We are segmenting the market so that niche brands can better position themselves. Their products are suddenly visible to the right people, and they don’t have to compete in the same way with big brands.
For large brands it helps them to better understand the market, which they have been trying and failing to do for years. In future, I hope cosmetics companies will use the data we collect to develop the right products for women of colour.
What have been the biggest challenges for you as a female entrepreneur?
Like any innovative solution, the challenge is adoption. Black women are used to taking a trial and error approach to buying their products in a store, but we are trying to get them to think about choosing a hair product the same way they choose the perfect pair of jeans. We want Destrand to be their go-to resource when choosing hair products; whether they’re in a store or buying online. It is less about selling hair products, and more about being able to source the right ones more easily.
What have you found the most rewarding about setting up Destrand?
Working in Benin and empowering people to build Destrand. The company was built almost exclusively by Africans. In the team, we have a female Beninese coder who worked on the site, and we launched the project from Benin for a global market. This is a global issue, but black women currently have unequal access to the products they need. We are directly tackling this problem, and now we have people all over the world logging on to Destrand and loving the site. It’s those stories, those moments, when the female coder finishes the goals that she set herself and is proud of what she produced that are most rewarding. Africa is not only about raw material extraction! We can do digital in Africa. There is talent.
When I worked in consulting, I remembered when Friday and Monday arrived. Since starting my own business that hasn’t been the case.
What has been your biggest lesson?
When I arrived back in Benin to start the company, people advised me to be patient, telling me that some things I wanted to achieve would not necessarily happen. My advice would be, yes you have to be patient, yes the environment is different, but don’t let anyone stop you from setting your own pace. You can find innovative ways to launch your business in any environment.
An important lesson I learnt is to stop fixating on one aspect of a project if it isn’t going to plan. I find if you change your focus it can help you look at an old problem with a fresh perspective and get things unstuck.
What makes you bounce out of bed in the morning?
When I worked in consulting, I remembered when Friday and Monday arrived. Since starting my own business that hasn’t been the case. What motivates me is working to make Destrand the best it can be to make black women’s lives simpler.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced as a black, female entrepreneur working in Africa?
A big challenge has been working out how to be a business owner in a culture where women are seen as subordinate to men, without losing myself in the process. In Benin a lot of women provide for their families, but there is still a macho culture and they don’t necessarily get recognised for their efforts.
There are some tasks that I can get done faster by sending a male friend. It has been important to accept that. You look at your time-line and think do I fight the system and never get my start-up launched, or do I think about the areas where I’m going to conform to progress – so I made some choices. At the same time, I still want to change the system. There is no point arguing with a guy over a signature on some paperwork, when I could spend more time coaching young men in a school. It’s been about shifting where I spend my energy.
A big challenge has been working out how to be a business owner in a culture where women are seen as subordinate to men.
When you’re not spending time on your hair, what do you do?
I spend a lot of time helping smaller companies in Benin to tap into international markets. I also love travelling, cooking and spending time with family.
How do you maintain a good work life balance and mental health?
I’m working at getting better at looking after myself and listening to my body. I burnt out once and I said ‘never again.’
When I arrived in Benin I made a list of things I like to do, and now I make myself take time out of work for these. I will go to an exhibition once a month and travel to discover other cities in Africa. New experiences relax me. Being in an African country, the weather also has an amazing impact on my wellbeing. I need the sunshine!
What does success look like for you?
When the word struggle is not associated with black hair.
How would your friends describe you?
Energetic. Smart. Intense. Solution driven. Demanding. Passionate about development in Africa. A dance fanatic.
Who do you look up to?
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Meet the female entrepreneur with a hair care business that’s changing lives
Cover image credit: Destrand.com