Running a business can’t be as tough as losing both your parents before the age of 18 years and taking on the care of one of your younger sisters. Shaleah Lawrence has faced the toughest of times and says that although she expects challenges on her journey to creating a successful business, she has the mental toughness to go all the way.
Her drive is to financially provide for her two younger sisters, to buy them a house and then finally have the freedom to enjoy some of the things most young adults take for granted, such as “going to a music festival”. Shaleah’s journey to business success is now well underway after unanimously impressing the three judges at the second annual Innovate Hawke’s Bay (a business accelerator programme), along with potential investors and business mentors, with her brand of natural skincare products, Earthwoven, inspired by her own skin conditions. The mature 23-year-old has had the most unconventional and tragic upbringing.
She lost her father to a brain tumor when she was three years old and in her teens, she and her two siblings were taken out of the care of their mother, who was suffering from postpartum depression following the birth of a sister, which tragically spiralled into her taking her own life.
“I watched my mum’s life spiral downhill. She had been unwell for a long time and it wasn’t unexpected (her passing) but it was still a shock.
“I then lived with a family friend for a little while before a very nice couple gave me the chance to rent a house, where I was then able to look after my youngest sister.”
Shaleah also walked away from mainstream schooling, having been homeschooled by her mother from Year 5 then going on to attend Napier Community High School, which provided individual tailored education that she is forever grateful to the small team of teachers for. Personal tragedy, growing up fast, having an unconventional education as well as battling her own mental health have given Shaleah the confidence to know that she can take on anything that is thrown her way in business.
“It’s why I didn’t even stumble when it came to creating the business. There are many businesspeople who give up before they get to market and I think I haven’t because I have already gone through the hardest things in my life. Everything I do from now on and no matter how difficult it may seem, it won’t be the hardest thing I have gone through – that was losing my mum.
“I struggled a lot in my teenage years, and it wasn’t until I was 19 that I woke up one day and said to myself, if anyone is going to change this then it’s me – stop the pity party.
“You have just lost your mum so you have to get up now and make something of yourself. It has been a big journey but I have had incredible support from my therapist, she saved my life, as well as my nana, who never gave up on me.”
Working two jobs wasn’t going to create any financial freedom so Shaleah started thinking of business ideas; as a sufferer of dermatitis and other sensitive skin issues who always struggled to find effective natural-based skincare products, she decided to make her own.
In 2020 Shaleah started to turn her life around, spending hours researching natural ingredients that when combined could rejuvenate and protect her skin.
“I couldn’t find any products on the market that were natural, and all my research found that most skincare products included sulphates and parabens, harsh chemicals that eventually soak into your skin. “I also couldn’t find any active ingredients that could get to the root of my problem. There are some big brands that market themselves as natural but when you look at their ingredients, they’re not.”
Shaleah partnered with Auckland-based Shieling Laboratories, an industry leader in creating personal care products, toiletries and candles, and in skincare and cosmetic manufacturing. “I partnered with a senior formulator and briefed her on my ingredient must-haves as well as the claims I wanted to go with my products.”
‘Natural’ or ‘earth-based’ was at the top of the list and having already done a lot of research, Shaleah had already narrowed it down.
“I knew what I was looking for and so we started from there, creating four-to-six samples to trial before I was happy with the final formulation.”
The next step was to add a natural fragrance to the products and this was achieved with the help of another company called Flairoma. Shaleah worked through the night developing the design of her packaging, sourcing a packaging manufacturer in China, and placing an order for 15,000 recyclable containers while also building an online retail website. At the same time, she was still dealing with the loss of her mother, who had instilled in her a hard work ethic and fierce determination.
“The last two-to-three years of trying to establish a business has played a big part in my healing journey and has involved plenty of self-discovery.
“I would not be where I am today without the business – the staying up until 4 am trying to learn Mandarin because I didn’t know my way around Alibaba, and then just having to get up in the morning and keep going. No one is going to do it for me, and I hate failure. I have no choice but to succeed; no one’s coming to save me. While I my have also lost friends and family in the process, I have grown in myself. “I worked hard to learn website coding and design on my own, purely because I am a small business with no cash flow.”
To seed fund the business Shaleah got a Work and Income grant, a bank business loan and some funding support from the Regional Business Partner Network – a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise fund.
“There was a bit of bootstrapping involved, funding the business through my wages, and my nana also helped.”
By the time she heard about Innovate Hawke’s Bay, Shaleah was already making a profit based on great production margins, made even better by placing such a large quantity packaging order to meet the quantity of her first three product lines – a foaming cleanser, a spritz toner and a hydrating moisturiser. She wasn’t confident in being shortlisted and getting support to prepare for the final Dragon’s Den-like pitch to the Innovate Hawke’s Bay judges, thinking the business was already too far advanced.
However, Innovate Hawke’s Bay programme director Hal Josephson quickly saw the potential in the business as well as the energy and commitment Shaleah had already put into getting her business off the ground. “Shaleah is full of energy and is even ‘batting cleanup’ as the phrase goes.
“She has done everything from her home and in her spare time. Up until just before the final pitch, she was still working part-time to supplement her income. “The fact that she already had so many customers and had put in so much time and effort, I wasn’t surprised that she went all the way,” says Hal.
The six finalists met each week at Hastings HIVE to build their ideas into a validated business with tailored support from local mentors.
They also had access to the full mentor pool of The Factory, a Palmerston North-based business accelerator company. Using lean start-up methodologies, finalists learned about intellectual property and protection, cash flow and budgeting, validation and, most importantly, what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. Head judge Luke Irving said there was no doubt that Shaleah was the overall winner, securing the $5,000 cash prize money and access to the Manawatu Investment Group (MIG), as well as continuing to build out her next phase plan with mentors from The Factory.
“Shaleah showed a perfect balance of true entrepreneurship with a proven product, a great understanding of product market fit and total customer empathy. “She is executing well and has clearly made some brilliant strategic decisions to get to where she is now, not to mention her age and energy.
She is one to watch and we can’t wait to support her and the other finalists’ exciting growth.”
With the win under her belt, Shaleah is now looking at adding new products to her range and deciding whether to partner with investors to scale up the business or go it alone.
“I want to get distribution into pharmacies and specialty stores, and I genuinely want to help people. The skin issues I went through weren’t cool, so I really understand the challenges and have empathy for those who also struggle with their skin.” As the business grows Shaleah wants to support new mothers who also suffer from postpartum depression? and encourage