Despite the information overload about natural hair and everything that surrounds it, Neno Natural stood out with the founder’s (Heather) ability to incorporate tailor-made business strategies to her personal journey. Having had experience in the corporate world and using this to her advantage when she set up her own business, we knew straight away that her wisdom had to be shared. Look out for Heather’s up and coming magazine too!:
Woven Musings: Heather, you certainly break all the stereotypes – from being a graduate in Economics from Cambridge to an investment banker who is now an author and blogger dedicated to afro-textured hair and business solutions; how did that happen?
Heather Katsonga-Woodward: Lots of hard work! It is very true that the harder you work, the luckier you get. When I was 11 years old I went to what was the best boarding school in Malawi, Kamuzu Academy.
As I was a few weeks late everyone had already bonded and I struggled to make friends so I made fast friends with my books. I did eventually make good friends but by then I had already started to enjoy studying and I worked my way up from a B/low A student to an A* student. It took almost 3 years before I consistently only got As. It showed that hard work does pay and the people at the top don’t have to stay there.
For Cambridge I applied for the Barclay-Smith scholarship. It’s awarded to one Malawian every two to three years depending on academic results. The scholarship administrators required me to get at least 3 As at A-level to be admitted so that is what I did.
As for banking, in 2004 when I was applying for internships the Careers Office in Cambridge pretty much told me I had a low chance of getting a job in banking because I was an immigrant and they would rather employ someone who doesn’t require a visa. I never went back there for advice! I learnt as much as I could from my friends who already knew what banking was all about and I got myself a banking career coach. The result was an internship and later an offer at Goldman Sachs, the investment bank EVERYONE wanted to get into. I felt so extremely blessed. I learnt that ignoring discouragers – or perhaps “realists” as they might see themselves – is the best life policy.
WM: What was most challenging about transitioning from the corporate world to owning your own business? What kind of support did you have?
HK-W: I would say the fear that it won’t work is the most challenging thing about leaving the corporate world. It was a huge risk for me especially because I was on a 6-figure salary.
I knew that if I left banking I would probably NEVER be able to go back because the online presence I would develop would be too much for them. Investment banks don’t like their employees to have an online existence outside of the job; they see it as being too risky from a regulatory and a reputation perspective.
The best support was a husband that believed in me and never said a single thing to discourage me.If you can’t overcome this “fear of the unknown” and don’t have people that believe in you enough to encourage you along the way it’s almost impossible to make the transition. A lot of people don’t pursue their dreams of owning a business for this reason.
WM: How did you make the decision to be based both here and the States? Does this mean that you do quite a bit of traveling?
HK-W: I see the world as one country so I want to be wherever there are people with kinky and curly hair. There are a huge number of naturals in the USA – indeed that’s where the natural hair revolution began – and this is a strong and growing market. It is very easy to set up shop in the US without ever going there by having an online presence. I personally like to go to the states once a year, partly for business and partly because I have family there.
In many ways it is easier to do business in the US because it is a more business-friendly environment than many other countries including the UK. Importantly, about 80-90% of Neno Natural fans are US-based. I also want to be in Africa and I would already be there but operating an online business in key African countries without being there remains challenging. The infrastructure isn’t currently there.
WM: As a woman, how do you manage to balance work life and family life?
HK-W: Three things: working from home, getting a weekly cleaner and leveraging third-party online services makes it a lot easier.
My husband, Harry, is a doctor and works a lot of shifts. When I was an investment banker we both worked long hours and you can imagine how detrimental that could be to family life. So now when he comes home I am usually there and that makes us happy. Even if I am working we like being around one another to chat.
In the two years since I first quit my job I have been working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week: writing books and blogs, editing videos, building websites and online profiles; developing product and marketing strategies etc. This doesn’t leave much time for cleaning the house and making the beds. Getting someone to help with these tasks, even once a week, definitely helps me to be more productive.
Finally, nowadays you can get someone else to do almost any work for you. So, for instance, all the shipping and packing of my products is handled by a fulfilment house. This is a huge time saver and one of the core principles that I teach on my course, The Money Spot Program – How To Build a 6-Figure Beauty Business.
In December 2014 we’re expecting our first baby. At that point I will have to become even smarter with my time. Everything is very well set up now and I get great support from virtual assistants so I think it should be manageable. My granny will probably come to England from Malawi to lend a hand so that will make it even easier for me.
WM: Without giving too much away, can you tell us about your books? What audience are you targeting?
HK-W: I am very multidimensional so I don’t only write for one specific audience.
My first book, To Become An Investment Banker, targets anyone that wants to get into investment banking.
Chichewa 101, targets anyone who wants to learn Chichewa, the language of Malawi. It’s surprisingly my best selling book. A lot of people going to Malawi to do charity work buy it.
The Black Girl Getting to Wealthy Series including The Secret Rules of Money targets women who want to save better, start a business and overall gain better control over their financial future.
Neno Natural’s DIY Hair Products series which comprises six books targets anyone who wants to make their own hair care preparations.
WM: Tell us a bit more about Neno Natural products. What made you decide to create this brand?
HK-W: This is one of those things that I would describe as a happy accident. I started documenting my natural hair journey on YouTube and on my personal blog katsonga.com in early 2012, a year after I had gone natural.
In that time I had been whipping up a special oil blend to cure my rapidly thinning hair. I used to write the odd blog here and create the odd video there.
Six months after quitting my job my venture into coaching people on how to get into investment banking was moving extremely slowly and frankly it wasn’t that fun. It was November 2012 and I just thought, what else can I do?
The only thing that stood out in my life was my natural hair journey and within a few hours of sitting at my desk thinking about it I decided growing a hair following would be my primary focus for 2013. Having products wasn’t even a priority at all; being seen as a knowledgeable authority in the space was all I cared about.
The rest as the say is history: since I started the business has blown up from nothing to a huge amount of quality content at the blog, an email list of 40,000 subscribers, about 250,000 website hits per month, 400,000 Facebook fans and my following on instagram, Twitter and Pinterest is growing every day.
I rebranded katsonga.com to NenoNatural.com (Neno is the village in Malawi where my dad was born) early in the journey.
WM: Of course, you wouldn’t give your secret away but what would you say makes your products unique?
HK-W: It was only after working on my following for a couple of months that I decided to create some products.
First, I got a manufacturer to make and package my oil blend Neno Natural’s Hair Growth Stimulator. Then I launched a limited edition oil set. This was followed by some branded accessories and soon I will be launching my own product line consisting of a shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer and scalp massage / hot oil treatment.
The most unique thing about my line is that I focus on one hair problem. I don’t try to be all things to all people. I gave my formulator one goal and to that was to solve dry hair.
Lots of lines out there just say, “we’re great for natural hair” or “this product is for curly hair” – for me, that’s not enough, I want my products to solve a particular hair problem.
WM: You run classes too; can you tell us about the content, format and the benefits of these courses.
HK-W: The Money Spot Program is my course on How To Build A 6-Figure Beauty Business. Beauty includes Hair, Makeup, Fashion, Craft, Fitness, Health and even Non-perishable Foods.
My goal is to help others transition out of the inflexibility of a regular day-job with all the hassles that come with it: limited holiday, hardly seeing your children, annoying managers, living to work and not having any savings etc.
The Format: we plan on holding annual workshops in the US and 2 or 3 workshops a year in the UK, however, the easiest way to do the program is online.
Ultimately, many beauty businesses do not achieve rapid growth because they focus their time, resources, and investments too much on the wrong thing: the product!
The Money Spot™ is a 3-part framework that teaches how branding, marketing and distribution from the start can be optimized to make your business grow as fast as possible. A mediocre product will make far more revenue than a superior product if it has these 3-elements right, fact.
The video database at TheMoneySpotProgram.com hosts over 50 learning videos as well as a very intensive Training Manual.
Running a business is hard work. 90% of people who start a blog quit after six-months and committing to a business requires a lot more commitment than this, so the program is set up to make it all easier.
After the series of workshops I held in New York, Chicago and London this year the best feedback I got was, “Why are you charging £1,000 for a £10,000 course?”. This feedback was based on the range of content included and came from a lady who’s been running her own business for 7 years and spent £20,000 on courses in 2013 alone. I was very chuffed because she, more than anyone, knows the value of courses and has attended many of the best ones including some hosted by Tony Robbins, the well-loved multimillionaire life coach and author.
WM: Tell us about your personal transition journey; what made you decide to grow your natural hair?
HK-W: Rapidly thinning hair was my impetus.
WM: There has been a lot of debate around the ‘apparent inappropriateness’ of natural hair in the corporate world. Can you share your thoughts and experience? (If you wore your natural hair before you switched careers).
HK-W: Yes, I went natural when I was still in banking and got a lot of negative comments in the process. Clients in the professional world generally expect a conservative look. Natural hair can be styled in conservative ways for work so I think people should focus on styling it in ways that don’t make people focus on your hair.
Afros (one of my favourite styles) generally attract a lot attention but updo, braids and pinned-up styles do not so when I am going to a business environment I go for one of these styles. During the early TWA stage an afro is necessary because you can’t pull the hair together but it’s less “astounding” because it’s not so big yet so I personally see no issues with it.
Ultimately, the real issue is people getting used to black women not trying to fit the Western ideal of beauty. It is a cultural shift that will take some time.
WM: On the subject of appropriateness, what is your experience or knowledge in your home country (Malawi) towards natural hair? Are more women becoming conscious about the dangers of relaxers? Are products and information readily available?
HK-W: More and more Malawians are going natural for sure; we now even have a Facebook page for Malawian Naturals where people share pictures of their journey. Internet access means gaining information is just as easy if you are in Malawi vs. the UK or the US.
WM: Do you have any plans to establish a base for Neno in Malawi or anywhere in Africa?
HK-W: In time, yes, but I would prefer to operate through wholesalers and distributors. I don’t want to own any shops myself; this is one of the reasons I currently focus all efforts online.
WM: Where do you see yourself and Neno Natural in a few years? Do you have any other future plans you would like to share with us?
HK-W: I will continue with establishing Neno Natural as a hair authority that serves kinky and curly hair fans in many different ways: information, high-quality hair products and accessories; making your own products and sharing through our social media and upcoming annual magazine: Queen of Kinks, Curls & Coils which will include over 100 profiles of other naturals so that we can all learn from the journey of others.
If you want to learn more about Heather and her projects, follow the links below: