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Zandra Azariah Cunningham can tell you all about being youngest person in the room. She can also tell you anything you want to know about creating lip balm – or a business – from scratch. Zandra is a senior at Buffalo Academy of Scholars and is the Founder and CEO of the natural skin care line, Zandra. Only 17, she has also founded the Young Mogul Prep School and The Zandra TLC Foundation. She is passionate about entrepreneurship, advocating for girls’ STEM education, and getting everyone to pay a little more attention to the things they put in and on their bodies every day.
1. How did you (and your parents) recognize that pursuing this business was not just another one of your childhood phases?
I knew right from the start that I wanted that lip balm – lol. I was determined to make it. I believe my parents recognized that I was serious because I was obsessed with learning. I spent all of my extra time making products in our kitchen. That’s when my mom started to ask, “So what are we doing to do with all the stuff you make?
2. When you think back to the first lip balm you ever made, how does it compare to the work that you do now?
When I look back at the first lip balm I ever made, I laugh. The first thing I tried was a combo of melted crayons and Vaseline! I found a recipe on YouTube, and it was terrible. Then I got my first “kit” with real ingredients in the mail. But all I had to do was melt it down, color it, and add flavor. It was fun, and I had much better results to say the least. After actually taking classes and doing research, I learned to formulate my perfect lip balm. It’s the exact same recipe on the shelves of stores today. From my first try to what we make now….wow, total transformation.
3. How has your age been an advantage or disadvantage as you developed your brand, your products, and your company?
Initially I would say it was a huge disadvantage. It was hard to get accepted to shows and events that I wanted to be a part of, because I wasn’t seen as a “real” artist or business person. As I made a name for myself and started to grow my business, that became less of an issue. Eventually my age became an advantage, because I am learning how to work within my niche as a teen CEO. I realized my preteen and teen voice was needed and my options and experiences mattered.
4. How did you get started with the DIY workshops you run, and why are they important to you?
I really wanted kids and the community to have a better understanding about the choices they have when it comes to what they put in and on their bodies. It had to be fun, engaging, and educational. That idea led me to share my own story and the science behind skin care across the country. It’s important to me that girls and women know that we don’t have to just accept what we are given. It’s also important to me that kids learn that STEAM/STEM can be fun. It changed my life, and I want girls across the globe to understand that it can change theirs. They can be anything. Smart girls rock!
5. What was it like working with your mentor as part of the business program you completed at University at Buffalo?
Working with Ms. Mary was amazing. At first I didn’t think I was going to like her, lol, because she tore apart the visual branding of my company. She owns a product development, prototyping, and engineering firm – so clearly she knew what she was taking about. BUT, I wasn’t ready to hear it…. at first. Once I started to trust her I realized that if I wanted my company to grow and my product to disrupt the industry, I would have to make the changes she recommended. So I did. It took me one whole year to graduate from that program. It wasn’t easy, but it was important for me to really understand how things work. I am a nerd like that.
6. What was the process of rebranding like, and what did you learn from it?
The rebrand process was very exciting and creative, but at times it was exhausting and stressful. I felt like I had to get it right, because I knew how I wanted people to feel when they saw it on store shelves. But it was exciting to work with a free thinker. I never would have thought that questions like “what does your room look like” and “what’s your favorite outfit” would help me to define my brand. I got to research other cosmetics companies and even think about what I wanted my products to look and feel like. I needed to know how I was going to stand out. Changing the name and deciding on a logo was surprisingly the hardest part – lol.
7. What part of building and running your business might surprise other kids interested in STEM or in beauty products?
I think kids would be surprised to learn how fun it is to formulate a new product. I mean, it’s not always easy when you are just starting out with an idea. You can imagine the product, but you aren’t totally sure the exact formulation for it. It’s exciting to learn about the different properties of butters, oils, and waxes. It’s cool to watch them respond to each other, and even more awesome to test how different skins types respond. Oh my goodness, I have created some terrible products, but that’s all a part of the process. And I think kids would be surprised how much STEM has in common with building a business. Building this business, I have learned just as much outside the lab as inside. There is a science behind it all.