How She Did It: Africa’s sensual landscape inspired my natural beauty products

As the daughter of an expat father, Nigerian born, Zeze Oriaikhi-Sao, 31, had a love of travel from an early age, while her passion for business was fostered by her mother, a serial entrepreneur.

At the height of the recession in 2009, at just 24-years-old, and unemployed despite having two degrees, Zeze moved to South Africa. The country inspired her vision for a cosmetics range that drew from African beauty rituals. On her return, she decided to use her passion for all things natural and created cosmetics brand Malée, teaming-up with leading cosmetic chemists and perfumers to create a range that reflects her own wanderlust.

Here, Zeze – who will be appearing at the Telegraph Women ‘How to be more resilient’ event – tells us how she did it.

Tell us about your business

 Malée Natural Science (pronounced Mah-lay) is a sensorial range of fragrance, bath and body care products inspired by the scents of the diverse landscapes of Africa and it’s peoples’ rich connection to nature and land.

With a successful track record in South Africa – where it launched in 2010 – Malée came to the UK in December 2015. Each product is formulated with 100 per cent natural active ingredients, and as well as being plant based, each product is paraben, silicone, mineral oil and animal originated ingredient free.

What inspired you to start it?

The recession. It gave me time to travel the African continent. But I’m very allergy prone, with sensitive skin, so I started searching for alternative products, with natural ingredients to combat the change in climate.

What were the first few steps you took?

Market research: I spent time trying to find answers to the questions I thought Malée would address.

Feasibility study: I needed to know if my idea/ business was possible. So, I called the Cosmetics Science Society. Silly now to think that is what I did, knowing what I do now of the industry but for me I felt that was the most logical step.

From there, I built a business plan around the ‘yes’ answers I received and created version 1.0 of the Malée business plan and hit the ground running. I’m on verson 1.4 now!

I had no experience in the cosmetics industry but a lot of discipline from my time at university. So I learnt on the job. While my previous experience in a process-based corporate job also really helped when it came to supply chain management.

How did you raise awareness?

I gifted products a lot in the beginning. Trade shows and word of mouth really helped. The media was kind, too – I think they enjoyed our authenticity and the fact our products really did live up to the claims we made.

We started supplying some of the top 5-star hotels in sub-saharan Africa and that really opened the world to Malée and helped us start growing a customer base. We also won and where shortlisted a few consumer awards along the way for some of our ‘hero’ products like the scrub and perfume, and that really gave the brand clout – sharing our products with an audience much larger than my immediate network.

Each new question and critique I’ve received, that I had no answers for, I went back and worked to make myself and Malée better. I am so passionate about the ingredients, the products, the story and how different we are as a brand – once I get going you can’t stop me.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Challenges are the things that make my job exciting and mean no day is the same. The continuous and evolving customer landscape is exciting, it really stretches you and your team to be better.

Nonetheless, we face the same hurdles as any other small niche brand that’s trying to grow. Developing from a Southern African brand to one that has more reach in other markets is exciting. We’ll be launching with Harvey Nichols in the coming months and a few other amazing retailers across mainland Europe.


How do you tackle challenges?

I always take a step back, breathe, and sleep on it if I have to. It’s important to spend time understanding how and what I need to overcome the challenge.

Plus, I always take away lessons and implement changes immediately, so that particular thing is no longer a challenge we’ll encounter as a business.

What helps you stay motivated through tough times?

Remembering that momentum is the thing that keeps a business alive and Rome wasn’t built in a day. (Something my Dad said to me every time I would get frustrated when things didn’t go my way).

What’s the best thing about running your own business?

The positive impact you have on the team, customers and even well-wishers that support Malée and help me live my dream everyday.

Do you have a business philosophy?

It needs to be fun, even when you are being tested. Always, always, give your best.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?

It takes time, patience and persistence. The ability to learn fast and fail even faster is important. Rest, it is important. Remain true to your vision.

How I did it…

My greatest fear is…Being without love.

The bravest thing I’ve done is… Believing in myself and in the idea of Malée and just doing it.

I would tell my teenage self… You are just fine the way you are. Everything that makes you different now will be your strength later.

I believe… That self-awareness is a powerful tool, knowing who you are is important. It will allow you to surround yourself with the right people to help you and your business grow.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is… No matter how much you will it, there is no shortcut to success. Spend time working and improving on your business, and also on yourself as business owner.

An imperfect product with feedback is better than no product at all.

My top business tool or resource is… My phone.

My favourite quote… “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” – Samuel Beckett.



Original article can be found here.