Record every failure and celebrate every win. I’ve tried to normalize getting rejected. I remember when I first started Bossy and I sent blind emails to tons and tons of VCs and NO ONE responded. I thought that meant that the business was doomed to failure. I now understand that failure is a very necessary part of the success journey. I keep a little note pad of every rejection and mistake. I go back and look every quarter when I write my quarterly investor update. I also share every single win, no matter how small, with my small circle of friends and family. I celebrate the wins because there are a ton of mistakes in that journal!
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aishetu Fatima Dozie.
Aisha is an experienced global finance and capital markets executive with a track record in strategic business development and deal execution with Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, to name a few. She has built multi-jurisdictional businesses within large international corporations as well as scaled two businesses as a mission-driven entrepreneur. Aisha is a dedicated chief executive with a “lead from the front” mentality and the ability to inspire and motivate teams to surpass management targets and their own personal expectations. She is also passionate about the advancement of women in business, which led her to executive produce a video series called African HERstory, where she interviewed successful female African executives to highlight their impact on the continent’s development. The insights gleaned from these conversations about igniting confidence in working women led to Aisha’s recent entrepreneurial pursuit — Bossy Cosmetics, a digitally native beauty brand that targets ambitious working women. In the 18 months since its founding, Aisha has redefined the way beauty companies address professional women and has been featured in Refinery29, Essence Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, BET Networks, Fashionista.com, Hola USA, and PopSugar. Aishetu holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University, a Master of Business Administration degree from the Harvard Business School, she participated in the Leaders in Development Program at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University, and was a Fellow in the Distinguished Careers Institute at Stanford University. She is frequently interviewed to discuss her views on attracting foreign investment in Africa and was slated to teach a class at Stanford University called Doing Business in Africa: Experience from the Front Lines.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started my career in finance in the mid-’90s as an intern. I planned to work on Wall Street for a few years and then go to business school and really pursue my passion. I had no idea what that passion was but I knew that it wasn’t banking. My finance career started as a means to pay my loans and a way to affirm to myself that I could play in the “big leagues” with the “big boys”. One year turned into three and then ten and I still hadn’t left. You get these golden handcuffs on you and it becomes increasingly harder and harder to leave to pursue what you are really meant to be doing with your life. About 4 years ago, I fell ill. The doctor told me that I needed to slow down and I knew instantly that this was the wakeup call that I needed. I am a mom to three young boys, and they needed me to be alive and present in their lives. I decided to focus on the intersection of my passion and purpose and that’s what led me to founding Bossy Cosmetics. I’ve always been a lipstick junkie. Wearing bold colors makes me feel confident. My friends and I always swapped colors and gifted one another new brands we’d discovered. I knew that makeup was an integral part of what makes a woman feel confident because often times how you look feeds into how you feel. I’ve increasingly felt that my purpose was to speak truth to patriarchy and to support women in their journey towards economic empowerment. I was raised by a single mother and it’s always been apparent to me that having money affords you more choices. I am a relentless champion for women having choice and economic advancement is a pretty significant enabler of choice. Put those two together and you have Bossy Cosmetics.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
No one thought it made sense! No one thought there was a case to reimagine beauty for ambitious, professional women of all ethnicities. This meant that trying to talk to investors was like beating my head against a wall. They kept asking me why I was different, and how could a Black woman sell to non-Black women. It was frustrating to say the least but in hindsight, I am thinking that it was a blessing in disguise. As I build the distinctive voice and positioning of the brand, I can do so sustainably without feeling like I need to “buy” growth. I was certainly insecure when I started the company because although I had over 20 years of working experience under my belt, I was a pure novice in the beauty industry. I didn’t feel that I could market the brand and was worried that my insecurities and inexperience in the sector would be obvious and off-putting.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Am I successful yet? I don’t know. It really depends on how you define success, no? I think that success is a journey and a state of mind. One of the worst parts of doing this is living in Silicon Valley. If you’re not careful, you can get caught up in metrics that don’t make sense for your business. The moment that I realized that I was trying to build a beautiful brand that meant something more than lipsticks to working women, I was relaxed. I stopped looking at vanity metrics and started communicating with the customers. I began to share more of myself and understand that mistakes are part of the process. I just showed up every day and did the best that I could and share my journey with my customers. I asked them a lot of questions and I learned about what they wanted. We create a product called “Beauty Meets Wisdom” as a result of my chats with customers. We essentially offered them a complimentary hour of coaching in the most pressing areas for their careers. One would ask, “why would a beauty company do that?” and my response is that a woman thinks about a million things when she wakes up in the morning. We are great multitaskers and our moods and planned activities have a lot to do with the makeup we choose to wear. Helping our customers in their journey towards increased confidence levels is exactly how you intersect work and beauty. So, I don’t think we are a success yet because we are always learning new insights and always creating better products, better content, and better services. This is not the time to rest on laurels!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Record every failure and celebrate every win.
I’ve tried to normalize getting rejected. I remember when I first started Bossy and I sent blind emails to tons and tons of VCs and NO ONE responded. I thought that meant that the business was doomed to failure. I now understand that failure is a very necessary part of the success journey. I keep a little note pad of every rejection and mistake. I go back and look every quarter when I write my quarterly investor update. I also share every single win, no matter how small, with my small circle of friends and family. I celebrate the wins because there are a ton of mistakes in that journal!
2. You do not need to have all of the answers, but you do need to have a lot of questions.
The belief that the CEO knows everything is tiresome and wrong. In fact, it’s harmful to the CEO and everyone else in the company. The buck does stop with the CEO but we need people who are smarter than us in specific areas. I work with some of the most brilliant product designers, formulation technicians, and packaging companies and I ask them a ton of questions. I make them take me through everything they do in their process so that I understand how the product breaks down to the most granular point. I was in our lab in Italy last summer and I spent time with the QA manager trying to establish how lipstick formulations are created and tested. I am not an expert in many of the areas of the business, but I am the expert on the vision, and I ensure that I work with the best so that together we create great products.
3. It’s ok to be scared and lonely.
You need support on this journey. It’s hard to be at the top. It’s lonely. It can be very stressful. I’ve worked with executive coaches over time because I understand that when you are too much in your head, you can get into an unhealthy vortex. I have had so many experiences in business as a leader where I am petrified to make a big call and sometimes you don’t want the team to know that you are so scared. I’ve started to tell the team that I am nervous but will ultimately make a call and own the outcome. I think it’s important for them to see the vulnerability in leadership. I get so frustrated when people tell me that they think I am fearless. I am usually petrified that I will make a mess of things, yet I plow forth anyway.
4. The thing you think you can’t do, you can actually.
When I started Bossy Cosmetics, I was hugely insecure about my ability to market. I had always worked for major financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. You don’t really need to do too much marketing when you have those business cards in your wallet. I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a single customer nor build a business of any value! While we haven’t cracked the ultimate code yet, my confidence levels have shot up astronomically. When I see the brand and/or myself getting featured in big publications, I do a crazy happy dance because I honestly wasn’t sure I’d have customers other than my friends and family.
5. You’ll feel like a failure repeatedly. Lean in and keep on executing.
The thing about running a business like mine is that there is no annuity income. My last role was managing a billion-dollar loan book. You wake up making money on the accrued interest. It’s not a bad business until there is a default. In a product-led business, you literally start every day anew. You can have a blowout day, sell tons and tons and sell 1 lipstick the next day!! You can be featured in a major publication and sell nothing. You literally cannot rest. It’s a marathon and the trick is to keep going at a pace that is sustainable for yourself because you can’t get burned out. It helps that I absolutely love what I do.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Pace yourself. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s true. In a way, the pandemic has taught us all that there is more to life than growth at any expense. The house of cards can come crumbling down so easily. Think clearly. Unless it is a life or death situation, take a moment to think things through and then let it go. What’s going to happen will happen. You’ve got to play the long game in business. It takes a while to do anything well. Give yourself space and time. I am a huge fan of watching TV in the middle of the day if I need to disconnect. I curl up in my bed and put on a good show. I might even nap. Whatever it takes to keep me sane. Delight in the little things. Buckle up because the ride is long.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would collectively put my family in this bucket. I am inordinately blessed with a supportive husband, children, and mother. I knew that starting a cosmetics business wasn’t the most popular thing and my mom called me as I began working on the first collection and told me she was mailing me that check having cashed out her 401(k). I mean, I was in tears. I was so moved that she believed in me to that extent because I know she loves me but she is an immigrant who was raised to be conservative with her finances. My husband also invested in my business but that’s not the most amazing thing. He’s been extraordinarily encouraging. To the point where I look at him quizzically when he’s egging me to try new things. Knowing that my family is squarely behind me is a foundation that is unshakable.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I’m still on that journey, you know? It’s a marathon and I have only just begun. I have a long way to go. We have so many massive plans of what we will do with the business. I want to expand into other categories and create real services for working women. I would love to create a space for working women to sharpen their skills and find employment opportunities that are flexible and well-playing. I would love to be a global beauty company that is stocked at the most beloved retailers around the world. Where should I end? I have so many goals!
Personally, I am waiting for this pandemic to be over. I need a vacation. I just want to go somewhere beautiful and sleep in a bed/house that isn’t mine.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I was born and lived the first decade of my life in the projects in Massachusetts. I said to someone the other day that I can’t wait to be a billionaire so that I can give the money to people who need it. It frustrates me to see that Black women can’t get real money to fund their businesses. I want to change that one day. I want women to feel that with perseverance, they can surmount any and all mountains in front of them. It’ll be hard but it’s possible. I want to be known as a champion for women’s economic empowerment.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I want to see the end of gender-based violence. The shame around it prevents women from speaking up. I want to see women earn equally what men earn for the same work. I want to see the end to patriarchal systems that prevent women and girls from thriving. It’s not a zero-sum game, me having more rights doesn’t mean that men have less. I want to see the end of racism. The intersectionality that I face is exhausting and I want to see it end. Even saying these things seems so silly to say because it’s almost impossible to see these things happen but this is how I would enhance people’s lives. No one is free until we are all free.
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