“Life is beautiful. Say this mantra often. Even when you don’t believe it at that particular moment. One day you will find that even the cells in your body believe it.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewingAnne Cheatham, co-founder of NUELE.
Born in rural Zambia as one of six children, Anne came from humble and difficult beginnings which include sexual abuse starting at age seven. She became pregnant when she 11 years old, the same year her mother died and she was forced to learn how to navigate motherhood primarily on her own. She came to the United States on a college scholarship where she met her husband, and they went on to start a family of their own with four children. Tragically, her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer when her children were young. On top of working extremely long hours to support her five children, sick husband, and other family members, Anne went back to school to get her Master of Science in nursing then a Post Master’s degree in nursing anesthesia from Villanova University. Twelve years after being diagnosed, her husband passed away at age 42.
Despite all of her hardship, Anne was still able to put her five children through private school and has become a success in her own right, with two businesses that she financially supports — NUELE Hair and Our Bible App. Through all of her struggles, Anne chose to live a life of service, giving fully of herself and seeing the humanity in everyone that she encountered. To this end, she co-founded Our Bible App, a resource for those seeking progressive faith tools and community. She later on went on to co-found NUELE Hair which launched this year, alongside her friend and business partner Dr. Christine Martey-Ochola. This brand new multipurpose hair serum is made using natural, non-toxic ingredients which are responsibly sourced from Ghana and Morocco to help drive the economy in rural markets in Africa, promoting fair payment for local female farmers and minimizing environmental impacts.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up in rural Zambia on a small subsistence farm, being an entrepreneur was all we knew to be. My father worked on the farm planting maize, peanuts, and beans. All done with a plow pulled with oxen and human hands. We also had a large vegetable garden, and chickens that ran the yard. We sold what we didn’t leave for food. My dad also worked as a carpenter / builder at the nearby church affiliated high school. One could say that those seeds were planted deep inside me. After I lost my husband to a long battle with brain cancer, and my youngest was done with high school, that feeling of owning my own business started to surface. Even though I had a wonderful job as a nurse anesthetist, the idea would not leave me. Being my own boss was very attractive to me but even more than that, a true driving force was the idea of leaving a legacy for my children. My dad started school as a teenager and he only did first, second and third grade. Both my late husband and I were the first ones to graduate from college in our respective families. I wanted even more for me as well as my children and grandchildren.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think the realization that NUELE crossed many hair types was our biggest “ah ha” moment. When we designed this product, we had people with curly kinky hair in mind, primarily women of color. However, as we have grown as a company we have realized that there is a much larger and broader base that seeks moisture and manageability than we had ever envisioned.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
After my co-founder of NUELE and I first bottled, labeled and had a website up, we were sure the orders would just come flying in by magic. We loved our product and we saw how fantastic it was and we were sure others would also see and feel what we saw and felt. Needless to say the millions of sales did not come. We did celebrate those two sales we got. Yeah!!!! We learned that we needed to learn the language of beauty. Who knew that the beauty world had its own language? Just like the medical field that has its own language that I’m very familiar with, so does beauty and hair. To that end, we brought amazing people onto our team that spoke the language of beauty, marketing and sales.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our mission at NUELE is to bring products that are natural, organic and healthy. We are a values driven company that focuses on authenticity and our customers have responded to this. As a company, we promise to never use synthetic ingredients, only truly natural and organic ingredients, so that our customers can experience the true value of each ingredient. What we have committed to is not compromising on product quality. We recognize the severe health challenges that result from the use of synthetic ingredients in hair care products, and have committed as a company to only use natural and organic ingredients for our products. Lastly, we are also keenly interested in fair trade practices, and have sought out suppliers who maintain the same vision as we do.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are continuously seeking to improve our relationships with the farmers we source our ingredients from and the opportunity to engage in sustainable production through farming is one that we want to continue to expand, such as our partnership with True Moringa. This involves co-sponsorship of a 100,000 tree planting project in Ghana that Nuele users will be able to partner on, and have a tree named after them. The other exciting work we have embarked on is formulating new products that our customers have been seeking that can be used in conjunction with NUELE Hair Serum.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Women bring something special to the table of leadership. We are masters at multitasking, but we also can be very hard on ourselves and on others on the team. As we highlight what women can bring to the table, I always think that we can look at some different ways in which people have built successful teams without a gender bias clouding my assessment of good leadership. With that, we could take a small page from successful male leaders. As an example, I find that male leaders don’t’ always wait to know it all, they just forge ahead and build a team with the requisite knowledge around them. I think forging ahead, and “leaning in” like Sheryl Sandberg has recommended is a key factor in achieving great leadership when building and steering teams.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I like to lead to people’s strengths rather than weaknesses and build a community of trust so that people can own their part of the process in the company, thus empowering the team and minimizing micro-management, which we know stifles creativity and entrepreneurship. I like to ensure that we empower every team member with a slice of equity in their work effort. Sometimes when working within a larger team an individual’s contribution can get lost or muddled. So finding ways for each person to see their addition to the greater goal, enables them to realize their immediate value and therefore have a greater sense of ownership in their work and with the company.
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 about that?
As I ponder this question, I think of the African proverb “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together”.
I have received so much help from various people it’s hard to pinpoint that pivotal someone. Was it that missionary family at Rusangu Secondary school in Zambia that believed in me and helped me apply for a college scholarship and then helped raise the funds for the air ticket. Or was it that elderly mother and daughter at Walla Walla college that opened their doors to a young black woman in the 1970s and gave me rent and free food while I attended college. Or was it that Anesthesiologist at Brandywine hospital that agreed to pay my tuition, all because I asked, to get my post masters in Nursing Anesthesia, with no strings attached. Or maybe it was my church family at West Chester SDA Church that took it upon themselves to buy my family groceries each week for months, while I was in school and my husband was battling a recurrence of brain cancer that finally took his life. All of these people (s) have been pivotal separately and collectively. They are all part of the success that I am today. However, If I were to pick someone that gave me a good foundation to stand on, I would pick my dad. He taught me to believe in a power that is greater than myself. With this, I was able to navigate unfamiliar experiences and take new challenges without fear.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I left Zambia at 17 years old on a scholarship to attend college in the United States, I had no idea that I would return to Zambia as a missionary. But that is exactly what my now late husband and I did. We hauled our 3 kids all under 5 years old to a remote hospital in the western part of Zambia. A very long bumpy drive from the capital, Lusaka, through a game reserve and then another long ride by banana boat to Kalabo. We served 2 years teaching and mentoring those around us.
Since returning from this experience, I have found myself continuing in mentorship and coaching of nurses that I work with, who have sought to enter the anesthesia field. There is a saying that goes “Bloom Where You’re Planted” and I think that my ability to do this is driven by the successes that have come my way, and I hope that this will continue to expand as I journey through the leadership of NUELE. In fact, we are currently working on an initiative as I mentioned before that will enable us to support the growth of 100,000 moringa trees, and this is not only about the trees, but the lives of women and children whose lives will be positively impacted.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Shared leadership — We are only as strong as our weakest counterpoint. Through this I empower the team I work with, and align with “giving a hand up” rather than imposing my ideas on what we do. This is evident by the challenges we had previously experienced when marketing our product. I quickly realized that if we were going to see success, I needed to share leadership and empower the team members who knew what needed to be done to take the helm.
- Empathy — I am considerate of my team, and look to support the team members who seek active leadership as well as those who prefer to take on a more supportive role. It is through this that I have sometimes been the driver of a given initiative and in other cases been the observer as someone else takes on the reins.
- Collaboration — I believe that our biggest resource is the mind. Strategically engaging each team member enables us to utilize everyone’s shared knowledge and experience, therefore creating an environment where team members get the opportunity to impact the outcome of a given project. Only together can we create something greater than ourselves.
- Authenticity in leadership is very important to me and the ability to trust, not only myself, but those I work with is critical to my ability to grow a business. In order to achieve our company mission we actively seek to add team members who hold the same values as we do so as to ensure that we can engender the trust of our clients and partners.
- Strategic Leadership is a critical factor of a high growth business. Being at the forefront of providing natural and organic products that customers can trust is a key driver for why our company has taken the challenge of producing high caliber products. I support guided risk taking as part of the process of establishing our company’s short and long term growth strategies.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am very interested in accessible micro-financing to African women and youth enterprises. Currently, 65% of Africa’s population are youth between the age of 15–35. Between 20–35% of young people in Africa (depending on their country of origin) are unemployed or under-employed. Poverty remains rampant and food and economic insecurity is high, yet these very individuals are very creative, entrepreneurial, and have solutions to their local problems, that require financing in order to bring them to fruition. I would love to be involved in establishing a fund that women and youth can access to transform the economic and employment landscape. This will strengthen local, regional, national, and global economies and will minimize the impact of aid, poor leadership, and lack of resources on peoples’ lives and livelihoods. I think that by doing this, I would be able to live by my mantra of “Keep moving forward”. It’s not about how fast you go but how long you stay in the game. It would be pretentious for me to tell someone to keep moving forward, if I knew that I did not provide a “hand-up” to support them in this quest.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I begin my day at work by announcing out loud “Life is beautiful” No matter what is on the plate for that day. This sets the tone for the day. Even if you are feeling crappy or down and out, begin your day with a declaration. Your heart, your mind and your soul will follow. This is one of my favorite life lesson quotes “Life is beautiful. Say your mantra often. Even when you don’t believe it at that particular moment. One day you will find that even the cells in your body believe it. And life will really be beautiful and by golly you will have a great day.
Shortly after my husband passed away I picked up a little book on gratitude. There was a quote in there about how life will bring you pain all by itself and our job is to create joy. Creating joy seems monumental when things are bleak and dark. Starting my day with “Life is beautiful” gives me permission to look for the joyful gems that exist in each day.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love, love, love to have breakfast or lunch with Oprah. When I see her, I see me. Her spirit, her mind and her soul are delicious to me. She has given of herself fully to all of us and in so doing has given us all permission to give of ourselves too. To me she embodies what it means to be a woman of power. She inspires me to look inward and see the joy, the love, the greatness that resides there. I love how she is so inclusive of everyone.
Of particular interest to me, is the success that she has been able to achieve as an entrepreneur in a field that has been dominated by men. As a woman of color, she has been able to establish a large media enterprise nationally and globally, as well as influenced the careers of many women across the world. She chooses to “see” everyone and makes a point to lift everyone that comes inside her orbit.