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How I #MadeIt: Sharmadean Reid
8 Sep 2016 7:47 AM
In its many manifestations WAH, founded by former stylist Sharmadean Reid, has always been about celebrating womanhood, bringing together focused female creatives and budding businesswomen. Beginning humbly as a fanzine 11 years ago while Reid was still at Central Saint Martins, WAH set up shop on Kingsland Road in 2009, primarily as a nail salon and a place where Sharmadean's group of like-minded friends could hang out, but also as a venue for talks on feminism and events. A salon in Topshop soon followed, as did two books and a product line for Boots.
Somehow Sharmadean (who was awarded an MBE last year for services to the beauty industry) also managed to find time to start WAH Power Lunches, a series of panel talks held regularly on different topics, from product development to building a business. Who better to pass on their wisdom to aspiring girls, than one of London's finest examples of a #girlboss?
And now Sharmadean has built on the success of Power Lunches to create FutureGirlCorp, a 12-hour business workshop and networking event for future female CEOs, taking place on 15th October in London's Shoreditch. An audience of 100 young women, selected on the strength of their applications, will be invited to a day of seminars and talks hosted by businesswomen, female CEOs and entrepreneurs.
We caught up with Sharmadean, ahead of next month's event, to discuss her career trajectory, female empowerment and running her empire as a working mum.
As someone with a profile in the public eye and a considerable following do you feel it’s your responsibility to inspire and educate young girls? Is that why you set up FutureGirlCorp? I don’t feel like it’s a responsibility, it’s just something I naturally like doing. I’m a sharer, sometimes I’m an over-sharer, but if I know some really interesting piece of information I always want to tell everybody. I don’t feel forced to do it, not when it’s direct to the consumer. I don’t like doing interviews that much unless it’s directly related to a cause because I think it’s quite vain. Can you tell us more about the event? When I started my business I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I’m very, very good, as I think most women are, at brand marketing and building communities. I think social building of companies is something that women find really easy to do because it’s an extension of our natural skills. A lot of women that I speak to or mentor think that the social is the business but it’s not, you have to get your business model right and the social is just one element of it. What I want to do is get girls thinking about flipping their businesses on the head and not just being like I’m going to get 100,000 followers on Instagram. What is the business model?
I feel like I’ve learnt so much in the past six years but actually I’ve learnt way more in the past year as I started to think I’m actually going to turn WAH into something serious and figure out which of all the possible options out there for me is the one that’s going to be maximum profit, minimum effort. I think often startups don’t think like that. I just want to help girls understand that if they have an idea for a project it could be a global one. Say ‘I want to be a florist, okay I’m going to start a flower shop’ but actually you could do all the flowers for hotels around the world and turn a business that you might make £20,000 profit from into £2 million profit.
I didn’t have that way of thinking… I don’t think that it’s 'you’re good at it or you're not', I feel like it’s something that could be taught. If you don’t know something you can’t be blamed for not doing it. I think most girls are capable of doing it but they just actually don’t know it. Natural entrepreneurs just need MBA skills because I think doing an MBA doesn’t necessarily mean you can build a good brand, it’s about bringing those hard business skills to this female audience.
You’ve said you’ve learnt the most in the past year but you started WAH over a decade ago as a zine, then opened a store and have released books and a product line. Do you now finally feel this is exactly the direction you want to take the brand? Yeah. I don’t regret anything about the path that I’ve taken but it was a very long-winded path and I think that it worked for me because we were born in an age that was pre-social media, pre-Instragram, pre-Snapchat. I don’t think people have that luxury anymore. There’s way too much competition and it’s so cool to be an entrepreneur right now. Everyone is starting their own business; you can't just stand out by superficially looking good, you have to be able to have the solid foundations of which to grow and scale the business. No one really has the time and luxuries to make the mistakes I did. I wouldn’t even call them mistakes it was just a really long-winded path. You're part of a community of like-minded, successful businesswomen. Is that important to you? It’s massively important. The whole thing with Future Girl Corporation is that imagine a board room and instead a bunch of old men it’s me and my friends. It’s a kind of a piss-take of what we view as a corporation. That's why we are partnering with Johnnie Walker on this event. People think of whiskey as an old man on the golf course drink and I love the idea of having a bunch of young girls making power moves and drinking whiskey sours instead of prosecco! Johnnie Walker's motto is inspiring personal progress. Running a business actually makes you go through massive personal development, it really makes you know who you are as a person and forces you to challenge yourself to keep moving forward.
What I want to do long term is think about how I can utilise my knowledge and network of amazing girls like Emily Forbes, she's incredible. We have some wicked speakers from Google, Facebook and IBM. People who have started their own companies, people who are working within big ones. They have such amazing knowledge I feel like everyone should be able to have access to them.
That’s what it’s about – 100 girls that we choose will have access to these women and through what we do after the event with the alumni – like meeting up again for drinks and starting Facebook groups where they can connect with each other... I just think this is going to be an amazing opportunity for girls to meet other like-minded girls as well as see girls that aren’t too far from them. I’m 32 and most of the women who are speaking are 25-35. I think it’s really important to be close and accessible so girls can be like "oh she’s just two steps away from me", not ten steps. Being aspirational and achievable is really important.
How did the WAH x ASOS collection come about? Lola Okuyiga, who’s a buyer for ASOS White and Collaborations, has known about WAH from day one, when I had the fanzine. She’s asked me several times to do a clothing collection but I wasn’t ready. But when she asked me again, I’d had an idea, and for me I never do things unless I have a specific idea and I’m not going to do for the sake of it like another crappy T-shirt line.
I’d just moved to West London and was feeling very much like a West London mum and I was dropping my kid to school and seeing all the other mums. I’ve always been a massive fan of Princess Diana. In 2007 or 2008 I did an article in one of the old WAH fanzines called 'When Di Was Fly' because I’d found in Saint Martins a book with all of Diana’s candid street shots and was like, 'She’s actually got sick style'. She was wearing bomber jackets and American preppy style, which no one really talks about. She’d wear Harvard shirts with baseball caps, baseball jackets. So I was like this is actually cool, the mixing of the high and low.
It’s so British as well, the idea of being able to wear loafers with camo and stuff. I love that whole thing so I was like, 'Right, I actually have an idea I’ll do it'. I went to ASOS and told them my idea, I want to do a full clothing line inspired by Diana’s streetwear and they were like sick. It’s available mid-October. Basically I was remaking my wardrobe and my friends’ wardrobe as well. I was constantly texting Lotte Andersen and Vanna Kitty, Rae Elliman and Char Roberts, “What do you think of this? Is this cool?”
You touched on being a West London mum. The summer holidays have just ended and professionally you've had a hectic schedule with the launch of a new store and FutureGirlCorp. How have you managed? I’ve not managed very well. I’ve found it extremely difficult and it’s got me thinking about how archaic our school systems are for people’s working lives now. So, kids have about three months of the year on holiday but as adults we only get about 28 days holiday so clearly this doesn’t compute. Unless you’re rich enough to have a nanny or lucky enough to have family close by, you’re going to struggle because childcare is so expensive.
Childcare is such a massive barrier for economic progress in this country. It’s not, like, just for women to be able to go and do what they want, the whole country would benefit if there was more childcare. Currently, between the ages of 0-3, there’s no childcare, so if a woman was to go back to work after maternity leave of a year, they’ve got two whole years of paying for childcare which means actually it’s not beneficial to go back to work because it’s full-time childcare which is essentially a full-time salary. 2 years! And then when they’re 3 you get 15 hours free and then when they’re 5 you go to school but then school starts at 9am. Unless you work a 10am-2pm job it’s impossible. It’s unfathomable to me. It’s been tough but it makes me think a lot about women’s policy. It’s not just a female problem. I share Roman 50/50 with his dad. He also has to go to work and he has exactly the same problem.
Can you tell us about the launch of WAH Soho? I've wanted for the longest time to have a salon in central London. I think it’s absolutely key for our brand and since we left Topshop my plan was always to have a central London salon anyway. I didn’t want to do any old salon, I wanted to come with a proper sick concept. If we’re doing this, we essentially have to build a retail experience like no one else has ever had before. So we’re building a virtual reality nail designer. Kim Boutin is the designer on it. She’s incredible, she used to do all the digital design for Kenzo and she’s working on building this incredible, completely immersive nail experience. People can come to the store and not just get nails. I want to create a seamless on- and off-line experience. I want it to feel like if you’re on our Instagram, and come into the store, they’re one and the same vibe. It’s really about utilising retail technology to create something that’s truly futuristic. Salon of the future! What would be your most practical advice for a young entrepreneur or someone setting up their own unique brand? 1. Understand how you’re going to make money. That might sound really straightforward but you wouldn’t believe how many people start businesses and they don’t know how they’re going to make a profit. 2. Understand your exact customers. You should always have 3-5 customers. Every decision you make is aimed at those customers. Give them names and personas and profiles. So we have our five – we have the superfan, the working girl, the rich girl. We know that if we want to plan a new treatment for Christmas, we’re going to be like the superfan is 13 years old, she can’t afford this but the rich girl, let’s do a Swarovski crystal manicure for her. Don’t ever make willy-nilly decisions without thinking about who your customers are. 3. Plan a roadmap for the future. You should have five stages of a road map. Year one we’re going to achieve this, year two we’re going to achieve this, and work back to achieve it.