At age 13, Zandra A. Cunningham began taking courses at University at Buffalo as part of the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program. She’s the youngest person the program has ever accepted, but Zandra fit right in: after all, she’d already been running her own business for over three years.
Azariah’s Innocence, as Zandra’s line of bath and body products was initially called, was born out of need. When she was nine, Zandra’s obsession with lip balm caused her dad to offhandedly remark that she should just start making the lip balm for herself. He didn’t realize his daughter would take him seriously—or that she would turn his flippant comment into an entire company. Five years later, Zandra’s newly revamped business is thriving. It’s now simply called Zandra and offers artisan soaps, sugar scrubs, and body washes, among several other products. Most importantly, Zandra’s core values remain at the forefront: using only natural and organic ingredients for her products, and using her influence to empower girls. Zandra currently sells its products online and in local businesses, but it is sure to expand in the near future.
Despite going to school, running a company, and working to change the world, the 15-year-old entrepreneur recently found time to talk to us about how she does it all.
Walk me through the process of creating your products: where do you get your ingredients? Who makes and packages everything?
I’m trying to get to the point where all my ingredients are sourced locally; right now they are mostly from New York State. All my products are handmade in my Buffalo, NY production studio. I lead production with my parents and two assistants. During the holidays, I can have as many as six people working on everything from production to fulfillment to events. My team personally packages each and every order by hand. We had to learn to upscale production to keep up with demand, but the process is fun.
Why is it important to you that your company uses only natural ingredients?
I have sensitive skin and when I was younger, all the commercial products had so many chemicals and harmful ingredients that I wasn’t able to use them on my skin, so I wanted to create products that were as eye-catching as the ones I loved, but were made with natural and organic ingredients. That way, it doesn’t matter if you have sensitive skin or not, you can enjoy a beautiful product that smells good and is also good for you. Many teens today don’t think about the negative impact of unhealthy ingredients, so I do the thinking for them.
You’ve had this business since you were nine. How has it evolved as you’ve grown up?
It’s evolved so much, the product line has totally changed since I rebranded my business in 2014, but it’s growing every day and I’m very proud of that. I used to make whatever came to mind or whatever I wanted for myself. I was young, so I made lip balm in custom flavors and soap in fun shapes like cakes, cupcakes, candy, and animal. I was spending too much money of raw materials. As I learned more about business, I realized I needed to eliminate much of my line and change my focus. I reduced the line to five different custom scents only—best business decision ever!
Educating and empowering girls is really important to you. What does your business do to accomplish that mission?
10% of the proceeds of every product I sell are given back to girls’ education. My brand stands for inspiration and empowering other women and girls. Each product has its own inspirational quote so that when someone is reading it in the shower, they feel empowered and inspired. Another one of my major educational projects is my International Day of the Girl Expo. I host a huge International Day of the Girl celebration yearly where I bring together community leaders and organizations to expose girls to all things beauty, science, arts, and technology. It’s a day I’m really proud of because it shows girls all the amazing possibilities and choices they have in their future. It encourages them to dream big! Last year, [GenHERation founder] Ms. Katlyn Grasso was awesome enough to be out keynote speaker, the girls loved her.
In your TedxTalk, you mention that you’ve experienced business failures. What do you do in those situations? How do you handle them, business-wise and personally?
I used to get really upset. As I grow and experience more, I understand that failure is an important part of the process. As an entrepreneur, taking risks is common, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. I feel like I’m stronger because of it.
What’s the most gratifying moment you’ve had as an entrepreneur?
I would have to say the moment that I first saw the professional photos of my new line. That was amazing. I worked for months on the quotes, colors, branding, and purpose to relaunch a brand/product that stood for something great. To see that hard work come together in beautiful pictures was magical.
The packaging of your products is so awesome! How did you come up with that idea? Who comes up with the sayings?
Thank you! I am really in love with the packaging as well and I worked with an amazing designer to come up with all the colors the fonts and the quotes. I thought about what girls would want to read and also what they need to know about themselves to keep them going. The world feeds us so much negative; I wanted to infuse some positive into my customers’ lives.
You’ve mentioned that your mom is your business partner. How do you split the work?
She is the COO of the company, so she helps me stay organized and makes sure I still have time to be a kid. I work on all the speaking engagements, workshops, and programming. In the studio, my mom manages the staff, scheduling and inventory. I still work on making products sometimes to keep our cost down as we transition.
What are your future plans for the business? For yourself?
Just to keep letting people know who I am and pick up more wholesale accounts throughout the country so that by the time I graduate high school, hopefully my business will be running well enough for me to be able to step away for college, traveling, and more speaking engagements. In my future, I see a ton of happiness, exciting connections, and collaborations. I want to connect with as many young people as possible and share my story and push them toward their greatness.
Contributor: Celeste Montaño