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Editor’s Note: This Q&A is part of Bloomberg Businessweek‘s occasional series on the world of startups. The series focuses on MBAs and undergraduate business students who developed ideas or launched businesses while still in school, as well as on the many ways their schools helped them get their new ventures off the ground.
Earning a doctorate in chemistry is not the typical first step to becoming an entrepreneur, but it worked well for Tashni-Ann Dubroy.
While studying organic chemistry at North Carolina State in the early 2000s, she met future business partner Tiffani Bailey Lash. The two chemists bonded over their frustration at the lack of quality, natural, hair-care products tailored to women of color. Together they came up with the idea to develop their own line. Nearly a decade later, in December 2009, while Dubroy was still enrolled at Rutgers Business School, their idea became a reality with the launch of Tea and Honey Blends.
“This was the first time either one of us would go down this path of starting a business,” Dubroy says. “The mentors we had at Rutgers were instrumental and everything I learned was something I could implement.”
The company is based in Raleigh, N.C., and currently has 10 employees.
Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Sommer Saadi recently spoke to Dubroy and Bailey Lash about the company, its path to launch, and how what Dubroy learned at Rutgers helped get the business off the ground. Below is an edited portion of the interview.
How did the two of you meet and come up with the idea of Tea and Honey?
Dubroy: I was studying organic chemistry and Tiffani was studying physical chemistry [both at North Carolina State]. Tiffani had a passion for hair care, just like I did, and it was sort of serendipitous that we came to the same school with the same interests. As women of color, we experienced similar challenges when it came to our beauty products and as chemists, we knew we wanted to use our skills to make a better shampoo.
How did you get started?
Dubroy: While at school, we committed to the idea of just doing it, and about two years into graduate school we realized we were spending a lot of our spare time working on the goal of starting a hair-care line.
Bailey Lash: We were chemists, though, and knew beauty care was not our specialty. Our greatest advantage was that we were our own consumers and we could create a line based on our needs. We networked within a community of cosmetic chemists, went to conferences, and worked on developing the formulations for our line.
Tashni, what made you decide to pursue your MBA at Rutgers?
Dubroy: After graduating with my doctorate degree in chemistry, I was employed by one of the largest chemical companies, BASF Global working on the scientific side of the operation. The company is really good at investing in its employees and when they spotted my business skills, I was transitioned from being a bench chemist to a liaison between manufacturing and the sales and business teams. So while I was in that position, I wanted to learn the business lingo and I became more interested in developing a company with Tiffani. I knew that a business education would be useful and decided to enroll in Rutgers in the Fall of 2008. Everything I learned was something we could implement in the creation of Tea and Honey.
Such as what?
Dubroy: The lessons I learned in marketing, branding, and public relations were key. It was knowledge that went to straight into the company, which we launched in 2009 while I was still in school.
How important was winning the Rutgers Business Plan competition?
Dubroy: It was important because of the seed money that came with it. We didn’t want to go into debt starting this business, so we could only invest what we had. For the competition, we had to pitch our business plan to a team of judges as if they were potential investors and tell them how the company was doing, how much we needed to make it grow, and where we could take our business. We were competing with about 20 other companies. We were nervous pitching a company about hair care to a room of all males. But winning was for us a moment a truth. It told us we exist. We have a great idea.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Dubroy: Honestly, just working with lots and lots of new people. We genuinely wanted to work with women-owned companies throughout this process, but finding those companies was more difficult than expected. And in general, building new relationships with people can be very challenging. We learned that quickly. Also, identifying the customers’ needs was a challenge. We knew we could consider ourselves our own customers, but we couldn’t just create products based off our personal needs. Even focus-group answers didn’t reflect buying choices in practice. Once we realized that, we knew we needed to bring in experts, and then started to grow our number of employees.
Lash: It was also challenging to find employees just as passionate as we are about this startup. And as always with startups, finding the capital was another challenge. We didn’t want to go into debt to start this and decided we would fund it on our own using the money we made from day jobs. So our growth at the start was limited by our paychecks.
What’s next for Tea and Honey Blends?
Dubroy: Right now we sell in several retail stores and the majority of our sales come from online orders. We also are getting our product into boutiques and salons.
Lash: We’re still in the early stages and are looking for investors to grow our distribution channels. The goal is to tie ourselves to a major retailer and then we think we’ll launch quickly. The money from the Rutgers business plan competition is slated for sales, marketing, and new product development, and we think it will help to grow the enterprise on a global scale.