We (Misha and Anusha) walked into business school determined to carve out our own path, with a degree that would empower us to start a business that would change the world. As we walked out of those big glass doors into the hustle of central London, we felt pressure to conform, plagued with doubt that we weren’t ready yet and didn’t have enough experience to venture out on our own. What we wish we had heard then was “you’ll never have enough experience, so just start.”
Two years later, after both having worked in the corporate field our paths crossed again and we pondered the idea of starting a business, months of brainstorming later we finally took the first step. Our business wasn’t born, as many think through a moment of realisation or a life changing event - it was born out of our passion and determination to positively impact the lives of women in Africa, the place we both grew up.
We launched our e-commerce platform in January 2020 just before the pandemic hit. The Zola Collective is a social enterprise that aims to bring Sustainably sourced African products to the world, starting with the UAE through an online marketplace and distribution channel.
The core of our business model involves helping small-scale farmers, craftsmen and micro-entrepreneurs commercialise their products for sale in international markets.
In line with this years theme for International Women’s Day “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” we would like to share a few key learnings to empower others to start their own businesses:
- Start small and with what you have. The truth is there is no assessment to determine when to take the first step. We had several spreadsheets, projections, pitch decks and business model canvas but we learnt the most about how to build a business when we took the first step. We sourced, contract manufactured and packaged our first three products ourselves and launched them on a website we built with no prior coding experience. We designed our logo, built the site and registered our 3 products all under 1000usd. No amount of studying, planning or financial modeling would have prepared us for the steep learning curve we were about to embark on
- Find a co-founder you trust to embark on this journey with you. There is nothing like having someone as committed and passionate about your dream as you are. This person will help you stay focused and pick up the slack when you’re having a low day. They’ll remind you why you started and will ease the workload.
- A co-founder wears all hats which is why you shouldn’t shy away from doing the tough jobs especially picking up the phone and calling potential customers. We learnt it was the best way to educate ourselves on what products people wanted and it inspired the growth of product range in a direction we never expected.
- With challenge comes opportunity. Shortly after our launch the COVID-19 pandemic hit our supply chains. We quickly pivoted and changed our business model to accommodate other products, enabling multiple suppliers to take their business online. We started sourcing products from all over the continent and switched from a manufacturing dependent business model to a distribution model. Stay agile and aware of market trends to capitalize on them. The key to surviving the pandemic for us was our ability to adapt what we had while maximizing our positive social impact by casting our net as wide as possible.
Today, we celebrate the efforts being made my women all over the world in all aspects of life and hope to inspire and empower many to start their own entrepreneurial journeys.