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Spotlight: Meet Zeze Oriaikhi-Sao


Tell us a bit about your background

I was born in Nigeria and moved to the UK when I was 12. My two siblings are much older so they were already studying in the UK and so my parents made the decision to bring the family together, something I was very pleased about — I was curious and ambitious even at a young age!

Starting a new school was an adjustment for me, I found common ground with my peers but I was aware that I was different and I was the unknown in this new environment. Following the wishes of my parents I went on to study A-levels and then a degree in Informatics (a mix of Engineering and computer science) but I was uninterested in these subjects and had little desire to work in these industries. However, the time was not wasted as now I am an entrepreneur it is useful to have a knowledge of technology and I use these skills a lot. I also studied a Masters in International Business. After working for a year at British Telecom, I realised that I could not continue in a job I didn’t want to do — and so Malée, a fragrance & body care range, was born!

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I had always had an interest in the beauty industry; while I was at university I set up my first business offering mobile nail treatments, which was quite a novel idea in 2003. I built up a good client base and the money I made paid for my living expenses. This heightened my interest in the beauty sector, but I was still unsure about how I could be part of it in a bigger way.

You started your business during the 2009 global recession — what extra challenges did you face and how did you overcome these?

When I met my husband, I moved to South Africa to live with him. It was clear to me at that time that the well-known UK and European skincare brands were the only recognisable ones on the African continent. There was no equivalent home-grown cosmetic brands in South Africa in 2009. I found myself struggling to find a job in South Africa in consulting positions at the time, but this was near impossible during the global recession of 2009. So after I had settled into my new life, I spent the next 6 months researching the body care industry and setting up Malée. The brand had 10 products of good quality and price and I secured my first two clients, which were both hotel chains. I had identified the hospitality industry as a sector in which it would be ideal to sell my skincare brand to, and so I started to gain more exposure in that market and to go out to pitch for business in luxury hotels and guest houses.

What inspired you to launch your brand Malée and how important was it to link it with your African roots?

Malée was my grandmother’s name and it means ‘gracious woman’. She was the pillar of our family and an inspiration to me. It was important to me that the brand had a good story to back it up, something that gave African women a voice and was relatable. All my product labels contain tribal markings which to Africans are considered ‘secret meanings’ and my scents are inspired by the African landscapes and culture. The aim is to give the end-user a feeling of comfort and nostalgia, memories of a connection to the African continent or something that they could connect to and which appeals to their senses.

What are the 3 top tips/advice you would give to today’s millennials looking to launch a new business idea?

3 tips:

  1. Just start!

  2. Focus on a great product

  3. Talk! — Talk to people about your idea, share it, ask for feedback — this will all help to enhance and refine your idea

How do you manage your finances: what is your outlook on savings & investments?

Like a lot of young people, savings & investments were not at the forefront of my mind initially as I didn’t have a lot to lose. However, as I have become more established and after I became a parent, I started to focus on my finances more and my attitude changed. I made an effort to educate myself about investment products that I now favour and I was given a good piece of advice early on — don’t be tempted to spend what you have made, instead save some for a rainy day.

I invest money back into my business but I always ensure I have enough to ‘weather the storm’. Regulations in the beauty industry change frequently and often at short notice which can be costly. I am proud that during the current pandemic Malée has made no job losses which is important to me, as I recognise that other people rely on my ability to keep the business going. I have a private banker in South Africa, who I trust and who helps me to manage my finances. I also use a digital tool to manage money which I am saving for my daughter, which is more of a long term investment.

Tell us about your recently launched podcast ‘Third Culture Africans’; what is the motivation for this?

I am part of an established entrepreneur network and I realised no-one was documenting the great stories of men and women in business, as an inspiration for others. The idea partly evolved from my own journey, living in the UK and having very few points of reference in the early years. I think the work that has gone into launching the podcast also adds value to my brand as another way of reaching and communicating with my client base. I am enjoying making my podcast series, having made 19 episodes in the past 19 weeks. I have had fantastic feedback and some very interesting conversations along the way. The podcast is available on all streaming platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google podcasts.

What other activities are you involved in, which enhance your entrepreneurial journey?

Apart from my podcast, I write an industry column called Out of Africa for a trade magazine HAPPI (highlighting the African beauty industry, the trends, key market players and the consumers) and I sit on the advisory board of INNOCOS(Cosmetics Global Summit). I also lecture Final year and Masters students in Entrepreneurship, Research and Marketing strategy (for start-ups and luxury brand innovation) at INSEEC School of Business and Economics.

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What next for Malée?

Malée is now sold in 9 countries; my aim is to break into more markets globally, to gain more exposure and to keep growing. I hope one day Malée will hold a good market share and become the African ‘Estee Lauder’!

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