By Emma Sapong
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
Zandra Cunningham was like any other teen girl at the Kissmas Bash — the popular holiday concert. She danced, screamed and melted when pop singers Jacob Latimore and Nick Jonas took the stage at the First Niagara Center.
But the next morning, when other concertgoers were most likely still in bed, Zandra returned to a world few of her peers know — entrepreneurship.
The 14-year-old is the owner and creator of Zandra’s Beauty, a line of all-natural, luxurious bath and body products. And that Saturday last month was the biggest shopping day of the holiday season, so she tirelessly peddled her artisan bath bars, body souffles and lotions at the Foundry and in the Market Arcade.
Zandra then pulled an all-nighter, emulsifying ingredients like peppermint oil, fair-trade shea butter and sea salt to fulfill last-minute orders and replenish her depleted inventory.
“I was really busy; it was such a long day, but we made a lot of money,” she said. “It was worth it.”
The line boasts 37 products, including vegan body washes and oversized lip balms, priced $8 to $18, and in five aromatic scents — “For the Love of Mint,” “Lavender Vanilla Chai,” “Lemon Tea Tree,” “Almond Alfresco,” and “Japanese Kumquat.”
Marketed for teen girls, the products come in colorful packages, bearing inspirational messages, to counter teen angst and insecurities. “Let’s Face It Together,” declares the bamboo clay facial soap; “Love You. I Do,” shouts the body sugar scrub; and “You’re Unique + Beautiful,” affirms the lemon tree body wash.
While she’s only 14, and her products are geared toward her peers, Zandra’s Beauty is no child’s play.
It was one of five small businesses selected for free retail space last year in the Market Arcade through the pilot program, Queen City Pop Up. The West Side Bazaar has carried her products since 2013. A 1,300-square-foot production space in the Pierce Arrow Commerce Park on Elmwood Avenue is the company’s base. Her parents have sunk $15,000 into the venture. And if that’s not enough, Zandra was trained in entrepreneurship by the University at Buffalo’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. She is the youngest graduate of the center’s Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program, a nine-month business training designed for adults.
“We were really proud to have her in our program and will continue to watch her success,” said Tom Ulbrich, executive director of the center in the UB’s School of Management.
Ulbrich further validates the young entrepreneur, adding she’s at the front of an emerging trend.
“She is an example of an upsurge in interest in entrepreneurship in young people,” he said. “You are seeing more young people choosing entrepreneurship as an option. It’s a generational thing — they want to control their destiny. Not only do they want to make money, they want to do well while making money.”
An early start
Zandra started the business when she was 9, and has become a role model, speaking at various functions in the city. She is also the regional ambassador of the Girl Rising Campaign, a global movement, pushing for the education of girls. In that role, she spearheaded an all-girls convention last fall with a 150 attendees at the dig co-working space.
“I have a lot going on, and it can be overwhelming,” she admitted, “but I’m doing what I like to do, so it’s also exciting.”
Her business is a micro-enterprise now, but “it’s gonna be big,” she said. The company was rebranded with a consultant’s help last year in hopes of that.
“In the beginning she wanted to try a new product every other day, so we, at one point, had more than 75 products and fragrances,” said Tamara Lewis-Cunningham, Zandra’s mother. “We were just all over the place. It was great for creativity but bad for business.”
As part of the rebranding, the line was whittled down to the items near and dear to Zandra. And the company was renamed — from her middle name, Azariah’s Innocence — to Zandra’s Beauty, along with redesigned packaging with her signature as the logo. Last year, the business also moved from the Foundry, where Zandra concocted her recipes in two work spaces, to a much larger production suite in the Pierce Arrow Commerce Park that allows for equipment, like a sink and stainless steel counter, needed to adhere to good manufacturing practice standards.
“Hopefully, my products will be available in big stores, and I can be an inspiration and an example for other teen girls to know that they can do the same thing,” she said.
With all this going on, Zandra is still a girl, one who smiles easily, has a typical fondness for UGG boots and sleep-overs. She’s also a freshman at rigorous Nardin Academy.
“School comes first,” her mother says. Zandra’s grades are solid but she meets with a tutor a few times a week to keep them that way. When she’s not saddled with homework or preparing for a big exam, she’s at the business mixing batches, bottling and packaging orders.
But Zandra’s Beauty is a family business, and her mother is a driving force behind it. Lewis-Cunningham is the chief administrative officer for Erie County Chiropractic, but her daughter’s venture has become a second job. And since the family has invested time and resources into the business, Lewis-Cunningham wants it done right.
“I’m passionate about it because it’s what she wants,” said Lewis-Cunningham, who along with Zandra’s grandmother, also graduated from the UB business program. “As a mother, it’s my duty to do what I can to make sure my children’s dreams come true.”
Last year, it has included mother-daughter cross-country trips, attending conventions and conferences, including an indie business Caribbean cruise, and a soap makers convention in Arizona.
Curious about gloss
Zandra’s foray into entrepreneurship began with an obsession with lip gloss, which she requested every time her father when out. One day he told her to make her own. She was only 9 but became instantly curious about homemade lip gloss. Zandra and her mother researched recipes online and she made her first batch, which she later sold to church members after service. Seeing she had a budding entrepreneur on her hands, Lewis-Cunningham put Zandra in the KidBiz program at SUNY Buffalo State in 2009. The business training program culminated with a street market, where Zandra made $82.
“I was so happy; I knew it was what I wanted to do,” she said.
From lip gloss, the business grew to include hair products and bath soaps. And it eventually outgrew the Cunninghams’ Buffalo home, so the family rented spaces in the Foundry on the East Side. While Zandra had the passion, she lacked the business know-how, so in 2013 Lewis-Cunningham put her in the training program at UB.
“I was like, ‘are you serious? You’re an entrepreneur already at 13?” Alex Cleary Pelc, senior program coordinator at the center, said upon receiving Zandra’s application. But Pelc said Zandra’s accomplishments belied her age.
“It was clear she was determined and motivated and she wanted to grow her business,” she said. “I was very impressed.”
While the center’s programs aren’t designed for children, focused youngsters with viable businesses can train there, Ulbrich said.
“We, as a center, want to support entrepreneurs whether it’s a micro enterprise, like Zandra’s, or a high-growth innovative medical company,” he said. The program taught Zandra various business concepts, including writing a business plan, and it paired her with a business mentor. It concluded with presentations from each participant.
“I was the only kid, and I had to present my business plan to all those adults. It was so scary,” Zandra said. “But I did it, and it was cool afterwards.”