Afrocenchix’s CEO on the power of ‘servant leadership’
Despite the mounting challenges of running a business in 2022, Rachael Twumasi-Corson believes transparency, counting the wins and being kind to yourself are the hallmarks of strong leadership.
As someone who started her business in the midst of the 2008 global financial crisis, it speaks to the current economic turmoil that Afrocenchix founder and CEO Rachael Twumasi-Corson describes 2022 as one of the most challenging years in the business’s history.
“We were born out of a recession, you’d think we’d been round this rodeo before, but in 2008 I was in law school and I had a big safety net, I had my part-time job, I wasn’t relying on the company for my own income,” Twumasi-Corson said at Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing yesterday (6 October).
The Afrocenchix founder discussed the stress of running a business in 2022, a year when the vegan, Fairtrade haircare brand has won major contracts with the likes of Selfridges, grown its customer base, won a series of awards and attained its best retention rates to date.
Twumasi-Corson, who founded Afrocenchix after an eczema flare up on her scalp and neck triggered by a hair relaxer, explained that on the startup journey “what gets you to point A will not get you to point B”. Given entrepreneurs face lots of ups and downs, she believes it is crucial to accept issues like the current macroeconomic environment are out of your control.
“We started the year with a team of 14 people, we now only have eight and that has been super challenging. It felt like a massive failure,” she noted.
Despite the challenges, Twumasi-Corson believes leaders should make a conscious decision to focus on the successes. Recent wins for the ethical haircare brand include expanding its contract with retailer Wholefoods and opening a US warehouse to serve American customers.
“These will feel like successes, but as an entrepreneur your success and your failures are so wrapped up in each other. You get a new contract, and you have supply chain issues and you aren’t able to fulfil it. You make an international leap, but then cash flow is a challenge and it’s a struggle to raise investment,” she explained.
“I’ve learnt not to get too emotionally attached to either the successes or the failures, to focus more on my family, my faith, my friendships to ground me and to try my best to get out of the emotional ups and downs.”
Twumasi-Corson explained she has a journal by her bedside where she writes down three wins a night and a bigger journal for daily goals, which includes space for successes. In the weekly stand-ups, the team are also encouraged to share their ‘win of the week’.
The Afrocenchix CEO favours the phrase servant leadership, seeing it as her responsibility to coach her employees to get the best out of them. That’s not to say there haven’t been a few bumps along the way, though.
I’ve learnt not to get too emotionally attached to either the successes or the failures.
Rachael Twumasi-Corson, Afrocenchix
“The mistake I made was I hired lots of inexperienced people. I didn’t have much of a budget and I saw potential. The difficulty with startups, especially under-funded startups, is you don’t always have the capacity to develop potential in people,” Twumasi-Corson recalled.
“There were two cases where I had to tell people they hadn’t passed probation, but I wanted them to feel it’s not really their fault. I get that they tried their best and given that we’ve got limited resources, I can’t spend all my time developing you, because then the company will go bust and no one will have a job. I found it really difficult.”
While in both cases the employees in question went on to thrive elsewhere, Twumasi-Corson has experienced the emotionally challenging side of leadership. For this reason, she is clear about expectations from the start. On an employee’s first day she explains what is required of them to pass their probation and succeed, outlining the expectation of the role as described in the job spec.
“I also say: ‘If you don’t pass your probation these will be the key reasons why. If you’re consistently missing deadlines, not communicating, having a bad attitude,’” she explained.
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Twumasi-Corson also asks new employees what behaviours they do not want to see from the company, which often relates to work/life balance, boundaries and unclear communication, meaning both sides understand what is required. She explained this approach is especially important with her marketing hires, as she expects them to demonstrate the returns of their work.
The Afrocenchix CEO also believes owning up to mistakes is a hallmark of good leadership. This year, for example, has taught her at times she can be an “inconsistent communicator”.
“I tend to oscillate between almost over-communicating and then feeling like: ‘Am I patronising people or overwhelming people? Let me just say the minimum.’ Because people are used to me over-communicating, it either seems like I’m annoyed at them, or they think there is no information and they have to go and find it themselves,” she noted. “I’m really trying to have balance.”
Twumasi-Corson is also well aware that as CEO teams often come to you looking for answers. While in the past she has perhaps been too accessible, it is important to recognise no leader has the capacity to communicate well to 50 requests a day.
As a result, Twumasi-Corson restructured the company so she is managing fewer people, the expectation being employees should go through their line manager. She has found fewer issues are escalated to her and teams are finding ways to solve their own problems, which is empowering.
Passion for marketing
Officially half of the company are involved in marketing and half in the science, although everyone at Afrocenchix has a stake in marketing, Twumasi-Corson explained.
This week the company was out of stock of conditioner after a hold up on a raw material shipment. The team mitigated customer disappointment by creating lots of content around their response, including one of the marketers stepping into the lab to help make the product and capturing her story.
Everyone in the business receives training on how to make the products, while on occasion Afrocenchix’s cosmetic chemist does get involved in marketing.
Twumasi-Corson said she loves the marketing side of the business. She recalled the process of working on the brand positioning when the startup was founded, managing the expectations of customers and retail buyers.
“With the price point, when I would sell at market stalls people would say: ‘The price is so expensive, I can mix it up myself.’ You don’t go into a restaurant and ask the chef: ‘Why is this so expensive? I could make this at home,’” she said.
“What was interesting is when I’d speak to retail buyers, they would say it was too cheap, because we had such high quality ingredients. If you looked at products of a similar quality that weren’t targeted towards afro and curly hair – ones targeted at straight hair – they would be about five to six times the price ours were for a similar quality.”
Twumasi-Corson adopted a twin approach. First, the team created lots of content showcasing the manufacturing process to explain to customers the science behind the products. Secondly, she began to lean into the brand’s vegan, Fairtrade roots to share an ethical message, which started to land with consumers.
The Afrocenchix founder is also interested in the creative side of marketing. In 2020, Twumasi-Corson devised the storyboard for the first UK Christmas TV ad featuring afro hair, which a year later made it onto TV screens through a tie-up with Channel 4.
The film features a woman getting ready for a Christmas party, trying on outfits and playing around with her hair, only to find nothing works. Then a friend sends her an Afrocenchix package and after following the steps – and a quick change of dress – she is ready for her big night out.
Twumasi-Corson explained the concept – ‘The only thing I need to change is my dress’ – taps into the idea women with afro and curly hair can get ready for a Christmas party, date or big interview and not have to worry about their hair.
“[The ad] was super well received, we got a whole bunch of press and PR,” she recalled. “In fact, before the ad aired we made back all of our money from the marketing spend just from the press and PR saying this thing is happening and it’s major.”
Afrocenchix teamed up with an agency on the project, which had never worked on an afro haircare brand before. Used to explaining the brand concept, Twumasi-Corson has created a narrative messaging document for partners, which includes the Afrocenchix elevator pitch.
As well as explaining the mission to create safe, effective products for afro and curly hair, the document outlines the fact 76% of products targeted at black women contain toxic chemicals linked to cancers, fibroids, respiratory issues and fertility problems.
It is this mission that keeps Twumasi-Corson motivated through the challenging times. She enjoys reading Trustpilot reviews from customers explaining how the product has stopped them feeling like their hair should be covered by a wig or harsh chemical straighteners.
“Suddenly a product comes along and there’s a whole community who says: ‘You are acceptable as you are. You can be your best self without harming your health.’ That is lifechanging for people. When customers repeatedly say that it’s really good motivation,” she added.