This country is full of entrepreneurs who give life to Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o’s quote, “your dreams are valid”. One of these business people is Marini Naturals founder, Michelle Ntalami.
Michelle, 33, started her range of products for natural hair in November 2015, and in under two years of operation has gone from trying to break even to having distributors in France and Rwanda.
She’s been on the fast-track to business success, which is what saw her recently launch a masterclass for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Launched on September 28, the three-day series is aimed at teaching entrepreneurs how to make it in business, dream big, achieve big goals, and handle human resources as well as the supply and distribution of goods. The class will run every two months.
Aside from running her companies – Marini Naturals and Brandvine Group, which is a public relations firm – Michelle is also a mentor with Safaricom’s youth initiative, Blaze, and a motivational speaker.
We caught up with her to learn more about her business journey and this latest project.
What made you think of starting a masterclass?
I believe that when you learn, you should teach. I have had many people teach me in my short journey in entrepreneurship, and I feel that it’s time to share what I have learnt with would-be entrepreneurs.
At first, I had thought of holding classes more frequently, but because I still have to balance my other commitments, including running my business and having a personal life, I decided to run classes every two months.
What is the class about and who’s your target?
I have had people calling me up asking if the class is just for young entrepreneurs or if you can sign up your parent for it. I say the class is open to anyone with interest in running a business.
The class costs Sh15,000 for the three sessions, which is really a small fee considering the kind of learning you’ll get. The fee is just to cover administration fees and the like.
So will you be teaching all the classes? How many participants do you want per session?
I have teamed up with a group of experienced people to lead the classes. I will teach some of the modules, such as going for gold and making your dreams come true. Other modules will be led by people with experience in different fields.
The classes will be held at Edulink International College in Nairobi, and there will be lecturers from the college who will take participants through modules, such as supply and distribution. I have also partnered with Chandaria Industries to run some modules.
I want to have a maximum of 30 students per class. I want the classes to be intimate so we can get a chance to interact better.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced running a business?
I hear people talk about finances a lot, and yes, it’s a big issue, but I would say managing the human resource element of a business is the toughest bit. Sorry to my employees, but yes, they can be difficult to manage at times.
For finances, I have found partnering and working with my bank to be a very good experience. I hear a lot of times people saying that banks are snobbish, but that has not been my experience. Chase Bank has come on board to sponsor an element of my masterclass.
Take us through your journey to starting Marini.
In 2011, I worked as an account manager with Scanad Group and was doing other branding projects through my company, Brandvine Group.
But in 2012, something happened that changed my life forever. During one of his routine checkups, my father Edward Ntalami was diagnosed with cancer. This shocked me because my dad was a very healthy man. He ate right and kept fit. The next two years were an emotionally draining and trying time for me.
In 2013, I shaved my hair in solidarity with my father. I struggled to find products suitable for my natural hair and ended up shipping in products to supplement the ones I was preparing at home in my kitchen.
When people saw my hair, they would say it looks healthy and they asked me what products I used. I realised there was a gap in the natural hair market and that was the beginning of what would become the Marini Naturals hair care range. I ran the idea by my dad and he told me: “I don’t know what Marini means, but it sounds like a woman’s hair will grow very long if she uses a product by that name.”
In November 2014, while studying for my master’s degree in Italy, I got the dreadful call that my dad had passed away.
Is that when you started your business?
Yes, I made drastic changes to my life, including what I ate and the friends I kept and I had new focus. I then decided to make the Marini idea come to life. I partnered with my former colleague at Scanad and best friend Niyati Patel to start production.
After making a few samples, I rounded up a group of friends to test them and the response was overwhelming. People were so supportive. We ran out of products and had to quickly make more orders. That’s when I realised I was on to something and I put in more effort.
When did Marini officially launch?
In November 19, 2015, on the anniversary of my dad’s death.
Do you think the naturalista movement is just a fad? Is your business sustainable?
No, it’s not a fad. It’s here to stay because women have realised natural hair is healthy. To those people who say natural hair is unprofessional, it’s like saying my dark skin is unprofessional.
This is what I was born with. As long as it’s clean and well maintained, there should be no problem. I mean, are we saying it is more professional to have permed hair even if it’s dirty and full of dandruff?