In our ongoing series of interviews with Founding Mothers, we spoke with Olayinka Credle, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Melanin Essentials. Her entrepreneurial story is entwined with her motherhood one. From single mom undergraduate with a dream to a fully fledged business owner and dynamic Mother of three, hers is a truly impressive journey. The highlights from our conversation include the power of prayer, the importance of community and the quest for investment that can make or break a young business.
What are your thoughts on being called a Founding Mother?
Olayinka: Motherhood is kind of my reason for being, my children are my WHY. Everywhere I go, I think about them, and I talk about them, and I feel like they’re my empowerment. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I’m honored to be called a founding mother.
So please introduce yourself, tell me a little bit about what you do, and the chronology of your company. What role does your family play in it?
Olayinka: I started back as a college junior in 2013 with my friend and co-founder, Saba Williams. It was a real problem then to find natural products for Afro-textured hair and skin. Saba had a chemistry background and I had an entrepreneurial one, so we decided that we would take up that challenge as it answered a real need in our own lives. In the beginning, it was our hobby and we had no plans to turn it into a business but then just before starting my sophomore year, I found out (to my devastation at the time) that I was pregnant. That changed everything!
That must have been a very difficult time – how did you cope?
Olayinka: I thought I would have to drop out of school but thanks to my hugely supportive parents, I finished my sophomore year, and I actually took my last final two days before I gave birth. I made the Dean’s list. My GPA went up. I was more driven than ever. I was about to bring a child into the world, and I became more empowered to be myself – I started to wear my natural hair then too.
“I actually took my last final two days before I gave birth. I made the Dean’s list. My GPA went up. I was more driven than ever. I was about to bring a child into the world, and I became more empowered to be myself.” – Olayinka Credle
I also started to realize the disparities between economic and racial injustice. And I decided, even if I’m going to be a single mom, I’m going to be the best single mom ever. In my last year of college, people on campus and in my local church started to catch wind of the products that we were making. A lot of other women of color, especially with Afro hair, were asking us “What do you use? Because I still can’t find any products that work.”
So how did you make the leap from college friends with a hobby to founding a business?
Olayinka: Well first, another big life event interrupted my plans to be the world’s best single mother – in my Junior year, I started dating one of my best friends of four years. A year later, we were engaged and got married. After graduation, we moved to D.C., where I started to work in Congress. At that time Saba and I were still making products for ourselves and our friends out of her kitchen. Then I found out I was pregnant again so my husband and I decided to move back home to Pennsylvania. People kept saying, “Why don’t you guys actually do this as a business?”
Eventually, we heard that enough times to actually say, “Okay, let’s do it.” We applied for this business competition for social impact companies and we were like, “No way we wouldn’t be able to do that.” It was really hard to get into, but we ended winning the entire competition.
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What kind of difference did winning the competition make to you as a start up?
Olayinka: We won $8,000 in cash and $20,000 in pro bono legal and financial services, so it let us register as an LLC and in 2017 we were able to officially launch our first product. I should add that I also gave birth to my third child a week after that launch!
Wow! Your timing is really something. Would you say being a Mother has been at the center of each stage of your business journey?
Olayinka: I’ve heard people say, “I don’t want children to hold me back’, that’s such a foreign phrase to me. My reality is different because my children are the reason why I’m successful. Every time I wanted to give up, I was either having a child or pregnant and each time it inspired me to go on. Coming from a less privileged background, I know what it is like to struggle and I don’t want that for my children.
After the initial competition win, how have you managed to grow both the business and your family?
Olayinka: Things started really picking up with the company earlier this year. My husband is home full time with the kids, and he loves it. Saba and I work full time in the business thanks to an angel investor. We are at a healthy stage of growth but need more investment. So we are searching for that right now.
Do you parent your kids differently because as a business owner, you’re a natural risk taker?
Olayinka: A lot of it comes from my faith. I’m a nondenominational Christian. I believe in God. I raise my kids from a moral foundation of loving people, loving the world and caring for our community. That’s really the fabric of who I am and how I carry myself and how I raise my children to carry themselves. There is a saying, ‘children will do what you do and not what you say’. So I let my actions speak for me. My 7-year daughter already knows all about the products and acts like my best salesperson at events. So she is definitely watching what I do!
How do you deal with stress? Do you bring it home? Do you talk about it with your family?
Olayinka: Firstly, I am a believer and that’s a big part of it. Another part is, I struggle with an anxiety disorder and also had postpartum depression with my last child, so that mix took awhile for me to get over, but I started to recognize what the triggers are and how to deal with them. I made myself a little list of ways to maintain my mental health – essentially journaling, praying and exercising. Those are my three superpowers. I exercise daily and try to have a balanced diet because when I’m not balancing things, that affects how I think and how I sleep. And then it’s harder to deal with the ups and downs.
In business, we’re constantly dealing with highs and lows. How do you deal with that? Do you share your work ups and downs with your family? What’s your strategy?
Olayinka: I definitely have those moments when I’m really hard on myself, but both my husband and my business partner are hugely supportive. They are great about calling me to order on negative thoughts. If I’m doing too much they’ll warn me, but I try to be aware of my limits, and I try to be strict with my downtime. I know right now I’m not financially able to go on a huge vacation but I read this article that said: try to vacation daily. I intentionally try to avoid burnout, with just the daily things. I try every day to have at least 30 minutes of downtime, my “daily vacation,” I think the daily choices that we make will lead up to the overall success. Because a big success is just a bunch of little successful choices that you make over time.
So what’s next for Melanin Essentials? What is your the biggest challenge ahead?
Olayinka: Right now our two big challenges are that we need to hire a chemist and that we need to secure the next round of financial investment. We have not been as successful as we’d like with investors, though as we become more articulate in our business model I hope that changes. Ideally, we want to find investment from someone who’s looking for a company that wants to give back to the community and raise community capital for people of color. And that’s such a specific and rare find. So it’s a tough situation to be in, but we’re hopeful!
Any final thoughts on this whole business of being a Founding Mother?
Olayinka: I think the most important thing is just to know your ‘why’ and also have a support system that will remind you of your ‘why’. Those are the two most important things. No one really does anything alone, and there’s really no such thing as self-made. Everybody has some sort of help or guidance.
“No one really does anything alone, and there’s really no such thing as self-made. Everybody has some sort of help or guidance.” – Olayinka Credle
Olayinka Credle is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of the eco-friendly and organic, beauty brand, Melanin Essentials. Melanin Essentials won the 2015 Great Social Enterprise Pitch Business Competition and was named as a top 10 finalist in Fast Company’s global “Faces of Founders” Business Competition.
This post is part of our Founding Mothers series. View the rest here.