CEO of Zandra Beauty Dishes on Starting a Successful Company As a Teen

For teenage entrepreneur Zandra Cunningham, it all started with a love for lip balm.

With an insatiable desire for more, Zandra's father suggested she make her own—and that, fellow teens—is how this Buffalo, NY-based entrepreneur started her own handmade lip balm line at the young age of 9.

CEO Zandra Cunningham of Zandra Beauty

(Courtesy of Zandra Cunningham)

Years later, her business and line have grown to include all-natural soaps, lotions and even deodorants.

Find out more about this empowering teen's story below:

Sweety High: When you first started you were watching YouTube videos to figure out how to make these products at home. What were you looking for in videos when you were searching for tutorials?

Zandra Cunningham: It was tons of trial and error. I think once you watch a lot of tutorials you start to find the key things that are listed in every video. Maybe the base or you find the pattern of what they use like shea butter or a specific oil. And we used kits that my mom bought. It was hard at first because on the videos it looks so easy but when you actually do it, yours looks totally different than the tutorial.

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SH: What kept you motivated to continue working on the lip balm when the process got difficult?

ZC: The fact that I wanted lip balm! No one was going to buy it for me so I think that's where the motivation came from. And I was really interested in how everything was made. I was really interested in how products just appeared in stores and what it took to actually make them, what goes into it, how it gets the shine, where the smell comes from, how they color it and how they put it in the box.


SH: The name of your products all have a complimentary or self-loving title. Do you come up with those names?

ZC: Yes, all of the products have an inspirational or affirmation title on them. I wanted a product that, even when it's done, the package looks so good or means so much to you that you don't want to throw it away.

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SH: What lasting impressions do you want your products and designs to leave on your customers?

ZC: That you're getting an all-natural product. I wanted something that looked good and was really good for your skin and if you look on the back you'll recognize and be able to pronounce most of the ingredients on there. Of course the inspirational aspect as well but also that you're giving back to girls' education. The whole idea is that it's made by teens for teens everywhere, that it looks good, it has an uplifting quote and is promoting girls' education and empowerment.


SH: So it sounds like you have three core passions. Did all of those aspects intertwine as you progressed or did you set out with that goal?

ZC: They kind of intertwined. The all-natural element came first because I needed to find a product that was good for your skin, so that was really me solving a problem for myself and other girls like me. The girls' education came next because I wanted to use my company for change, and then the inspirational part came when I did the rebrand. It didn't all come at once, it came in stages. It's kind of cool how it all came together.

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SH: Now 16 and in high school, what has it been like for you juggling school and your own business?

ZC: So this year has definitely been a challenge. Middle school wasn't that bad, it was harder on the social aspect because you didn't get a lot of homework back then. So it was like, "Oh my gosh, I want to go here or go to my friend's house" and it was really hard sacrificing that. But high school, it was social and tons and tons of workload.

I went to an all-girls private school that was really advanced so the workload was intense. And I would miss exams and have to come back on a Saturday morning right after getting off a plane and take all six exams in one day. It was crazy. But this year—and my travel has picked up since I'm a paid speaker now—I just had to say that I'm going to do homeschooling. I'm kind of comfortable with the fact that I don't have to wake up super early to go to school. I hate waking up early now!


SH: What has been the best experience about this whole process? What's been the most challenging?

ZC: I would say the best part is hearing other people's stories of how my story inspired them to follow their dream or put some action into whatever their idea is. Taking it the extra mile to say, "I can actually do this, she did it so why can't I?" And also we're still teenagers, I'm still a person. I don't have a secret super power or anything. It's just all about how badly you want it and how determined you are to get it. I think that's the best part. Also just seeing a creation—creating something with your hands as a product you can make in your kitchen but also see on shelves. You can put some ingredients together and melt it down and see how it becomes a multi-use product that people can use for everything. These things that we're making, of course we developed the formula, but you can make it in your kitchen with simple ingredients.

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The hardest part is that there's only so much you can do in a day. I would say balancing everything is tough. It's something that me and my whole family had to adjust to. Setting up times and using the calendar and literally scheduling everything in our day so we don't miss anything. It all works out but it's also about communication. It used to be hard, especially having to tell my friends that I couldn't go to the movies because I had to be here or things like that. But now they get it, they understand.


SH: Do you have any advice you would give another teen who wants to start her own business?

ZC: Start whatever your idea is, start working on it, develop a plan and surround yourself with likeminded people. There's always going to be people who don't really understand what your vision is but it's your job to surround yourself with people who will encourage you or will inspire you to hold that dream. Some people may think it's weird but it's all about if you love it then you follow it. Chances are you'll find someone else who believes in it, too. At the end of the day it's all up to you. Work at it, whatever it is, no matter how weird it is, create your own normal. That's what I say because a lot of people, when I started, thought it was so weird that a kid was formulating and creating products.

A lot of people thought it was cute but they didn't take it seriously, or they weren't ready to hear it. They weren't ready to hear that a 9 or 10-year-old was out making products that were as good as the ones on shelves.

Research, too, is really important. Find out who your competition is, find out the ins and outs of whatever the product is, learn about what's available inside your community. A lot of people think, "Oh I have to go to NY or L.A. to achieve it." Find out what's available in your community first and then you want to branch out.

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