Over Zoom on a recent summer’s afternoon, Nana Addison is outlining a hypothetical situation. ‘Tom, Dick and Harry, all in their mid-20s, pitch a mediocre idea about reusable coffee cups – or whatever, really – and the investor will be like, “These guys have real energy! Let’s give them 35k!”’
She flashes a smile but deep down knows that this scenario is anything but funny; that what she just described is still, half-way through 2020, dishearteningly real. When it comes to fundraising, female founders know the odds are stacked against them before they’ve even said a word. In 2018, while pitching her idea to launch a platform connecting independent hair and make-up stylists to Black people and people of colour, Nana realised that ‘even the whole female beauty industry is run by white men’.
So, when investors told her that her idea was ‘too niche’, she found it hard to accept. ‘These guys would question whether it was really that interesting an idea for the market. They’d say, “I’ll have to ask my wife”. And in my head I’d be like, “But what does your wife know about tech?”’
‘It’s so important to create a complete picture of Black life in Germany, not just for entrepreneurs, but for everyone.’
Nana knew from personal experience that the potential for the platform she would later name Styleindi would be huge. Born in Ghana and raised in the west German city of Essen, in one of the few Black families in the neighbourhood, Nana, 30, always struggled to access products and services for her hair type. She soon realised she wasn’t alone. When she moved to Berlin in 2011 and joined a few Facebook groups to track down an afro hair stylist, she saw many other Black women doing exactly the same thing.
However, although Nana recognised a huge demand in the market for Black-oriented beauty services, she couldn’t back it up with numbers. ‘After the Second World War, Germany stopped collecting information on ethnicities,’ she explains. ‘The decision may have been well-intentioned, but it has made it hard for Black-owned businesses to prove they have a customer base.’
This year marks a turning point. In May, Germany launched its first-ever census for people of African heritage. The so-called Afrozensus will be carried out annually and will ask questions about an individual’s socio-economic status, their employment situation and their experiences of racism. It is widely expected to prove that young Black people are the fastest growing demographic in the country. ‘It’s so important to create a complete picture of Black life in Germany, not just for entrepreneurs, but for everyone,’ says Nana.
Pros and cons
Nana has never been short of business ideas – including an afro hair and beauty convention, which she eventually launched in Berlin last year.
‘2015 was when the natural hair movement had arrived in Germany, but it wasn’t fully fledged,’ she says. Nana recruited a team of five Afro-German women, who worked pro-bono for eight months to launch what would later become CURL CON. The event would bring beauty brands, retailers and audiences together with the aim of getting Black hair and beauty products into the mainstream.
The first step for CURL CON was attracting sponsors to cover at least part of the costs. Nana’s team pulled together a pitch deck and spent months cold-calling various brands in the German beauty industry, but received little interest. Eventually, she stopped trying. She bootstrapped CURL with €300 and has since scaled the business to €50,000 in revenue.
Her first company was a brand agency called Addison Green, in New York, which she also launched with her own money. ‘But, in this day and age, I shouldn’t have to bootstrap every single flipping thing – especially as I’ve already proven my expertise in various industries, and doubled the revenue of other companies I’ve worked for in senior management roles.’
Pivoting the CURL concept by broadening the scope of the hair and beauty fair to include a lifestyle and entertainment dimension is what eventually got sponsors interested in Styleindi. ‘At this point I said to myself, “The main stage shouldn’t just have keynotes about hair follicles or porosity; it should have panels, performances and creative pieces that reflect the lived experiences connected to the hair and skin colour of Black people as a heterogeneous group. We are so diverse, you know.’
The pivot worked: the revenue from sponsors covered a third of the convention’s costs, while the rest came from ticket sales and vendors. ‘For me, CURL CON is about Black beauty and lifestyle equity – meaning beyond the service it’s about facilitating a stable infrastructure for the advancement of our culture, self-love, healing, wealth and entertainment,’ says Nana. ‘Cause, you know, Black people and people of colour invent and lead almost everything in culture, we just don't own much of it. Not yet at least.’
Nana didn’t realise it at the time, but launching CURL CON would eventually swing the concept behind her initial idea, Styleindi, for investors. Through CURL, Nana had created her own set of data about the companies and consumers that make up the Black fashion and beauty industry in Germany, in doing so validating the African-German market and its purchasing power.
‘If there was anyone in my family that was going to achieve this it was Nana,’ says her sister Pamela. ‘From her early school years, Nana was always able to come up with ideas, fix things, help people out. But Nana needed to be her own boss and have something to pour her ideas into. Blindly following orders wasn’t for her.’
Styleindi launches later this year, and early signs point to its success. ‘Still, that I had to create an entire hair and beauty fair just to get angel funding...’ Nana says before trailing off.
Time to execute
If the young Black community is indeed one of the fastest growing segments of Germany’s population, as the Afrozensus is expected to show, then it would be foolish for businesses to continue ignoring it. ‘There’s so much potential for upcoming Black founders that cater to or represent the Black community,’ she says. ‘Black entrepreneurs will either upgrade existing industries, or create new ones altogether.’
But providing opportunities for Black business founders means that change has to happen in society and the economy from the top down. That means companies around the world being ‘intentional’ about inclusivity, says Nana. ‘What I learned from working in brand consulting is that companies usually have a really great ethos [regarding diversity and inclusion], but they mess up the execution, or they don’t execute at all.’
The solution, she continues, is that businesses should hire more diverse professionals, as well as creating an atmosphere where that talent can thrive. ‘Black people and people of colour aren’t a token; they offer diverse skills and perspectives, and that will challenge the status quo and will affect new progressive decision-making for the better of everyone involved.'
Still, she remembers when she was recruited by a design and software company. ‘They gave me a year to double their revenue and triple their team. But as soon as I started to identify the problems in the company, my boss treated me like a shit-starter,’ she says. ‘I realised that they hadn’t actually expected me to do my job. I was just there for token value.’
Overt discrimination has been common. She’s also been told: ‘“We thought you were a really cool girl. We hired you because we thought you were gonna bring a new vibe.” But I’m a grown-ass woman first of all!’
‘If there’s one piece of advice Nana could give to Black founders, it’s to never change yourself to suit other people.’
Nana has made it her mission to make companies understand that ‘making Black people fit into whatever mould you’ve created’ just doesn’t work. While this applies mostly to company hiring practices, it also extends to how brands communicate with their audience. A few months after founding CURL Con, Nana launched CURL Agency, a brand consultancy helping companies learn about, understand and speak to a more diverse audience. So far, Nana and her team is working with brands from Adidas and Nike to Cantu Beauty and Coca Cola.
‘Entrepreneurs like Nana can’t be put into a box,’ says Charisse Oyediwura, founder of Beaumont Media Worldwide, who has mentored Nana for the past five years. ‘She learns fast and has had the discipline to teach herself skills along the way. I know she’s going to do something that changes the world.’
If there’s one piece of advice Nana could give to Black founders, it’s to never change yourself to suit other people. ‘You have no control over people’s biases about your skin colour,’ she says, recalling the days when she pitched Styleindi to investors with no luck. ‘You could dress like a homeless person or Michelle Obama, or even have your hair bone-straight; it won’t change a thing. There’s no point in trying to assimilate.’
While Black people still experience the sting of racism and discrimination every day, Nana is confident that things are changing. The Black Lives Matter movement has applied pressure on industries around the world and, with the internet being a powerful force for activism, the status quo is slowly but surely being dismantled. ‘Millennials and Gen Z of all ethnic backgrounds globally are just not accepting excuses anymore, and they’re really pushing authorities to take action,’ she says. ‘This is the new zeitgeist.’
For Black-owned businesses to really flourish, however, more financial resources need to be made available. Nana says that Black-owned businesses are always the ‘afterthought’ when it comes to investment. Now, she wants venture capitalists and angel investors to prioritise Black founders and take a second and third look at their pitch decks.
‘We’re not looking for venture capital or angel firms to host a lunchtime for Black female entrepreneurs to offer advice and networking opportunities. We’ve already taught ourselves skills and bootstrapped entire businesses off our own backs. It’s not that we don’t want your advice; just add some zeroes to it. Put your money where your mouth is, anything less is nothing but virtue signalling.’
Find out more from Nana at nanaaddison.com.