How Stanford Seed Helped One Woman Scale an Idea and Create Thousands of Jobs

Written

How Stanford Seed Helped One Woman Scale an Idea and Create Thousands of Jobs

Nigerian cosmetics firm created incentives and strategic performance system to expand business globally.
June 1, 2015
Tara Fela-Durotoye | Saul Bromberger

As a teen in Nigeria, Tara Fela-Durotoye noticed something empowering about beauty: When a woman likes how she looks, she carries herself with extra confidence and poise.

Tara was already a whiz with cosmetics. She loved making women beautiful, and she was good at it — so good that in 1998 she opened a makeup studio while she was still a 21-year-old law student at the state university in Lagos.

At first her studio provided only makeup services. But when customers started clamoring to buy the cosmetics she was using, she decided to branch out into sales.

The decision was a hit; business surged, creating a growth spike that was both thrilling and intimidating. Tara knew she could lead the business through modest growth, but she was starting to dream so big that she needed help designing a growth strategy that was both aggressive yet realistic.

She got the help she needed from SEED, the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, which opened its first center in Accra, Ghana in 2013. It aims to help West African entrepreneurs develop the leadership skills and mindset needed to scale their businesses that will create jobs and relieve poverty. Entrepreneurs accepted into SEED’s Transformation Program receive instruction from Stanford’s business faculty, as well as guidance and coaching from experienced business practitioners from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Coaches may work with companies through the teaching program and for months afterward as entrepreneurs carry out their strategies. Tara credits SEED with helping her plot a course for expansion throughout Nigeria, across Africa and beyond.

Scaling Her Business

Today Tara is the chief executive officer of House of Tara International. The company has three divisions: makeup studios, beauty schools, and cosmetic lines designed for African women.

When Tara joined SEED in 2013, House of Tara had nine store branches and 35 employees. It also had about 1,000 beauty-care coordinators, forming a network of reps who had set up their own micro-businesses to sell House of Tara beauty products. “This is not a place for people who don’t want to dream big,” says Tara, 38. “It’s for people who have extraordinary dreams and are willing to work toward them.”

Tara knew there was still room to expand her business, but she was getting to the point where she’d need help to scale it any further. That’s where the SEED program was so beneficial. Tara immersed herself in its rigorous business training for CEOs and executive teams, and she drew heavily from the resources in its coaching program. Coaches, most of them experienced at growing fast-paced businesses in Silicon Valley, ‘walk with’ their clients and advise on everything from business strategy to financial management, and marketing. The notion of ‘walking with’ comes from an African proverb: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk together.”

Tara’s coach was Kweku Fleming, who attended Stanford University and has 20 years of experience in product design and project management. He helped guide House of Tara through a period of substantial revenue and job growth. Today the company has 22 branches, created more jobs by expanding its employees to 105, and tripled to 3,000 the number of its beauty-care coordinators, including 500 recruited in a three-month span.

Instant Impact

House of Tara joined the SEED Transformation Program in 2013. Tara recalls that Kweku had a major transformative impact from the outset.

He started by leading her management team through a “dreamweaving” exercise. That’s where the group “dreams” about what the company can become and then figures out how to get there. “He encouraged people to give ideas and speak their mind,” Tara says. “I was surprised who had good points.”

Kweku also asked the members where they thought the company would be in 10 years and, more poignantly, what their roles would be in that company. These were questions Tara never thought to ask.

Kweku saved his last question for Tara. She’d been quiet throughout the exercise, and Kweku asked how she felt after hearing her colleagues’ visions.

“Her word was ‘relieved,’” Kweku recalls. “Now she knows it’s not her alone. One, she knows her team is aligned behind some big visionary goals, and two, people know their roles and how they’re accountable.”

Once the team was on board, the next step was to plot a growth strategy. Drawing upon his corporate-strategy experience, Kweku guided the team toward a plan to develop the sales reps into an elite network of beauty coordinators.

First the team members tightened their hiring criteria and created an incentive program and performance-review system.

This is not a place for people who don’t want to dream big. It’s for people who have extraordinary dreams and are willing to work toward them.
Tara Fela-Durotoye

Then they developed a series of monthly training sessions. Now, reps get to learn new skills and practice old ones. They learn how to acquire and retain customers. They learn about newly released products, and they get to see how to market products they hadn’t been including in their portfolios.

To an outsider, some of Kweku’s suggestions might sound intuitive. Hiring good people, giving them top-notch training — shouldn’t a CEO already be doing that? Absolutely, says Tara, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“There are so many things I’m focusing on: expanding retail stores, partnerships with international brands, expanding our product line,” she says. “Many times I’m so overwhelmed that it’s hard to see the low-hanging fruits.”

It wasn’t just hearing Kweku’s message that helped. Because he coached onsite, he was able to offer gentle reminders that couldn’t be ignored. “He was constantly reminding me, with a sparkle in his eye, ‘Impact. Impact,” she recalls.

The SEED program also allowed Tara to learn from other CEOs in the program. At one SEED meeting she worried aloud that she couldn’t scale her business until she had filled executive positions. But her peers at fellow companies in the program advised her to go ahead and scale up anyway, saying it would make her brand so much more attractive that top executives would come to her. “I was learning all the time,” she says, “whether from my coach or my peers.”

Tara already had grand dreams of expanding her brand to other African countries and beyond. Through Kweku’s guidance and the SEED program she now has a plan to make her vision tangible.

She has partnered with The L’Oreal Group to help distribute its Maybelline cosmetics. House of Tara recently launched in Kenya, and Tara is working to expand in the West African countries of Benin, Ghana, and Senegal. She also plans to expand to the U.S. and United Kingdom within two years.

These are lofty dreams, and they scarcely seemed real a few years ago. But after going through the SEED program anything seems possible now, she said.

“I’m passionate about driving the business for social change, with poverty being one area,” Tara says. Kweku “helped us drill down on the challenges and put together a detailed transformation document.

“It would have been difficult for me to sit still and do it myself. But with that document we’re on the right path.”

By Dinesh Ramde

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