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What Sitting Next to Warren Buffett Taught me About Business

Culture

On Wednesday August 2nd 2017 I had one of the most significant experiences in my entrepreneurial journey. I was seated next to some of the most successful businessmen in America. To my left was Mr. Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a few seats away was Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, to my right was Dr. Michael Porter, esteemed professor at Harvard Business School and across the room was Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs. I had to pinch myself, because this was beyond my wildest dreams. How did I go from whipping up shea butter lotions and potions in my kitchen for my eczema prone children, to sitting in a room with people whose net worth exceeds that of small countries?


Michael Bloomberg. Photo Courtesy of CNBC

They were all gathered to celebrate my success as a new graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in Baltimore City. I was one of 59 local entrepreneurs graduating from this inaugural class, and I had the honor of being selected as the speaker for my cohort. This honor won me the best seat at an intimate brunch right next to Mr. Warren Buffett.

We began our company to solve the problem of eczema and successfully created a line of premium natural formulas that work wonders on dry skin. We use shea butter as our key ingredient and we source this butter directly from women who run cooperatives in West Africa. Our business provides economic access to women so they can feed, clothe and educate their children. I have always believed that the products we put on our skin should be good enough to eat; the simpler and cleaner the ingredient list the better it is for our customers and the environment.

During the years of building my business I have run into roadblocks, frustrations, and barriers not uncommon to many entrepreneurs. The issue of access to grow my company at times seemed insurmountable. Michael Bloomberg affirmed that small businesses like mine make up the majority of American jobs and that we are the engines of innovation and new ideas and we form the backbone of successful cities. So here I am sitting at a table slowly picking at my kale salad with successful entrepreneurs, experts and captains of industry who are telling me that my entrepreneurial abilities and the ability to create a brand like Shea Radiance is meaningful to the economy, and that is why they are providing support to small businesses not only here in Baltimore but in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas and many more.

Warren Buffett. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times

During our time together, I shared that the Goldman Sachs program allowed me to be very clear about our business opportunity and the value we were providing to our customers. I also shared my plans for growth and how I planned to finance it by seeking angel investors. Warren and Mike expressed their thoughts on equity and their concern that giving up equity could lead to losing control of the business and what made the business great in the first place. Warren told me that he started his business with a $2,000 loan and grew from there. I definitely took what was said about preserving the culture and values of our brand to heart. My vision for Shea Radiance is to be the gold standard for natural and organic hair and body care products. Our mission driven journey will attract not only customers but the most talented employees - creative, socially conscious team players from diverse backgrounds eager to help build the women-led supply chain that will provide an economic pathway for over 16 million African women to take control of their own economic destiny.

Warren Buffett. Photo Courtesy of the Huffington Post

However, I struggled with the fact that getting a loan from the bank is no easy task. It is a downright barrier for a business like mine where bankers are not equipped to assess the value of my business outside of the traditional parameters. My business is “too risky” for traditional banks and so I have had to look to the equity market for investors who share our values and understand what we are trying to accomplish. If they “get it”, there is an upside for them in a number of years for taking the risk. Bringing on angel investors should not mean loss of control if they are the right partners. Any investor that has a need to control is probably not a good fit for us.

I loved Mike Bloomberg’s insights on the importance of corporate culture. He talked about the importance of valuing each employee and seeing them as members of your team with valuable contributions. “Never ever give the impression that because you are the boss you are above doing certain types of work”. It’s important that your team knows that you not only value what they do, but you can do it too. As a manufacturer, his words rang true to me. Unlike most service or tech companies, my business requires a wide range of skills and talents, from the savvy digital marketing gurus to the sure handed and focused bottle fillers, labelers and box packers. As a business owner I am not far removed from many of these tasks and my team knows that I can roll up my sleeve at anytime to get the job done. Michael’s words tell me that as we grow and out of necessity I become less involved in the day to day operations, I should never be too far from the heart of what makes my business run, and that is the people.

Funlayo Alabi

I enjoyed hearing Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs acknowledge that the day-to-day entrepreneurial struggles are real. Even though he never started a company from scratch and always had tremendous resources at his disposal, he truly appreciates the struggle and tenacity of the small business owner. It was nice to hear people that I respect and look up to affirm the value of my not so glamorous CEO life. Listening to men who are successful and who in hindsight can confirm the principles that are time tested for building a sustainable and success enterprise was priceless.

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Self

How To Treat Yourself Like A Queen

Sometimes the person you have to stand up to is you! There I was, rewatching the Miss Universe 2019 competition. Which I do for inspiration from time to time. (No, seriously!) There is something about seeing women on stage, in full-on glam mode, and speaking with confident assuredness that really lights my fire!


I have seen this Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa win this crown so many times before, but something about this particular viewing, her delivery or her words, touched something inside me a little differently. At that moment, I truly believed, with complete conviction, that she lives what she speaks.

The announcement was made, the audience cheered, and the crown was awarded. The light was dazzling,, she looked stunning, almost blessed. The judges made the right call with 2019's queen.

Reflecting On Myself

Suddenly, the YouTube video ended. And I was left looking at a black screen. In the darkness of that screen, I saw my reflection and I began assessing what I saw, asking myself, "What have I been doing with my life?" It may seem like an overly dramatic question, but at that moment, I had to ask myself seriously… What have you done? The fact that I couldn't come up with a solid, confident answer gave my inner-cynic license to quickly spiral into self-criticism.

This went on for quite some time, until I got up. I stood up and walked to my mirror to have some serious one-on-one "Queen Talk." I needed to get out of that self-critical mindset, and I know that physical movement is something that help disrupt a way of thinking. I needed to remind myself of who I really was. The negative feelings I was experiencing at that moment were not reality.

Here are a few reminders for whenever you need some Queen Talk!

1.) Comparison is truly the thief of joy.

This saying feels like a cliché. That is, until it's applicable to you. At that moment, this "cliché, becomes self-evident. Comparing myself to someone on a stage with years of experience in an area I know nothing about is not only unfair but straight-up mean. A part of my comparison comes from me wondering, "Would I have the ability, if put in that position, to perform at such a level?" The answer is totally and without question, yes. I excel in the field I work in now, and I know that if I put that same energy towards something else, with practice, I could do just as well. No joy can come from comparing yourself to someone in a completely different field!

2.) Never forget the blessings that have been bestowed upon you.

Every single day, I am blessed to have the opportunity to wake up with all ten fingers and toes and choose to create the kind of life I want to live. There is so much power in that alone, but sometimes it's easy to take it for granted. Let us not forget those who are unable to make that same decision every day of their lives.

3.) Appreciate how far you have come!

I've been very intentional for some time to be kinder and gentler to myself. I need to realize that I am human. Being human means that I will not know everything, and I will continue to make mistakes.But I must let go of the need to always be right. I feel empowered when I can see the growth that I've made, regardless of the mistakes that may come in the future. I don't react to every little thing that bothers me, because I have learned boundaries when it comes to dealing with others and myself. I truly value my time and my energy, and, for that, I am proud.

4.) You Can Be Who You Want To Be

If you can see it in your mind, you can achieve it in reality. I saw myself when I looked at the women on stage, when she smiled, the way she talked, her elegant walk. For a moment, in my self-criticism spiral, I forgot that we are all connected. Debasish Mridha has said "I may not know you, but I don't see any difference between you and me. I see myself in you; we are one." I will not sit in the mentality of lack, there is more than enough opportunity and good fortune to go around for everyone. Her win was not a loss for me, but it can be a nudge from the universe for me to go ahead and dream big!

This Queen Talk was not easy. There may have been some tissues and tears involved but giving myself an honest yet compassionate talk is sometimes what I need to bring myself out of some bad head space. In these moments of doubt, you truly need to be your own best friend.When times get rough, criticism won't always come from outside sources. How you speak about yourself internally is crucial to how you see and feel about yourself. As Beyoncé once sang, "I've got Me, Myself, and I." We must put forth every effort to be there for ourselves. I look forward to more Queen Talks when some negative emotions arise. I am grateful for the person I am today, but I am excited to see the women I become.