Gisela turned $500 investment into $100,000 in one year
According to a Forbes article, nine out of ten businesses fail and only half of them make it to their fifth anniversary. These statistics are the bane of every entrepreneur everywhere. Starting out, one wonders whether theirs will be the success story or part of the unfortunate failure statistics. That is why it is important to learn from those who make it. Gisela Van Houcke is one of those incredibly success stories. She is proof that with the right tools, any business can thrive anywhere. Her story is a reminder that we need to stop limiting ourselves to our physical boundaries because the world is waiting for our product/ service as long as they meets global standards.
For her brand Zuri Luxury Hair and Beauty, Gisela was named number 19 on the prestigious Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list last year. The list is a compilation of game-changers on the continent; a celebration of 120 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30. Born in Eastern DRC, Gisela fled the country and move to the United Kingdom at a young age due to the DRC’s political and economic instability. As a student in the UK, Gisela struggled to find good quality and affordable hair extensions that she could wear and re-use for a long period of time. The struggle became even more significant for the lawyer when she moved back to Africa in 2015. “I struggled to find companies that could offer top quality virgin hair extensions as well as hair products for my extensions and my natural hair. After thorough research, I decided to start Zuri, which means “excellent” in my native language Swahili,” she says. Zuri started as a mobile company in 2015 before transitioning into an online store and eventually into a physical store in Kinshasa, DRC in 2016. By end 2016, we had sold hair worth over $100,000 across the DRC and Rwanda online. A second Zuri store was opened in Kampala Uganda in 2017 with partner Nadege Muhindo before a holding company was also opened in Hong Kong. In 2018, both stores graduated into full-service Hair Bars and a fully operating warehouse was created in China.
Why did you get into the hair business?
To be honest, I think it is the other way around. This business chose me. I studied British and French Law and worked in the legal field for over five years before starting Zuri. I started Zuri as a hobby but the response I got from our customers convinced me that it was time to take a break from law for a while and focus on business. I have always loved anything to do with hair and beauty so the transition was effortless.
What do you foresee for Zuri?
Our mission is to open Zuri Hair bars across African capitals, to invest in IT systems that will help manage scale, connect our customers to our brand and strengthen our supply chain so that we can bring the best quality products at best prices. As a company, we have different goals depending on the time of the year, the finances available, client response etc. But generally, our goal is to increase women’s confidence by making them look good in all circumstances.
What are your responsibilities as business owner?
Although my main responsibilities are supposed to be the growth, stability, direction and daily operation of the business, I often find myself jumping in and out of various other tasks from training the staff to even doing hair myself. Our business is so young that we cannot afford the luxury of sitting on a desk and waiting for things to happen. We all have to get our hands dirty sometimes.
I suppose the most important thing that Zuri brings to the community is employment. Zuri employs over 20 staff across the different entities. This gives the company the ability to service hundreds of customers daily through the Hair Bars and the online store. Zuri Luxury has an army of resellers in different countries and a strong online presence. We are proud of the fact that the majority of our employees are women. This is really important in a continent where the economy is mainly run by men. Other than that, we do get involved in various charities as and when we get the opportunity.
Advice for people just starting out
Five words; Believe, Care, Risk, Action and Team! The first advice I would give is to believe in oneself. If you believe that you can succeed, you will always find ways to do it! You also have to care about what you do. Considering the amount of time that it takes to run a successful business, you cannot find satisfaction in your work unless you truly care about it. The only way to know the outcome of ones efforts is to take the risk to actually do it. There are many people out there with great ideas but only those who actually take action succeed! Finally, who you are with is who you become. Always surround yourself with a team of people who are the way you want to be and your common effort will boost your success.
To what do you attribute your success?
Do not get satisfied with what you have. Keep innovating or refining your product until you reach the pinnacle in the game. We are not where we want to be yet, we have plans to diversify and come up with innovations that change the industry, but so far, i can attribute the success we have to the quality of our products and services. A quality product or service will always be in demand despite its cost. we are also big on customer satisfaction and we make sure that excellent customer service is at the heart of everything that we do.
What is most important to you at this point in life and why? Happiness! Enjoying life for the moment! Life is too short. So I have learned to cherish the people around me while they are alive and just be thankful to have them around.
What keeps you going when times are tough?
So many different factors; over the years, we have built a very strong clientele that we feel we cannot disappoint; even in the most difficult times. So sometimes, we have no choice but to work hard enough to deliver good results.
As a working mother and wife, what is the best way to give your career your best without guilt?
The best way, I suppose, is finding the right balance between work and family. This is not always easy but I have been blessed with a very supportive husband who has been there from the beginning to guide and help make this journey easier. Our families are also always there to help when we need help with the children etc.
What keeps you up at night?
Strategy. There is a French saying “la nuit porte conseil” which basically means sleep on it. In my case, it is at night that I think of the best strategies to help and grow the business.
What challenges have you faced so far?
Other than various administrative challenges to set up new entities and work in different African countries, the greatest challenge we have faced so far has been financing. The lack of equity and debt financing in Africa for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) makes it terribly difficult for young business people like myself to make the required investment in supply chain, IT and marketing and so to build the right brand and product line. SMEs are by their nature unable to provide the required collateral that large firms have in obtaining formal banking sector loans. This means that banks consider companies such as Zuri Luxury to be riskier to lend to and so make them more financially constrained.
In 2018, you were nominated on the Forbes 30 Under 30’s list. How did it impact you and your business?
It was a very proud moment for our company. When you look at the number of very bright entrepreneurs who get nominated, you can only be proud when you are considered and make it on the list. As a black African woman, I was particularly proud because only a small number of women make it on such prestigious lists. This just shows that women in Africa are still not getting the opportunities that they deserve in the men-controlled African economy. Being listed on Forbes is good for companies because it gives great visibility and exposure to potential partners and investors.