Zeze Oriaikhi-Sao grew up with a love of play and a love of teaching. She became an entrepreneur early in her life and has evolved into a “multi-hyphenated” self as an entrepreneur, beauty and cosmetics industry expert, luxury brand consultant, influential speaker, podcast host, freelance columnist and social media personality. Her company, Malee, is Africa’s 1st global luxury fragrance and body care brand. Zeze tells the story of how she has grown with her company through the ups and downs of running a business and life all in one.
A non-considered start
Zeze started her entrepreneurship career more than 10 years ago shortly after finishing school. It all looks well thought of and planned out, but in fact, it was a product of factors and not very considered. Zeze did know she would eventually follow her passions and dreams in entrepreneurship but expected she would do that much later in her career. Don’t worry, she did have a business plan, but the truth is that she was not yet 100% sure she was going to do this at the time she launched. That showed as she took a day job in the meantime and did not really believe when she got a call from CNN to talk about Malee. When she considered her options, someone gave her the advice she remembers today
“What is the worst that can happen?”
Losing the passion
Zeze started with her vision for the business but ended up deviating from it, going into retail, investing in manufacturing and working 7 days a week. At that point, she no longer woke up loving her business. And as the joy started to go down, she also started making less money.
As she had external consultants come in and look into her business, they helped her see the difficulty in scaling the operations and also the impact of any moments she was not there on the bottom line. At that point, she recognised she was working on it, but dying slowly, and without any joy.
It is interesting Zeze brought this up because people assume entrepreneurs always have a passion for their business. But a lot of times, passion can fade. And what do you do then?
Taking the helm back
Zeze focused on what she needed from the business to be able to continue to be at the helm of the ship. So that is how the business evolved, with this mix of personal and professional experiences. And from the realizations that come with running a business for 12 years. Not only do you change as a person, the business changes but even the world you are in changes. Retail is today totally different from what it was 5 years ago, and even from what it was 18 months ago. With a business that was 80% based on the hospitality industry, Malee took a huge impact when the pandemic hit and a lot of questions had to be asked.
How to pandemic proof the business?
The first adjustment that Zeze had to go through was to accept there was no work. There was no business to sell. This is when having a decade behind and being quite frugal has really helped her endure this period. At the same time, Zeze dedicated this downtime to sit down with the team and re-organize while getting operationally fit to be able to stretch the margins post the pandemic. So, for the first 6 months, all was cool and there was no panic. But as the pandemic stretched out and post a lot of cuts in expenditure and personnel, there was a point Zeze was indeed ready to panic.
All in all, the business survived the pandemic and has also taken this chance to change their relationship with their customers and diversify away from B2B. It is not the first time we hear on the podcast how the pandemic was such a crucial moment for brands to relate to their customers.
Back to the original business, Zeze is now also more focused on a broader lifestyle brand and is venturing into apparel. She has also become much bolder with the expansion, so has started pushing the business outside its comfort zone.
One of my favourites was to find out how Zeze described herself as a leader. She realized how bold she had been already in her 12-year business. Malee was the first female black-owned brand to launch in Harvey Nichols (even before Rihanna) – and extremely successful. She was able to grow a luxury brand out of Africa into the “first world” where there are so many options already and being able to stand next to the best in the game. It reinforces that no dream is too big.
“No one puts Baby in a cornerDirty Dancing
The secret of expanding time
I get this question a lot – how do I do all the things that I do. And Zeze is just like that. She has the mindset of being “limitless” in all the things she is working on. She loves the pace and the diversity. And despite the apparent lack of connectivity, they do all come together in an incremental way. Gone are the days where she felt confined to being Malee all day and every day. As the business is no longer a baby that needs her every second, she is finding value in all the things that make her “multi-hyphenated”. I think I like her explanation!
The only problem I had with this podcast is that I could have gone on for hours listening to Zeze’s story. She was an open-sharer and I feel like I learnt a fair amount and just kept absorbing her great stories. What was your biggest take?
Zeze’s Short List
- 2021 Advice: I wish I had enjoyed more
- 2021 Lesson: We are stronger than we think
- Book for 2022: Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath and The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, Philippa Perry
- Word for 2022: Be Bold, what is the worst that can happen?
Connect with us
- Meet Zeze on Linkedin and meet Malee. You can also follow her on Instagram
- Join our Make Space for Growth community
- Follow me on Linkedin, Instagram or Twitter
Produced by Alice Stansfield