Money conversations with Zeze Oriaikhi-Sao, Founder and Director Malée Natural Science Ltd

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Malée Store Hyde ParkZeze is the founder of Malee, an African cosmetics brand that has won several awards and been featured on CNN. The brand has a successful track record in South Africa and has also veered into the U.K market and is set to debut in Harvey Nichols later on this year. Based on the success of her brand, Zeze has been asked to speak on  the topic of entrepreneurship on several platforms including the South African Luxury Association Wealth Summit and the Business of Design. The Atlanta Post named Zeze one of the 7 African entrepreneurs that inspire innovation.

The first time I met Zeze, we were 10 years old and had just started boarding school at Igbinedion Education Centre. We were both stubborn and opinionated, so it was a wonder that we got along so well. When I think back to when we were younger, it is clear to me the attributes that have made Zeze successful in business. She never had any respect for sticking to the way things were done traditionally and in a time when you were just expected to listen, obey and just do as you were told Zeze was the sort of ten year old that always asked why, always had questions about the status quo and her own ideas about how things could be done better. By the time we were in university I couldn’t keep up with the girl, every time I spoke to her she had a different business idea she was working on (We would later realize she was what society refers to as a multi-passionate entrepreneur not a real life crazy lady. Lol!)

A few years ago I was in Johannesburg for work and a client had sent me on an errand to a fancy mall called Hyde Park, to pick up some things, it was so out of my way but anything for a client right? While I was frantically trying to find the store they sent me to, I found Zeze’s store Malee. I hadn’t followed the progress of her brand beyond the headlines but I recognized the name. I was beyond impressed! The look, feel and smell of the store, the packaging and quality of the products! It was world class. I felt proud leaving the store knowing that someone I knew, someone my age was capable of such epic greatness. We had stayed in touch on and off but one thing remained the same, the girl dreams no small dreams.

Walk us through your daily routine. As the founder of an international brand what does a typical day look like?
I am up at 7.30am and I look at my calendar, the days to do and refresh my memory for what gaps in the day I have to attend to ad hoc requests / tasks that come up.
I start working through my emails for the day as South Africa starts first.
At 8.20am I start getting ready to head to the office and I’m at my desk by 9.30am.
I have breakfast at my desk while I catch up with the team and close up SA’s a.m. work day to begin UK.
First meeting is usually at 11am so I am out the office or in the meeting at our offices for then.
Another 2 hours at my desk and it’s 3p.m. lunch time. (Yes I just lost an hour )
I get some air and grab lunch if I don’t have a coffee meeting for half an hour.
Fuel in my tummy so the afternoon is usually marketing and new product development focused.
At 5 – 7pm meetings with PR, influencers or a team catch up or if I am lucky I get some more desk time.
8pm is a dinner meeting. I am usually home at 10.30pm. I catch up with my husband for an hour before bedtime for him.
11.15p.m. Laptop open and I get to catch up on the day and catch anything that I missed during the day.
Midnight, I send out the last of my emails including morning action emails for the team and I do some additional planning for the day ahead for me and my team. UK and SA
It’s 1.15am and my eyes are heavy then it’s 7.30am, I sleep with a lumi light that tricks me to think its sunrise and sunset.

Can you share the Malee story? What sparked the idea?
I always had a passion for fragrance and body care products. So much so that I even created a business plan for the first generation Malée at business school. In 2009, I moved to South Africa from London and at the height of the recession finding a job was tough. Change in climate, my skin was going crazy and I found new motivation to re-visit my business plan and start doing some feasibility studies of the market between finishing my masters dissertation. Convinced enough that my crazy idea was not so crazy after all, I rang up the cosmetics society, the first person I spoke to hung up. I called again and was put in touch with a cosmetic chemist, through that first relationship I was able to build a team of people that would make the first 9 Malée products. Without the funds to market Malée, I started selling products from the boot of my car and to hotels and as they say the rest is history.

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What factors would you say have contributed to making Malee a successful international brand?
Most important the people who buy and support the products and the brand. I also believed in my product and didn’t let what I didn’t have get in the way of executing my vision of getting my product in the hands of people who cared about healthy luxury and putting my best foot forward everyday. Failing fast and learning even faster

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Lack of access to capital is often sighted as one of the most challenging aspects of being an African entrepreneur. Funding a world class brand like Malee must have cost a fortune. Can you share the funding strategy for your business and the lessons you’ve learnt from raising capital?
I have been really blessed with a combination of creating a product that people love and angel investors who not only believed in me but my product. Like all entrepreneurs I haven’t ever had all the capital I need. ( I think it forces you to be even more creative that can birth a unique and organic business)

Women are often accused of having kitchen table ideas but Malee has been able to scale on two continents. What challenges have you had with scaling your business and what tips can you share with other entrepreneurs on scalability?
I have always been focused on my long term vision of building a global brand that was sustainable and would out live me. From day one every choice, opportunity taken or created has been with this in mind. I am always one to analyze, plan and then act. When my back has been against the wall and I have acted out of desperation it has hurt the goal and vision more and cost even more to rectify. After 6 years, I am comfortable in my pace and the pace of Malée.

Most creative entrepreneurs find tackling the financial aspect of their business tedious and difficult. However, it’s an important aspect of growing a sustainable business. What challenges have you had with this and what money lessons have you learned in the course of running your business?
Luckily I am married to a financial brain and also equipped myself before embarking on Malée with a masters in International business from Grenoble graduate business school. I am a firm believer in building a business around your strengths and finding a solution for your weaknesses.

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What is your vision for your brand long term? What do you want the Malee legacy to be?
The African L’oreal.

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6 Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing, I’m a silent follower of your posts and they inspire me. Your blog promotes the consciousness that we as young African women can strive for greatness and attain financial freedom and independence You share stories of women who have set the pace. Thank you!

  2. This is a very inspiring article. Thank you highlighting such a diverse range of topics on your site. I’ve followed from the very beginning and i always look forward to your posts. I’ll definitely look up Malee in Hyde Park.

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