“The market [for entrepreneurs] is not only in Africa. The market is global,” says YALI entrepreneur Corine Allegra Mondoukpe Honsou.
Corine is a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow from Benin. Starting with a career in banking and finance, Corine found her passion for positive social change in her community through entrepreneurship.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Corine shares her journey to create a global brand of hair care products and cosmetics designed especially for women of color.
Corine created her company, Viva Black, for black women to rediscover and embrace their true nature through organic cosmetics. She also founded a hair store and beauty spa where women can learn how to take care of their natural hair and skin.
Corine’s passion stems from her experiences of learning to care for herself and embrace her disability after nerve damage in her youth affected her ability to walk. “I’m proud to say that the fight that I went through, this disability, made me the lady I am today,” she says.
Corine encourages other YALI entrepreneurs to not let a lack of funds stop them from pursuing their passions: “At that time, I didn’t have the means to do it,” Corine explains, “but it didn’t stop me from sharing what I wanted to do with people around me.”
Listen to the full podcast or read the transcript below to find out more about Corine, including her next steps with Viva Black and her community empowerment initiative, The Bamboo Project: Be Great for Africa.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: CORINE ALLEGRA MONDOUKPE HOUNSOU
CORINE HOUNSOU: Hi, everyone. My name is Corine Allegra Mondoukpe Hounsou, and I’m from Benin Republic in West Africa.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE-OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Corine Hounsou is the founder of Viva Black Cosmetics and a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow. Despite degrees in banking and finance, and a career in accounting, Corine could not resist the pull of entrepreneurship, a desire she developed as a teenager.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Corine shares her journey to create a global brand of hair care products and cosmetics designed especially for women of color. And she’s giving back to her community by empowering women and youth through what she calls the Bamboo Project, an initiative to provide training on leadership in business.
We begin our conversation with Corine telling us about an early life experience that continues to be a source of motivation even today.
CORINE: I was born, as I said earlier, in Cotonou, Benin, and I grew up in a family of three, so I have two older brothers. I’m the only girl. Unfortunately, when I was six months old, I had an injection because I was suffering from malaria. So I would have an injection on my left bum, and it touched my sciatic nerve. And my nerve was paralyzed when I was six months. So growing up, I didn’t walk early. So I was not walking well, and I had to go through a lot of re-education, learning how to walk the proper way.
So, I went through a lot of suffering and pain as I was growing. I was forced to wear orthopedic shoes to go to school, so in school I was different. I was unique. And my friends didn’t see that uniqueness, and I was bullied when I was growing up, so I was really depressed. But one day — I had my parents that were always at my side. One day, I was like, “Corine, if you don’t stop being a victim and take your life in charge, you will lose everything and live a meaningless life.”
I’m not saying that the place I’m at now is bad, no. But today — I was lucky enough to be exposed to the right information to know what I was going through was not a fatality. Today I’m proud to say that the fight that I went through, this disability, is my testimony because it’s what’s made me grow to the young lady I am today in front of you. And being bold, knowing that I can get what I want and talk to you like this. It’s my testimony. But not everybody’s strong. Not everybody makes the decision to not be a victim and to be an actor of his life.
So I decided that I can be who I want to be; I can do whatever I want to do, and that I have the power to run my own life. That’s when my life started.
CORINE: So, my father is an accountant. My mom had an accounting education, too, and she worked in a bank. After a while, my father started wanting to entrepreneurship, so he had his own business — a construction business. All my brothers did accounting. I did accounting, too, because I didn’t know what to do at that time. I was afraid to follow my dream, to follow my gifts. I worked for many years in the banking industry. But one day, I was like, “Corine, I want to live a better, meaningful life. I want to impact my generation, live a life of impact and have other young people look up to me as a role model.”
So I decided that I wanted to get into business. I found a school. I went to entrepreneurship school, learned how to do business, and here I am today as a hairdresser. I have a hair salon and a cosmetics line called Viva Black, Embrace Your True Nature. So, our role at Viva Black is to help African women, black women, to know that black is beautiful and that you can just be yourself the way you are, wear your hair natural.
So we want to help black women to be self-confident, to be able to achieve more in life.
CORINE: So in high school, I was actually always telling my parents that I wanted to do tourism. But, you know, in most societies, parents think they know the best for their children, so they think all the advice, telling them do this or study this thing that is the best thing for their children. But parent doesn’t always know what is right for their children, but they try to guide us the best way they can. So, I wanted to do tourism. My parents were telling me that, no, it doesn’t pay in Africa, which is true.
After a while, I wanted to have a daycare because I loved children. So since when I was 15 years old — today I’m 32 — anytime I was passing by a building that was in town, I’d say to my father, “Daddy, can we do the daycare here? Do you want to help me build my daycare? I want to be with children.” And my father would say to me, “Oh, you have big dreams. You have big dream. Start smaller, then think big.” So, growing up not knowing what to do and wanting to follow the path of my parents, I just went into accounting.
I did accounting in high school. I went to university. I did banking. At 21 years old, I was already working in a bank, and after that, I worked in a telecommunications company and a real estate company for years. And I decided that I wanted more. How do I get more? Everything happens the way it’s supposed to be, you know?
I want to be a world-class leader. I want to be able to build my ability at a level that will help me to compete on the international market, because the world is global. The market is not only in Africa. The market is global.
VOICE-OVER: For Corine, the idea to start a business around hair care products started very close to home. Here she talks about the evolution of her business idea and later, how she pursued opportunities to help her learn the skills she’d need to succeed in business and what were some of the most valuable lessons.
CORINE: A daycare is great, you know, but it needed a lot of money. But at the same time, I had another gift that was braiding. I never learned how to braid. I never went to school for that. And I knew how to make a few hair care products using shea butter. And also my sister was going through a hard time. She had a scalp infection due to a relaxer, so for five years she went bald and I had to take care of her. So I had to treat her for five years to find the right remedy.
And at the same time myself, I was going through like a bad time. My hair was falling out because I was relaxing and I was stressed. I was not happy. I was not feeling beautiful, I was not confident. And I saw my sister’s hair growing back beautiful. She was bullied in school because of that difference that she had, and after a while, her friends started loving her, loving her crown, her hair. She was beautiful. So, I saw her regain confidence. And I’m like, “Corine, why don’t you go back to natural yourself?”
I cut my hair. People were saying that I was not beautiful because they were not used to seeing me like that. But I stick to it and had to face myself every morning in front of the mirror. Society, media used to tell me that short hair is not beautiful. You have to have your hair straight to feel beautiful. So, I was seeing that reflection of that mental way of thinking that I was not beautiful because I didn’t have any hair. So, I went through that every single day, had to educate myself, convince myself that I was beautiful just the way I am.
So I presented a second business base because I saw a trend on the market. I saw the trend that a lot of women now are coming back to natural, but they don’t have the right place to go to get their hair done. I was facing that challenge because nobody knew how to take care of my hair, because in Africa, a lot of women don’t know that the hair that grows from their scalp is actually curly. We don’t know, you know? So, there was no hair stall, hair salon that knew how to maintain black hair.
So, I went through the process myself, learned how to take care of my hair myself, learned to make my own products, so one day, I’m like, “Let me make that place available for women.” And my mentor told me once, he said, “Corine, it’s true you love children, okay? You want to provide a safe place where children will grow and develop the proper way, but there is a time to build and there is a time to serve. You can build with a business that can generate a lot of money, and that money that you generate, you use it to serve.” And that freed me.
So to start Viva Black, I first had to present the business to I would say potential investors, in my business school. That is called Van Duyse Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute, VELI, in Benin, West Africa. So I had to do market research and write a business plan, fill the business canvas, write a business plan and present the business. And the business was accepted, okay, and was ready to be funded. But I didn’t get the funding. So, I had a dream. I had a vision of my future. I knew what I wanted to do.
At that time, I didn’t have the means to do it, but it didn’t stop me from sharing what I wanted to do with people that were around me. One way or the other, I started meeting people, and without knowing — I didn’t have the business. I had the business idea. I had a few products. And I was going to my friends’ house to do their hair, people that I worked with in banks. They were wondering, “What has happened to this girl? Why can’t she get a job?” You understand? At that time, sometimes I felt uncomfortable, but I knew that I was building for something.
So, sharing my story, sharing my dream with people around me made me, like, meet key people, and one day, I just received an email that I was nominated for the program called AWEP — African Women Entrepreneurship Program. It was in 2016 that I received the message. And I was competing against, you know, at least 20, up to 30 other women that were already established. So, I thought at that time, I didn’t have any chance to go in that program. I applied. I didn’t want to because I thought I didn’t have any chance. I actually applied for the program, filled the form, and the process took one year.
But I can tell you that after a year of them debating on who was sent, I was selected. I didn’t have a business. I didn’t have no money, just my shea butter and my hands to braid people’s hair. So, here I am. I found myself in the United States among women from almost like 25 to 30 countries from Africa doing great things.
CORINE: All my products are made from shea butter, so I have a growth treatment. I have deep conditioning detangling cream and a softening butter, too. But the line will grow; we are moving toward shampoo and conditioner. And I’ve made some partnerships with people in the same industry here. I’m actually going back to Atlanta for a few more weeks to do an internship with them and learn. So you work together and create a line of those products, grow the line.
So, I found myself here in Chicago on the AWEP program. So we visited many cities. We were in Chicago. Then we went to Seattle, Portland, we came to Washington, D.C. We went to New York. So, we visited companies that do what I do or that were doing what I wanted to do. We went to Alaffia. So I was really empowered. I didn’t study the business, yes, but I was exposed. But, you know, before going to AWEP, in my country, I was scared to start because in my mind, I was like, shea butter is everywhere.
People don’t really value shea butter the way it’s valued here. But it’s when I came to realize that the shea butter that we take for granted in Africa is actually priceless here. I saw it on the shelves at Whole Foods, well-packaged, smelling good, coming from Africa, and I was like, okay, so the market is not only Africa. The marketplace is the world. So, that’s what motivated me. In 2016, I didn’t have Viva Black. I came to AWEP in 2017, and I went in June 2017. I went back in July, and in November 2017 I opened my store, my hair salon, and I started selling my products.
So, the impact that coming on the program made on me was tremendous because it made — people from my own family started believing in me and willing to help. So, I didn’t get any funding from anywhere. I didn’t get any loan. The loan came from within. The loan came from my family. My brother, my mother, my father, everybody, myself, my husband, everybody came together to help me to start my company. That’s how I started.
And building track records — because if you don’t show people that you can do it and that they can trust you, nobody will be willing to invest money in what you are doing.
CORINE: I learned that when you are doing something and you don’t show it, people don’t know you. Nobody is going to buy from you. So, you need to start talking about what you do. And you don’t need everything to be perfect before starting selling. That was key for me because I’m the kind of person, I’m kind of perfectionist. I want everything to be perfect before coming out. So, that actually helped me launch my business. Also I learned that branding is key.
People will be attracted by what they see first before looking at the content of the product, so you’ve got to know what’s your brand, what is your customer segment, your market. What are you trying to sell? What are the pain that the people are trying to solve? What are the gains? What is your unique value proposition? You need to figure all that out. You need to understand your customer and to know what they want to solve as a problem in targets, your product, the features of your product to solve those problems. So, that was key for me.
I learned that you have to build, measure, learn. That you have to lower your risk by building prototype. Prototype your product as its smallest form that can help your customer to use it, release that prototype, get feedback from your customers, and changing the features, improving the product, release it on the market, get other feedbacks, changing again. So you have to be in continuous improvement.
So, we have been in business for a year and a half now. We started in November 2017. So at the beginning, I was not selling the products. I was focused on the hair salon, so building the hair salon. I didn’t have the money to invest and develop a whole line of hair care products. I was doing my own thing in my kitchen and using it on my customers, but I was not selling. I was focusing on building a base of customers so that the day I decide to release products on the market, there would be people buying it.
And I would say that I’m still doing that today. I’m selling on the side, not in big quantities, but I’m still focusing on the service for now because you got to make your customers trust you.
Your customers need to trust you before being able to put the money in their pockets, take money out, and pay you to solve a problem for them. So, the business is improving. Since we started, we got into business, we never failed paying our employees, failed paying our rent. We were getting to the break-even point. We were not making profit at a certain point, so we had to, you know, rethink our whole strategy. And also one problem that I’ve noticed is that the hair care industry in Africa is not a big thing yet because people are suffering from other problems.
People are still hungry. People are sick. So taking care of your hair is not the main concern for most women. So allow me to say that only privileged people go to the hair salon, so the market is still small, and we are looking at ways to serve the maximum. We don’t want to release expensive products people cannot access. Even ourselves, we are trying to make it affordable for customers to come, so we came up with a strategy of subscription, monthly subscriptions, so we set a fixed price, the customer pays monthly.
We have, how you say — last month, because I was not there, we had a loss, but I think it’s all for good. It’s helping us to learn a better way to do things, but in overall, the business is doing well and is growing. I’ve seen the business grow and our income increasing month after month. And you know, we didn’t have any outside loan from a bank, so we would be bootstrapping right from the beginning. And the profit that we make, we reinvest, we reinvest, and get some more profit, reinvest.
Because also at the beginning, I don’t think it’s genuine to get a big loan from outside and waste a lot of money and fail, because you don’t know yet what works and what doesn’t work because all your business ideas is just an assumption. So you get in business to validate your assumptions. So I feel safer by spending my own money for now until I learn the right way to do things at the right formulation to actually make the money grow and before I bring in someone else’s money.
VOICE-OVER: In addition to Viva Black, Corine has created a program to reach disadvantaged women and youth called the Bamboo Project: Be Great for Africa. It’s a comprehensive approach to developing new entrepreneurs and equipping them with the knowledge and tools they’ll need to start their own businesses.
CORINE: Our short-term goals at Viva Black, Embrace Your True Nature is to work with formulators or chemists to develop a full line of hair care products and skin care products that will help African women to embrace their true nature, to build confidence, to achieve more in life. Our second short-term goal is to create a system, as I said earlier, around our hair care, our hair salon business, to be able to duplicate it in other places to make the service accessible to the majority.
We also want to create at Viva Black an education program. We want to create a school, an Afro hair-care maintenance school for young people, young Africans that want to learn in schools that train on how to maintain black hair because that education is lacking in Africa, so we want to create a school on the long term to do that. Also Viva Black started a program called the Bamboo Project: Be Great for Africa, a program that is designing a training program on leadership in business. So it’s a one-year program where — that is divided in three phases.
The first phase is we select a group of disadvantaged women and youth. We train them during a five-session program, a one-week program, where we train them from the inside out. So we have them create a revolution, change their way of thinking and how to become a leader, how to dream, have them to discover their gifts and turn those gifts into sources of revenue. So after the first phase, we move them now to the second phase. That is where they go in to build on their skills and their gift. They go into a business that is doing what they want to do to learn more specific knowledge about their field, their gifts.
And they go through mentoring to learn how to build a business plan, how to raise money. But the trick is, you know, it’s not like raising money. Raising money is not only going to people and pitch your business and get money, no. Raising money is also…something that you can do now, something that you can sell now or something that you can give someone now, to yourself, put that money together to start a business, because you don’t need to start big. You can start small where you are with what you have.
And then the third step, the third phase of the program is now for those young people, young women and youth, to start a small business and meet a certain goal of revenue per month. So, after a one-year program, we would be able to see results. So that’s how Viva Black wants actually to give back to the community.
The Bamboo Project is open to anybody that wants to work as a volunteer in it or that wants to invest money. For the launching, we had the support of the different alumni associations from my country, the YALI association, the AWEP association, USBY, YBLA, all together. I was so happy to see all those young alumni there with me, supporting me, inspiring people. So we need to — I’m dreaming of a day where the Bamboo Project will be replicated in all African countries, because it’s not only about Benin, you know.
It’s about all the other countries in Africa. And now, today we have a strong network. I want all African countries with the YALI, you know. So, we need to take advantage of this and learn how to work together to make it happen.
We don’t realize how powerful this network is, but when you take a closer look at it, it’s a very big and strong network that can make any one of us succeed if we choose to use it. We need to wake up and start using that network because it’s powerful.
So, I think that that’s what we need to do — take advantage of that platform that we have and make the change happen, as simple as that.
Reach out to people. Connect with people. Build relationships. Relationships serve. You need to invest for people to invest into you. Learn how to build relationships. Keep in touch and reach out. That’s the first step. And never tell yourself that you cannot do it, because you can. And always learn to make the first step, because the first step makes the whole difference.
VOICE-OVER: Thank you, Corine.
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