Friday, December 8, 2023

Business Battles, Sleazy Blokes & an Accidental Destiny: NZ’s Most Inspiring Beauty Mogul & How She’s Overcome it All to Find Success

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Dyslexia, sexism and good old-fashioned Tall Poppy Syndrome – Anna Ross has been through it all. Now, she’s on the edge of global success with her little brand that could, Kester Black. She tells Capsule how she fell into the beauty industry, and how she plans on changing it for good.

If there’s anything on this earth that’s worth its weight in gold, it’s a decent nail polish.

Sure, there are more important things than the colour of your fingertips, but there’s something about a perfectly manicured set of nails that just makes you feel a little bit better. A little more confident. A little more like you have your shit sorted.

In all my years of trying to do my own nail polish, getting frustrated when it would chip off in hours, giving up and then eventually forgetting all of this and trying again, there’s only been one brand that’s resolutely stuck on my nails – even through netball games, my old-school kitchen cabinets were you have to push the handles in with your finger to open the doors and the few times I’ve also tried gardening – Kester Black. (Seriously, their nude shades are to die for).

The Kiwi company, founded by Anna Ross, is one of those companies who are trying to do right by the world, as well as your fingers, which is great. But, says Anna, none of this was meant to happen. Falling into the beauty world after fashion didn’t work out, Anna’s been through it all to launch her brand and make a product she’s actually proud to make.

We’re talking sexist male beauty executives (of COURSE) and battles with huge global nail polish brands – but now the Wanaka-based beauty mogul is set to take her baby to the world, equity crowdfunding to accelerate their expansion into the US and Europe.

“We want Kester Black to become like a NARS, or a Hourglass –  brands that are kind of niche, but are still global in the premium, high-quality space.”

Anna’s fall into beauty started when she was in fashion school in Melbourne, when she decided craft jewellery because she couldn’t transport her sewing machine across the ditch, and figured that nail polish was a nifty little add on alongside her rings.

“I was a total tomboy,” she laughs. “I didn’t wear nail polish and I didn’t realise that other people wore it. I played rugby for 14 years and I wasn’t into it at all. But when I started looking into it, I was like, ‘this is shit!’. A manufacturer asked me if I wanted it to be vegan and I was like, ‘Uh, of course… why wouldn’t it be?’ Turns out fish scales are used for colour pigments and crushed up beetles and shit like that. Why do you need to do that these days?!”

Anna started with six vegan nail polish colours, and after three months selling them tripled her business’ revenue.

“I was like, ‘People like this stuff!’ I never intended to make it, but I did it and it worked.”

Kester Black's beauty products
Some of Kester Black’s range

Along with making sure her nail polish is as environmentally friendly as it can be – they’re B-Corp certified and carbon neutral, too – Anna reckons the reason Kester Black is better is because it’s actually run by a woman.

“It’s usually run by old fat men,” she says of the beauty industry.

“Every single owner of a beauty manufacturer I’ve met is an old man. There’s lots of women who work in it, like account managers and admin, but the scientists are mostly men – they’re the ones doing the colour matching. I mean, of course there are women in there sometimes, but men are pretty much senior managers.”

Anna remembers one such man, one of the first she ever worked with, who helped solidify her views – “He was just…. God… awful,” she says.

“He was hard to work with [and] was really sleazy – he took me out to lunch once in Australia and kept sleazing on me. He was disgusting He had a wife and kids at home, and I was all like, ‘[Makes a forced laugh]’ because if I didn’t, he just wouldn’t deliver our stock. My entire business depended on keeping him happy.”

But, as it turns out, old sleaze pants ended up doing Anna a favour – by revealing too much, and let slip his Italian suppliers.

“I went, ‘right’. So I went to Italy, looked up his suppliers and cut him out of the chain.”

Anna now works with the biggest nail polish manufactures in the world, who make most of the nail polish globally and her polishes are made from plant wastage from the corn industry.

Anna’s products have even caught the attention of big brands such as Sally Hansen, who enquired into Kester Black when Anna first launched the company, and she’s even had a “big fight” with the world’s biggest brand once when Kester Black went into David Jones in Australia.

“We were too much of a competitor to them… my gosh, it was funny. So we’ve ruffled a few feathers.”

Now Anna is looking at skincare in the future, and her polishes are already accompanied by eyeliners, lipsticks and nailcare. And that’s just the beginning.

Anna’s keen to bring as many people as she can along for the journey too, and that was through the successful crowdfunding held earlier this year.

“There’s a crazy statistic – only 17% of investors on the crowdfunding platform (Birchal) are female. I’ve had so many people email me and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I could invest, I’ve never done it before!’ These are women my age, around 33, probably getting paid ok but don’t have heaps of disposable income, so would have never thought to invest.”

“I’m determined, I’ll say that. I mean, I’m nobody! I dropped out of school, I can’t read or write, I have dyslexia – I started with a bit of a ‘I’m gonna prove everyone wrong!’ but now, I want to do it for me. I want to be uber-successful.

“I don’t need a lot of stuff to make me happy, but I’m driven to success.”

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