From side hustle to CEO

Akilah Releford's unconventional path to success.

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Key takeaways

  • Akilah Releford always had a knack for whipping up natural skincare products. In college, she started a side gig selling them out of her dorm room.
  • Before long, sales took off, and she decided to take a leave from school to focus full time on her business.
  • Today, her products are sold in department stores and she's the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company, Mary Louise Cosmetics.
  • Releford says that entrepreneurship isn't always as glamorous as it sounds. But she's often energized by her fierce sense of mission as a Black founder.

As an undergrad at Howard University, Akilah Releford says she was that girl in the dorm who would "always have a face mask on."

Having sensitive skin herself, plus parents who were big on healthy living and natural products, she had a well-honed repertoire of DIY natural beauty products she'd make for herself to keep her skin happy. It also didn't hurt that, as a pre-med student, she knew more than enough chemistry to create shelf-stable products.

"I would be making skincare products with what I learned in chemistry, and ultimately sharing the concoctions I made in my room with the girls on my floor," she says. "I didn't realize at the time that that was a focus group."

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She listened to the feedback she got from her dormmates about her masks. And when another student told her she really ought to be selling her products, she took that advice too—starting an online side hustle selling her products under the brand name "Mary Louise" (which are Releford's grandmothers' names, and Releford's own middle names).

At the same time, she was already gaining a following online, thanks to her natural interest in and knack for beauty routines. "I was sharing tips and hacks on my Twitter on how to achieve clear skin," she says. "Something that I would post just for fun." One day, she started a Twitter thread on her favorite beauty hacks, "and then all of a sudden I woke up with thousands of retweets," she says.

Going pro

Before long her passion was turning into much more than a side hustle. She started receiving too many orders to fill from a dorm room. Her father, a surgeon, began to pitch in during his spare time. "After hours he would ship out all of these boxes to teenage girls across America."

In the summer before her senior year, after talking it over with her parents, Releford decided to take a semester off so she could focus full time on her company, Mary Louise Cosmetics. She was already spending more than 12 hours a day making and packaging products, and she realized it was time to find a manufacturer and fulfillment center. Her thinking at the time: "We have traction. We have momentum. We're growing at a super-rapid rate, and I don't want to miss out on this potential."

Now, she's the 25-year-old CEO of a multi-million-dollar company. And the natural skincare products she used to whip up in her dorm room are now available online and at major retailers like Macy's (with more potential partnerships in the works).

Up by her bootstraps

Releford has essentially built it all herself—along with some valuable help from her trusted support network, particularly from her parents. In the company's early days, she used her income from her job at clothing-chain Zara to buy supplies for her products.

As the business took off, her parents provided some cash, but she also aggressively reinvested earnings back into the company and learned to be ruthlessly frugal. "I definitely have a ton of experience in being resourceful, working with what you've got, and opting out of doing certain things for the health of the company," she says.

Ultimately, she "bootstrapped," or self-funded, her way through the company's early growth, and has only recently ventured into raising funds from outside investors.

The corner office, unfiltered

While being a 20-something self-made CEO may sound glamorous, Releford says it's mostly just been a lot of work.

"Looking back, if someone had told me how much work and time and failure that you'll experience along the journey, I probably would have stayed in medical school," she says. "I think that was also my superpower—I didn't realize how much work it is."

For that reason, she says, starting a company isn't necessarily for everyone—and that's OK. "I don't want young people to think that they're not excelling if they're not a 20-something with their own business." For one thing, she warns, running a startup means you'll be working more hours than you ever did at your day job.

But to those who have a passion and aren't afraid of hard work, she says: Don't wait. Even if you can only spare a couple of hours a day to work on your business, try to make that daily commitment into a routine, because those efforts will compound and grow over time.

Something bigger

For Releford, it took time to learn to inhabit her role as a founder and CEO. In the company's early years, "I didn't feel comfortable referring to myself as a founder or a CEO or an entrepreneur, even though we had consistent sales," she says. "I definitely had serious imposter syndrome."

While she may be more comfortable with her title today, she says the feeling of making it up as you go along never really goes away (no matter what your business cards say).

"There are times when young girls, especially young girls of color, email me asking for advice," she says. "And I'm like, ‘Girl, I have no idea what I'm doing at all. I'm just in the mix like everyone else is.'"

But one thing that always gives her a boost is her unshakeable sense of mission. "What I'm doing is bigger than just myself," says Releford. "Especially as a Black founder, it's about generating generational wealth. So it's not just about myself—it's something that can affect generations beyond me."

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