Belfast Telegraph

Small business focus: The two women who embody entrepreneurship

Small business focus

Dr Ava Brown with some of her Chakai products
Dr Ava Brown with some of her Chakai products
Dr Ava Brown with some of her Chakai products
Christina Dalzell in one of her salons
Christina Dalzell in one of her salons

By Lisa Smyth

Dr Ava Brown and Christina Dalzell tell Lisa Smyth about the challenges and setbacks they've overcome to establish their beauty enterprises

‘I’ve overcome great trauma to get to where I am now in my business’

Dr Ava Eagle Brown has ambitious plans for her company. She is only in the process of setting up Chakai, which makes and sells organic body butters and custards and hair products for African and Caribbean hair, but she is determined to one day sell it for £50m.

The 42-year-old mum-of-two has overcome unthinkable adversity in her life, so is confident she will achieve her goal for Chakai.

Born into poverty in rural Jamaica, Ava sold mangoes on the train to help support her family.

As a child, she was sexually abused by her father and spent a period of time living on the streets.

She managed to win a place at university, however, and went on to become a teacher, but her life took an entirely different path when she was raped at gunpoint in front of her then three-year-old daughter.

As a result, Ava fled her home country to relocate to London, but she suffered further hardship.

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"I went through a nasty divorce and lost nearly £100,000 in a bad business deal," she says.

"I found myself in a pretty bad place - I was depressed for about a year.

"I was looking for something to help distract me but that wasn't too expensive because I had so little money at the time."

She adds: "I started to make homemade body and hair products for myself - I was a food technology teacher and I liked the calmness that I felt when I was watching the butter melting, it was very therapeutic."

As a result of her personal circumstances, Ava also made the decision to move to Northern Ireland.

"I have family here and I always enjoyed visiting," she says.

Once in Northern Ireland, Ava spotted a gap in the market for good quality ethnic hair and body products as she started to make the butters and shampoos and conditioners for family and friends.

But it was while she was at a meeting with Ulster Bank when she finally decided to set up her own business, which is how her business - named after her children, Chardonnay and Mikhel-Kai, came about.

"The penny dropped and I had a lightbulb moment," she says.

With limited funds, however, Ava needed help to get her business idea off the ground, so she turned to the Ulster Bank 'Back Her Business' scheme, which gives the chance to back women-led businesses through crowdfunded donations.

Ava signed up to the scheme in May and managed to raise £3,000 which has helped her launch her business.

She says: "I am a product of charity, I know I am where I am today because people have helped me get there and I want to help people with my business.

"We are based in Antrim. I moved here because it reminds me so much of Jamaica.

"I love the people and the spirit there and I want to give back to the community.

"It is my idea that we will open a factory there and create jobs and invest money into the local economy.

"I have always tried to instil in my children that you should help others - for example, my children would never walk past a homeless person in the street.

"I am very excited for the future of Chakai and I believe that you have to have a positive mindset in life and in business. I don't dwell on the things that have happened to me in the past.

"I try to see the positive in every situation, I believe that if you believe good things will happen then you will be drawn towards success.

"For example, I know I am going to build up Chakai and in my head I will sell it for £50m," she adds.

The products created by Ava are currently available by placing an order on the Chakai website and Ava is currently in the process of negotiating with distributors to improve customer service.

"At the moment, we are online only but I will gradually start to approach small businesses in Northern Ireland to have my products stocked at various locations," she adds.

"They are all natural, they have a maximum of five ingredients and I really want to stay true to that ethos.

"The idea for me is to build up the brand locally before I think about taking it global.

"I would encourage anyone who is thinking of starting up a business to go for it, particularly in Northern Ireland.

"I have had so much support from the likes of Ulster Bank and in Northern Ireland you can pick up the phone and people will speak to you, I think there is a wonderful human quality here in Northern Ireland that you don't get in the likes of London," she adds.

"In business, you are never going to have a smooth ride, but I really don't think that should make you too afraid to do something that could potentially change your life."

‘I went in a different direction as I knew university wasn’t for me’

There are countless people who dream of being their own boss, but not everyone makes the jump to set up their own business.

Christina Dalzell always knew she wanted to work in the world of beauty, and she also knew that one day she wanted to run her beauty salon.

Now, at the age of just 26, she owns two salons, one on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast and the second in Bangor, Co Down.

Little Beauty Box are boutique beauty and skin salons which aim to bring the most innovative and up-to-date treatments to customers.

But is almost didn't happen as Christina originally set her sights on sitting her A-level examinations and going to university.

"I went to a grammar school, Strathearn School in Belfast, and the expectation was that you did A-levels and went on to university," she says.

"So, after I did my GCSEs, I went into sixth form and started studying for my A-levels, but I just knew it wasn't the right decision for me.

"Beauty was pushed a bit to the background because I was at a grammar school, but it's what I had always wanted to get into, I was so interested in it.

"Once I was in sixth form I realised I was wasting my time, I was wasting everyone's time, because I wasn't interested in being there.

"I stayed until Christmas and then I made the decision to leave and follow my heart instead," she adds.

"My parents were very supportive, as was the school, because I think they realised there was no point in me staying on there if I didn't want to be there and I wasn't getting anything out of it."

Christina applied for a place at Roberta Mechan International College of Beauty in Belfast.

However, she missed the cut-off date to begin the course that year, and so she took up a full-time job in retail until she could begin her studies the following year.

"I wanted to go to Roberta Mechan for a number of reasons," she says.

"It has such a good reputation and it turns out really good beauticians and I wanted to be the best I could be.

"The way it works as well is you go to beauty school for 10 months and then you're qualified.

"It does mean that it is very intensive compared to the tech, because the course is a lot shorter.

"At the time I was about 18 so there were a few occasions where I wished I hadn't left school, but that wasn't because I didn't enjoy what I was doing, it was because I wanted to be back with my friends."

Ultimately, however, Christina has no regrets.

"It was definitely the right decision for me," she says.

After gaining her qualifications, Christina worked at a number of different beauty salons in a variety of locations.

"Different places do things differently and I wanted to get as much experience as possible," she says.

"I knew about being a beautician, but I knew nothing about running a business, so I wanted to see how different places operated.

"I wanted to see what worked and what didn't work.

"I also wanted to find my niche, what area I was really interested in working in, and that turned out to be skincare.

"It took me a few years to realised that skincare is my real passion and I don't think I knew that when I started out, to be honest, so I am really glad I did what I did before I started out on my own."

All the while, Christina remained dedicated to her end goal of opening up her own salon until an opportunity arose in east Belfast.

Using savings and with some investment from family, she was able to buy a salon and opened her first Little Beauty Box in east Belfast six years ago.

"I started out by myself and it took a while to build up a loyal customer base," she says.

"You're busy when you first open because people are nosy, so they want to come and check you out, but then it takes a bit longer for you to properly establish the business.

"There are so many beauticians out there and you have to give people a reason to come to you.

"After a few months, I was able to take someone on part-time, which was scary because I had never had staff before."

Building a strong and reliable team has been key to the success of Little Beauty Box to date, according to Christina.

"It's hard because it's your business, it's your name on the door, so you have to find people who you can trust," she says.

As time went on, Christina made the decision to expand and identified a market in Bangor and her second salon was opened three years ago.

Christina now employs four people across both premises.

She adds: "Running your own business is definitely a lot more challenging that people think it is.

"People think there is a lot of freedom but that isn't always the case because if someone calls in sick, it's me who has to change my plans.

"I would say that you need a good strong support network around you - you can't do everything.

"For example, I can't do accounts and that's why I have an accountant.

"Know what you can do and what you can't and don't be afraid to ask for help."

Belfast Telegraph

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