From their side hustle kitchen creations to a thriving skincare brand, beauty enthusiast Liha and former Olympian Abi have built their flourishing beauty brand literally from the ground up. Introducing, LIHA.
We had the pleasure of interviewing the utterly inspiring (and wonderfully talkative) Liha who shares the journey the two life-long friends have shared and how the brand has grown beyond their wildest dreams.
From investment shocks, to up close experiences of racism and white privilege - their beautiful story is one of admiration and authenticity.
Enjoy the interview and be sure to take a look at their gorgeous natural, organic products and give them a follow on Instagram.
What were you doing before you started LIHA?
So I graduated Uni after studying English and started my own art publishing company printing covers of vintage books. I did this for a few years and got my masters in Museum Studies then began working at Cheltenham Art Gallery Museum as a community outreach officer. I also had my little girl who was a baby back then!
When I think about how much we were doing it’s actually insane. Abi had two jobs as well. Abi is a former Olympian so a lot of her work involved motivational speaking around Olympics like going into school motivating kids for example. Then she was working in CSR as well because her degree is in politics. We were doing LIHA, literally in our kitchen, just on the weekends as it was only a little side hustle at this point.
What inspired you to start LIHA?
We’re both of Nigerian heritage, and as I’m sure many women know, messing around with shea butter and learning how to make your own stuff at home is something that’s just quite innate within the Yoruba culture. Plus my mum is an English Aromatherapist so I’d always messed around with products. Abi was always making her own stuff as well and traveling a lot, so when she was traveling I’d ask her to bring stuff back “please bring back some gold shea” - that good shea from Nigeria!
We just recognised more and more that there was no place you could buy shea butter where you knew exactly where it was coming from, knew it wasn’t cut and knew it was of a quality standard. We’d always either be asking a friend to bring it back, buy it on Ebay or go to a market, but this meant there was just no consistency. Also, I’ve worked in the beauty industry before and have always been obsessed with beauty.
Whilst working at both The Body Shop and Space NK, I met both founders, very briefly, but I think this planted some kind of seed. You know, I was so passionate about beauty and working at entry level as a shop girl seeing them come in and be super hands on literally just blew me away. It just created some sort of pipe dream - you know when you have that little voice that speaks no matter what you do throughout life… it was always there saying “yeah but what about that beauty thing”. I kept ignoring it, but then it just got so loud! And then after Abi retired after the 2012 Olympics, we just took the leap and tried a soft launch at a festival, and so that’s where it all began.
We used our savings and built LIHA literally from the ground up. It actually still feels surreal when I have these conversations because never in our wildest dreams would I ever have imagined it would get as big as it has, which is a really amazing surprise.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced being black female entrepreneurs?
Something I’ve faced a lot is being underestimated. All the time. Never taken seriously. I look very young and my way of being can often be playful. So all these things - looking young, being a black female and being very joyous - means people don’t take me seriously, but actually in a weird way that’s a blessing as well as a challenge. When you’re underestimated it’s like a superpower because people will just show you all their cards and you can assess a situation or person very early on.
Also, often being the first in a space can have a level of uncomfortableness to it, but I’m actually really grateful for the uncomfortable feeling this brings too because sometimes this scenario just kind of shocks me. Sometimes I’ll be somewhere and will be like “really… are we really the only ones here.” So yeah, that and being underestimated can be both challenging and a blessing.
What’s been the most rewarding moment of your journey as business owners?
Probably when we got investment. We got selected to go on a Virgin start-up accelerator course where they basically put you through your paces to help you get all your ducks in a row pretty much. We had a mock investor meeting where we met these proper investors in their offices in Mayfair who are basically grilling us, but because it was a mock, we were just so relaxed and were opening up to them about everything and just being really casual and natural. Then the next morning, they called and said “we want to give you all the money” and we were literally like ...what!? So that was amazing, that really was an incredible feeling.
Everything just happens so quickly with us where we’re just thrown in at the deep end. It can be challenging but also something to be really happy about. That’s why I make sure I try my hardest to actually just take moments and be like... “Wow”. Even when something seems like a problem, I’m so grateful to have this problem because it’s actually an amazing problem to have. Being out of stock a lot at the moment for example, you can get caught up in the stress of it but actually, if you step back you can see how amazing this is because people are loving your products! So yeah, it’s about giving yourself those gratefulness checks as much as possible.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
This is a tricky one, because now I know what I know about investment, I wonder if I would have just pitched it and gone for it straight away and just tried to build it really big really quickly. But you know, actually I just really don’t think I would have done anything differently - it’s like that Faith Evans song, Again (lol! I love it!). If you were to take away all those bad days and all those struggles, it just wouldn’t be what it is now and perhaps not have that authenticity, because all the grind we’ve been through is what makes us more appreciative of this part of the business.
Also, during covid things were stripped right back. We’d just started scaling up, then we had to let people go, get rid of our first office that we’d been in for such a short time, and just back to me and Abi doing pretty much everything. At one point, Abi was making soap in her parent’s kitchen and I was making candles in my kitchen, then running them to our fulfilment place because all the production companies had closed down. And if we didn’t have all those skills that came from when we first started, this would have been a much harder process. So basically the answer is no, I wouldn’t change a thing.
What’s the most exciting thing happening in your lives and/or LIHA right now?
The most exciting thing in my life right now is my daughter going to college to do A levels, I can’t believe it’s happening! It’s so exciting.
Also just the growth that we’re seeing with LIHA is just so exciting. We’re looking to raise again and we’re going to make it bigger this time. This will enable us to pad out the range a little more and also sort out our website and actually have a web team. So yeah this is all really exciting too.
Have you experienced any form of racism being black entrepreneurs?
I wouldn’t say there’s ever been outright racism, it’s often micro aggressions and that insane type of racism that makes you want to explode where you know someones racist, but you couldn’t even tell them they’re racist. You know when someone is acting a way towards you, and you’re looking at them like.. “you can’t even figure out why you don’t like me”.. It’s such a weird and frustrating feeling.
So yeah, I’ve experienced that on a certain level. I’ve also seen white privilege up very close. I’ve had people trying to give me business advice when white privilege is literally their business model. For example them saying “Oh you’re raising? Well why don’t you ask 10 of your closest friends for £10k?” like.. Wow! I didn’t even have £10k when we started the business! Crazy stuff like that. So yeah. Just really triggering moments like that.
What do you see for LIHA in the next 5-10 years?
Hopefully rapid growth. I would like us to be a company where as we grow, the culture is very important. How people feel they’re treated and the experience they have when coming into contact with our company is really really important to us. And I think that’s because when I worked at the Body Shop, Anita Roddick was very hands on and we would do things like street cleaning and donate a certain amount of our time to help the community. I really want to start bringing in those kinds of initiatives, like having the time and space to do those things and really focus on wellness and healing and a safe space for women. So basically have the company be an example of how a company can grow and still be kind and compassionate.
What’s one thing you’d like customers to be aware of that they may not already?
We’re working with Rape crisis at the moment. We’ve done a couple of workshops before where we offer a little crash course and they come away with their own little body butter. This is also a really lovely way to have a craft moment to yourself which can actually be very healing and calming. Going through quarantine and seeing the numbers rise and just the thought of people being caught in that situation was just so mind-blowingly sad and I just think it’s important for everyone and important for me personally, so we’re hopefully going to look at doing these virtually as well for the foreseeable so we can deliver them much more widely. So yeah, to actually get them going in real life is amazing.
We also work with cooperatives in Nigeria and Ghana. Before Covid hit, we were planning on going to Nigeria in June to really talk to the women there and see what they need and see if there is anything else we can help with. Because cooperatives are great but they may have a different plan or idea of what they want to do so we really want to build on that too.
So there you have it - the story of LIHA from the very beginning, but most certainly not to the end... Watch this space for more wonderful products and inspirational works from these two incredible women.