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From the outside looking in, Sharmadean Reid has made running a business look easy.
Little did we know about the invisible barriers she has had to face, until now.
Struggling with everything from grief to covert discrimination and living on the breadline, Sharmadean has overcome every challenge that headed her way.
As founder of both The Stack World and WAH Nails, she has designed her businesses with women at the heart, creating inclusive spaces for them to build a community and learn from one another.
In this International Women’s Day special, we cover feminism, the lack of diversity in fundraising and the expectations people have for women in business.
Here’s what we cover:
- Creating a space for women to connect—is this feminist?
- Covert discrimination and invisible barriers
- The Stack World: Bringing your whole self and creating lifelong members
- Self-development doesn’t happen overnight—accept help from others
- There are no random thoughts, just a vision to bring women together
- Use your first business experiment as a learning curve
- The journey to raising a million
- Getting more women involved in fundraising
- Women-led design—making things for our own bodies and forms
- Great expectations for women to be the face of their business
Creating a space for women to connect—is this feminist?
I want to start right at the beginning of your business journey, because you were studying fashion. Is that right? So you were on a different path.
What ended up shifting you into an entrepreneurial journey, and an entrepreneurial mindset?
It’s not necessarily the entrepreneurial aspect that I am really engaged with, it really is the community building aspect.
It just so happens that community building right now is what all businesses want to be.
They want to have really loyal customers that are connected together through some higher purpose that would be described as a community.
I’ve always been creative. I’ve always started things, and I’ve always started things that other people could hang out in.
I just saw a huge gap in various different markets that I’m trying to fill with the endeavours that I do.
So your first venture was a magazine, because you wanted to bring out these amazing hip-hop women and the styles and the fashions.
You wanted to showcase it and talk about what was happening in those trends, bringing women into that space.
Believe it or not, The Stack World is the first thing where we’ve said we are trying to create a space for women.
Even then, I’m very hesitant about saying it, because ultimately, it’s all marginalised communities, which does include some men.
What I just feel uncomfortable with is that a very small amount of people determine what the society looks like for the rest of us, even though they’re not the consumers of it.
Even though I made WAH Magazine for women in hip-hop, I never really explicitly thought, “Oh, I’m creating this product for women.”
What I thought was I’m a black woman, and I don’t feel comfortable with how I see black women represented.
That was the impetus for making WAH Magazine.
In the very first issue, because I was only 19 and completely naïve, I actually said, “We are not feminists.”
And then later on, a famous photographer wrote me an email saying, “You are feminist. This is exactly what feminism is. Go do your homework.”
I was like, “Okay, maybe I need to look into this.”
Covert discrimination and invisible barriers
Well maybe we should talk about some of the barriers that you’ve come up against.
The challenge that I’ve got in talking about my personal experience is, firstly, that it’s a huge anomaly, because in truth, I don’t feel like I faced barriers head on.
I went to an incredible primary school where the teachers told me very early on, “You are great. You can do anything you want to do. Write this play for us.”
Then I went to an amazing secondary school which did the same.
So I had an environment around me that, as a young black girl in Wolverhampton, told me that I could do anything.
The thing I’m really curious about is what’s happening when I’m not in the room, and what’s happening when I don’t notice where things are slightly more insidious.
It’s almost like boiling the frog. I wouldn’t notice until five or 10 years later, that actually I’d been facing discrimination.
What I mean by that is, if two people start a business that are similar at the same time. One of them is going to have a faster progress through the network they know, the school they went to, the colour of their skin, their gender, how they present in meetings, do they have the right language, etcetera.
Then someone else who’s got the same exact idea, with the same resources, doesn’t have that kind of privilege that allows the other person, person A, to build their business faster, to have higher valuation, higher amounts of profit and a bigger network.
But you wouldn’t notice that until like three or five years down the line.
You’d be like, “Oh my goodness, equal opportunities. Both persons are given £1m to start.”
If you give two people £1m, person A being entitled and privileged and person B not, and they’re going to allocate it in different ways.
They’re going to get a different return. They’re going to have different priorities and focus.
And most importantly, they’re going to get different help.
That’s really interesting because it’s not that you are coming at this from a ‘doors were slammed in my face’, so I’m going to fight against this.
You are actually saying, “I’ve been really lucky, and this has not been my experience, but I still want to help other people.”
No, I would say it does still affect me. It affects me, but not in the physical door being slammed in my face is what I mean.
One example might be that I have a tech company, The Stack World is a tech company, but I might find it difficult to hire white male engineers that don’t necessarily want to work for a black woman, or don’t see black women in positions of leadership, and find it uncomfortable.
So that means I’m not hiring or able to hire the best engineers, which in turn has a knock-on effect on the ability to build an app as fast as I want to build, which in turn has a knock-on effect on the amount of money I spend.
These things definitely still happen to me, they just happen in a more covert way.
So in terms of The Stack World, our mission is to essentially allow our members to find the knowledge and the network they need to feel economically empowered.
I specifically talk about economic power and women’s contribution to global GDP, because I feel like that is under-calculated.
I feel that’s not at its full potential.
I feel like women do so much unpaid labour that doesn’t literally contribute to global GDP.
I actually think that if we give our members the tools to create more income for themselves, it will give them power in all sorts of ways to be able to make choices, whether to change their situation and improve their situation or not.
It gives them choices around education.
I think to do all of that, you need to connect with people, you need a support network, you need community, and then you need information, so experts and advice.
And that’s kind of what we do.
So like I say, we talk about knowledge, all the information, workshops, experts, etcetera.
You need network, which is community. It could be I made one friend on The Stack, and that’s all I needed to get through my journey as a new mother back at work.
The Stack World: Bringing your whole self and creating lifelong members
There are so many networking groups out there. There are a lot of online ones, offline ones, geared towards different kinds of people, loads towards entrepreneurs.
So tell me what it is that’s really attracting people, because you’ve got a lot of members now.
So there’s something really different about The Stack and its approach.
It would firstly be aesthetic because that’s the first thing people see.
In that we have a really cool brand, a really authentic brand, that’s a mix of downtown street style mixed with uptown gloss.
And that’s really what we’re about.
I would say the second thing is that it’s very actionable.
So we go beyond just doing inspirational panel discussions to make sure that no matter what event we are doing, people leave with a takeaway, a tip, a worksheet or an action plan, something that they can do today to get moving.
I think the third thing is that we are incredibly diverse.
A lot of networking groups, by the nature of how social tribes work, will only attract one type of person.
Whereas we have everything, from people who have recently left care homes, all the way to multimillion dollar revenue CEOs.
I think that diversity of experience, gender and race is what makes it amazing.
Then I just think it’s just a certain thing about a Stack member, they are on their game. They look good while doing it. They have a flare and a taste for everything they do.
It’s a mindset.
It’s not like, “Oh, you are in this category, therefore we are right for you.”
The problem with that is once that person has gone past that category, they no longer find relevancy in your brand, and I’m interested in having lifetime members, like genuinely having lifetime members.
The problem as well about making a club or a network that’s just focused on business, is that I think in today’s world we’re all accepting that life is more complicated than that.
And actually you might have a business problem one day, but you might have a childcare problem, or you might have something else going on, and you don’t want to be a member of loads of different networks.
You just want one place where you can just be your whole self.
You said it. It’s like I didn’t even write it for you.
That’s exactly it.
The reason why what you said is so important is because of the first line.
You might have a business problem one day, but I don’t really believe you can be excellent at business until you’ve worked on all of the other stuff.
From managing being a parent and running a business, having good mental health, and running a business, understanding how your body works and what your exercise regime should be and having a business, how you manage your energy and having a business.
So it’s almost pointless throwing money at women in some kind of diversity and inclusion effort, when actually, there are so many layers to the problem.
What I’m finding is mostly the first layer is mindset and confidence.
So if you can’t solve all of those issues, you’re not going to solve the problem of getting more women entrepreneurs having successful high-growth businesses.
So we speak to that whole self.
Self-development doesn’t happen overnight—accept help from others
Have you discovered that because of your journey through your businesses, you’ve done a lot of work on those other aspects of your life?
And if so, how did you do that?
Because obviously The Stack World didn’t exist before you made it, so how did you feed all those parts of you so that you could be a better businesswoman?
Oh my goodness. It’s taken me 10 years or more.
It’s ongoing. It doesn’t stop.
New methods for women is exactly about that. So new methods for women, the Monday session every evening, is about all of the work I’ve done from reading philosophy to hypnotherapy, which has helped me to do the work that I need to do.
When I was 19 or 20, and I started my first entrepreneurial endeavour, I was still quite an angry teenager.
I was really grieving. My grandfather had just passed away, which was the same year I moved to London, and I felt kind of lost and abandoned.
I did what any 19-year-old does, I would go out, get wasted.
I made my magazine because I’m lucky in that I saw this as a creative outlet.
I just tried lots of different things out, but it took me another three or four years to be able to realise what my mind and body was going through between 19 to graduation at 23.
Then I would say from 23 to 24, for the next then 10 years, I was in toxic friendships and relationships, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life.
Even though it looked like I was doing great things, there are so many things apart from just creating and starting a business, that I think are essential to helping you function well as a high-performance entrepreneur.
And it is a high-performance activity, running a business.
I think you have to train like anyone else.
If you’re an athlete, you’d be training and have a coach, you’d have all of these things.
So I think the idea that we’re sending out hundreds of thousands of people, to run businesses all the time, without supporting them physically, mentally and with wellbeing on their journey.
So yeah, I did everything, basically. I did a Cacao ceremony once in a random warehouse in Watford, just to find inner peace.
But even that comes back to having an entrepreneur mindset.
Because if you don’t have that curiosity, that ability to start looking for solutions, you don’t even think about doing the Cacao ceremony or going and doing your silent retreat.
You don’t ask the questions. You don’t look for the answers.
Lots of people just accept things how they are and aren’t trying to go on that journey of self-improvement and that is also what makes someone a better entrepreneur.
I think self-development happens when you have a guide, when you have some form of person looking out for you.
I can literally list them out, the people who said, “Why don’t you try this?”
I remember my friend calling me up saying, “I think you might be codependent. Why don’t you read this book?”
I remember another friend, Laura, saying to me, “I can see that you are going through some stuff. Why don’t you come with me to this Hindu temple, and we’ll just go for the day?”
I think I am a curious person, but sometimes I don’t hear the messages immediately, and sometimes I don’t hear them until I actually need them.
Then sometimes I need someone to guide me through it.
So, you can be not curious, but still have someone guide you on that self-development journey.
I think that’s how wisdom gets passed on, from person to person and all of the things that I’ve done to be a better leader, mother, entrepreneur, CEO, have come from people saying, “Why don’t you try this?”
One of my investors, he said, “My wife teaches yoga. Why don’t you try it? Because you seem overwhelmed.”
And she’s like changed my life.
There are no random thoughts—just a vision to bring women together
Was there someone then if we go back to your magazine days? Because it’s quite a leap to go from magazines to nail salon.
So, what spurred that? Was that someone’s guidance?
How did that happen?
No, that’s different.
When it comes to my ideas, they come to me like a bit of a flash, and then I see the whole thing through, from start to finish.
I will say to myself, “Do you know what, I’m going to set up a nail salon.”
Then I’ll think, “It’s going to be like this, and these are the people who are going to come, and this is where it’s going to be.
“This is what our manifesto is going to be, and this is the music we’re going to play.”
The whole thing starts tumbling out of my mind. It’s not a strategy or a business plan. It’s just a feeling or a vision for how it’s going to be.
It will hit me like that, and then I can plan it out.
Then, what I need to do after that is go and do the research, do the reading, the thinking, the reflection. They just come from, insight and intuition and also being awake and open to the world.
So constantly consuming lots and lots of different sources and seeing patterns in things and being like, “Well this is working here. Can I not do it here?”
So like at the time of the nail salon, I was travelling around the world going to some incredible retail locations, thinking we don’t have anything like this in London.
We don’t even have a coffee shop. At the time of the salon, there was not even one coffee shop that had a flat white in it.
I was like, I’m going to create something that reflects what I’ve seen on my travels, and I’m going to do it for nails because getting your nails done is part of being a hip-hop, cool girl.
All girls in hip hop get their nails done.
So it’s not completely random. It’s just a telephone cord leap.
Actually, when I look back, all I’ve ever done, that has been the running thread through all of these things, is I’ve created spaces for people to meet like-minded people.
The nail salon actually meant that two women who wanted to get butterfly print nails, could sit next to each other, and connect over that.
It turns out, they’d probably have a few more things in common as well.
I never see them as random. I’ve got lots of random things in that 10-year plan. But to me, they’re not random. They’re just more of the same.
Can I connect women, and can I make them money?
I love that. That’s the golden threads, and you can see that reaching through your whole career.
Use your first business experiment as a learning curve
Give us a bit of a potted history of WAH Nails because you had the idea, you said you kind of pulled it out of somewhere, out of nowhere, out of your subconscious, and then you were like right I’m going to make this happen.
How hard was it to make it happen?
And tell us a bit about that whole experience because you ran that for 10 years, right?
So I had the idea in my head and the first thing I did was find a book called How to Open a Nail Salon. I read it.
It had a business plan in it. It had financials. It was so good.
It was written by an entrepreneur that’s now based in South Africa. How to Open a Nail Salon, I read that cover to cover, devoured it.
It’s really hard to kind of describe the time.
The iPhone had only just come out when I started the salon. There was no Instagram. People weren’t even using websites. There wasn’t any content marketing.
The only nail website that existed was an American nail magazine called The Nail.
There were no nail blogs. There were probably only four nail blogs that I knew of.
So it was just a very different time and information wasn’t everywhere like it is now. And I just read this book. It was an ebook and I read it on my phone.
Then because I was so young and naïve, I just made a list of everything I would need.
I’d need to find a shop, hire some people, get uniforms, do a nail training course. I just literally made a list and ticked everything off one by one.
I feel like lists are so underrated.
Make a list and just go through it. Let nothing distract you from the list. It’s literally as simple as that.
I think the problem is, as you get older, you start to look at all of the potential risks and that kind of stops you from actually trying something out.
I’m a big believer in just trying stuff out and getting started.
I would say that there are positives and negatives to rushing ahead.
So for example, I set up a nail salon by doing such a basic business plan, that didn’t really take into consideration lots and lots of things.
Or think about what the long-term business model or strategy was.
I was kind of figuring it out as I went along.
I opened the first salon in Dalston [in east London], and we were, from day one, inundated with requests.
We did pop-up nail bars all over the world for brands like British Airways, Opening Ceremony and Nike.
We would fly to the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, then we’d fly to Moscow, and we set up these pop-up nail bars.
I always saw them as a random addition to the business. I didn’t think they were our business, but we could have purely done an events business.
I actually like doing events. I’ve always seen the community building stuff as ancillary to the full business, but it’s actually the main business.
Secondly, we got requests to open a few salons.
So I opened one in Dublin. I opened one in Topshop in Stratford. I opened one in Shoreditch in Boxpark. And you know what? I don’t like opening multiple salons. I don’t like the idea of having an area manager.
So I was like, “Oh, okay. I’ve learned something new. I don’t like opening multiple shops, because I think it dilutes the core essence of what a WAH nail salon is.”
So I was like, “Okay, I’ve figured that out.”
Then I made some products, but I made them very late. I made them five years into the business.
So we pioneered this big nail art trend. And I was the last mover in terms of products.
Being a last mover is really good in lots of other industries, but it’s not in products.
You need to be a first mover in products.
So I made products and I enjoyed the process of creation. But I did not enjoy the process of sales and selling it.
So I was like, “Okay, I’ve learned something.”
And this is before everyone was doing D2C brands and indie brands. I was like, “I kind of like it, not sure if I really like it.”
Then the cycle of Valentine’s products, now Mother’s Day products, etcetera. Being on that cycle, I didn’t really enjoy that.
I think people who are young or starting their first business, you don’t even have to be young, it’s just that as you get older, you tend to have more risk.
I’d say whatever age you are, if you have less risk, I would just try things out.
This is because what you are actually doing is giving yourself an education in what you are going to be like as an entrepreneur.
The things that you enjoy doing, that you’re good at and the things that you’re not good at and the gaps you need to fill.
The reason I say this is because it’s very, very rare, almost unheard of that people’s first business is their multimillion-pound big business.
I have almost never heard of that, apart from two teenage gaming whizz kids, who started building something at 13, and it’s worth a lot.
But even then, they’re kind of bored of it 30, they sell it, and then they do something else.
I think what doesn’t get talked about often enough is, I never call them failures, but people’s first experiments.
There are so many companies that had a first experiment that didn’t work out that then birthed their bigger, more successful experiment.
And yet I think that if more people kind of shared their first experiments, it would be more helpful for those who think, “Oh, if I don’t get it right, I’m going to make a fool of myself. No one’s going to trust me again with their money.” Da, da, da.
But at the end of the day, WAH was my first experiment, and I loved it.
It taught me so much, it gave me so much.
But I knew six months into the business, I did not want to run a nail salon. I knew that.
But the problem was everyone loved it. So I couldn’t close it.
After six months, I was like, “Oh my goodness.”
So I studied fashion. I did a fashion degree. I thought I was going to be a creative director or a stylist. But I was like, “I’m shopkeeper.”
I remember once the shutters broke on a Saturday, and no one could get into the shop. And I just remember thinking, “Oh my God, this is crazy. This is my life, I’m trying to fix a shutter.”
This is my life.
But you know, something, I do actually love being a shopkeeper, I really love being behind a counter and helping people.
Because when you’re a shopkeeper, you can practice efficiency, you can practice customer service, community building.
I loved being the proprietor of a place that brought people together. That made me super happy. And I just kept thinking, how can I do this at scale?
The journey to raising a million
But that point about being able to experiment, and I totally see what you mean about when you’re younger, you can take a few more risks, you don’t have a mortgage.
But doing a lot of these experiments, like opening multiple salons, having a product line, that sounds expensive.
How did you afford to be experimental? Were you just amazing with money?
Absolutely not amazing with money.
Do you know what? Firstly, the business was cash flow positive from day one. I think it’s important to remember that salons don’t make a large amount of profit, but they do give you a large amount of cash.
So there’s just a high amount of cash flow, and it was a case of just juggling.
We didn’t have any investment in that business until year seven or eight. At all. I just kept making it work where we could.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul, living on the breadline. I used to still do consulting jobs, and I’d put all of my consulting job money back into the business.
So I was still styling and consulting and making a lot of money there.
So when things needed to happen, I would just make them happen. It’s actually funny because now that you say it, I don’t actually know how I did it.
You talk about sending out that video about how you raise a million.
Did you go out to raise a million?
One of the things I’ve learned is that, if you want to try something and do an even and bigger experiment, you do that with venture capital. You don’t necessarily do that with your own money.
Venture capital is so that people can go out and venture forth.
They can try things, and be pioneers, and go out and see what works in the world.
I was very clear that I wanted to raise venture capital for what was actually the first version of the starter, which was Beautystack.
I researched heavily all the different types of investors. I learned how to do a pitch just off YouTube and through podcasts. I networked heavily.
I didn’t actually network, that’s the wrong word, because I’m not actually great at networking, believe it or not.
But I went to a lot of events, and I would just kind of ask a question. I would always ask a question so that people would start seeing my face.
Then they’d see my face and be like, “Who’s that girl and what’s she working on?”
And eventually people say, “What are you working on?”
Then I’d tell them, and then I’d get people excited. So, that was kind of the cycle of it.
But what I would say is that venture-backed businesses have an expectation to grow exponentially within a seven-to-10-year life cycle.
And if your business isn’t scalable, if it couldn’t be globally scalable, like the next Airbnb or the next Uber, or have that potential, it’s not really right for venture capital.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not right for other types of funding like angel investing.
I like angel investing in products that I think should be out there in the market, and people who I think should be backed and supported.
When you angel invest, you don’t necessarily expect to see that money back at any time. But there’s lots and lots of other ways to raise funding for your business.
But someone told me this, and I think it all the time, the best funding you can get is from your customers, like making something people want to buy, and then fund your business that way.
Getting more women involved in fundraising
It’s interesting that we’re back talking about fundraising, because you talked about helping women to fundraise, and the stats about how many women do fundraise are just terrifying.
It’s a fraction, especially in venture. It’s tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny.
So are you hoping that you could move the needle a little bit?
If it’s right for you.
Because what I also don’t want people to do, and this kind of goes back to what I was saying, throwing money at the problem doesn’t always solve the problem.
What I don’t want people to do, is be an amazing salesperson and manage to raise venture capital, because that’s what it is by the way, it’s a sales process.
There are many, many startups that have no revenue, that have shoddy ideas, that have questionable founders, that raise venture capital.
We know it. We’ve seen the stories.
But if they’re good at selling, people can raise venture capital.
What I don’t want to do is encourage a whole bunch of women, who are really good at selling, to raise venture capital and then not really want to deliver or build that type of business.
You might not want to build a fast-growing business.
You might want to build a lifestyle business. You might want to build a business that your kids can inherit. A family business.
If it’s right for you, then by all means go for it because otherwise the money’s just going to a very small percentage of the same type of people.
But I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But something does need to change.
The whole thing needs to change because it is scarily low on women and low on black women, especially.
All that means is that you get all of these millions thrown at products, that only a small percentage of people need in the world.
Women-led design—making things for our own bodies and forms
I saw that you actually did some pretty cool stuff with WAH. You made, were they pedicure chairs?
But they were wide enough of your handbag because you don’t want to have to put your handbag on the floor.
I remember I was watching a video of you talking about women-led design. And it just seemed like fireworks were going off in my head.
Wouldn’t that be great? Women-led design.
It’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it?
That we live in this world where nothing is designed based on our bodies, really. Not even things that are meant to be for us.
How long did it take for a bra to be developed by a woman?
Our bodies and our forms are not considered in the way that we need to move through the world.
Great expectations for women to be the face of their business
I’ve got one more question because I know I’ve kept you way past when I said I would, which is about the experience of a female founder versus a male founder.
I know you’ve only ever been a female founder, so you can’t really speak to both sides, but you wrote a really interesting piece on Medium about the unpaid labour of female founders.
You referenced it briefly earlier.
Talk to me about what you think is this burden that is greater if you are a woman running a business and being the face of a business in the modern age.
I think that since I wrote that article some things have changed somewhat because of all of the backlash against female founders.
But there is this expectation that if you have a business, and you are a female founder, you are expected to also be the face of that business, which is actually a marketing job.
It’s like the talent, I’m the talent.
What people don’t realise is how time-consuming it is to also be the marketing lead influence of your business, as well as doing things like your financial projections, dealing with legal, dealing with accounts, doing team building, hiring.
There are all of these things that you need to do, as a CEO, that you deprioritise in favour of, “Do you have enough press? Is your face out there?”
Whereas I feel like male founders are allowed to just spend money on paid ads.
If you have a woman-founded business, and you say, “We grew 50% this year because we spent £100,000 a month on Facebook ads,” people would be like, “What? That’s not a valuable business. You spent £100,000 a month on Facebook ads.”
But if a male founder says that it’s perfectly normal because there’s no expectation. There’ll be the expectation for female founders.
“You should just be going out there and selling it and doing events and all of this stuff.”
“Why are you not out there more?”
“Why would you spend that money on that when you should be able to build a community yourself?”
I’ve never heard of anyone complaining to my male founder friends about the amount they spend on Facebook ads versus my female friends.
Oh, that’s so interesting.
I’ve not heard this, but I do know that sometimes when I’m interviewing founders, the number of times when I look for social media profiles for male founders and don’t find them, but always seem to find them for female founders.
I hadn’t put two and two together.
You’re expected to sell your lifestyle as part of your business, but what if you don’t want to do that?
Also, a successful business comes from not wasting time getting my hair done, getting my lashes done, my nails done for this shoot that I’ve got to do or whatever.
So my long-term goal would be to build a business that doesn’t require my face to sell it or to move further and further away from being the face of something, which is why we built this feature around clubs and events.
To be able to put the power into our members’ hands.
I don’t want to be like some guru sitting there doing every single event. I’m sitting there hosting the event.
The idea is that the community learns from each other and that we allow members to rise and to basically create the content on our behalf.
We have four events a month, every single Wednesday, and then we do one event every Monday, my weekly event.
So that’s like eight events a month.
In the four events, I now don’t host any of them. I’ve passed all of them on to different people who have actually come through the member network.
So Fundraising 101 is now hosted by Rosalyn. Founders are always hosted by Katie.
They’re all hosted by different people so that it’s not about me, so that I can actually do my real job.
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