Alikay Naturals is the successful company from Rochelle Graham-Campbell and her husband Demond Campbell. Rochelle wants to use her knowledge to help others found their own businesses, and gives insight into how she created her company.
CEO and co-founder of Alikay Naturals
Some people are born entrepreneurs; nothing can stop them from turning their idea into reality. Rochelle Graham-Campbell, CEO of Alikay Naturals, is among them. She and her husband, Demond Campbell, founded their hair care business in their apartment in 2009. Today, it’s a multimillion-dollar company headquartered in Fort Myers, Florida.
“It was a hobby at first,” says Graham-Campbell. “I intended to go to law school, and my husband was pursuing aviation mechanics. I was also working as a waitress at Olive Garden, while he was delivering pizzas for Papa Johns. And we were delivering newspapers. I had a handmade jewelry company at the time, too. Just two young people putting themselves through college!”
The idea for Alikay Naturals struck Graham-Campbell around that time. She was searching for high-quality, effective, chemical-free hair products, but she couldn’t find them. So she created her own, inspired by her Jamaican grandmother’s herbal recipes. She documented her hair journey on YouTube, and her subscribers wanted to purchase the products she was using. Alikay Naturals was born, and her career path took a sharp turn.
“We both earned our degrees but never followed the professions we studied for. Instead, we went full-time into Alikay,” says Graham-Campbell. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering ‘what if?’. The response from customers was immediately positive!”
In 2020, Graham-Campbell published a book titled, “90 Days to CEO, A Guide To Avoid Business Pitfalls And Unlock The Secrets of Entrepreneurship.” She wants to help others launch their ventures the right way – and that includes using credit cards correctly.
How did you start a business while taking full-time college classes and holding down several jobs?
It wasn’t easy. I had to learn that I would lose friendships and relationships because not everyone would be supportive. You think all friends and family would be, but that wasn’t true, and that was extremely painful. Starting a business can be lonely. I lost some of my best friends. I became isolated and excluded. Eventually, I balanced out my social life by giving one “yes” to every third “no,” which allowed me to do it in a structured way.
Did you have any large and unexpected expenses that were hard to handle?
A lot of things! The cost of the rent and everything it takes to be fully operational was so daunting.
The main expense, though, was the cost of moving into our first commercial facility. It was a huge eye-opener. We had to make an important decision when Target picked up our products. Should we continue to manufacture the products ourselves or contract out? My customers begged us not to change the formula, and I kept that in mind. In the end, we decided to do it ourselves. We had to buy all our own machinery, which was a couple hundred thousand dollars.
It was the right decision. We scaled very quickly and were soon in Sally’s Beauty. We’ve been operating our manufacturing facility for 13 years and are one of only a couple Black-owned, self-manufacturing brands in the U.S.
I understand you have a credit card for the business. Which one and why did you choose it?
We use the Bank of America® Business Advantage Customized Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card, which we just got two years ago. We proved our business concept for 10 years first, and during that time, we operated in the black. We could have gotten a credit card earlier but didn’t have a financial team to help us use it. Business credit cards need to be used strategically for leverage. They have so many benefits, but I wanted to have an expert help me plan and maximize the rewards.
We chose this card because we have our business banking with Bank of America and will stay with them, but we will also explore using smaller banks and credit unions as well.
Most of the expenses we charge are things like postage. Even if you’re a small business operating out of your house, shipping charges can be a significant cost. Why not get cash back on what you spend?
What are you doing with the cash you earn?
We either reinvest it into the business or use it as an incentive reward for our employees. They are our team; it’s a family-oriented business. We give bonuses, but we can give them extra with the cash back. Sometimes we give gift cards, and other times we will use the rewards to book a special spa day for a deserving employee. Just two weeks ago, we did it for someone who was having trouble with her mom.
What is your strategy to manage your finances, including the credit card?
We pay the bill off every month. It keeps us responsible and helps us maintain a strict financial schedule. I don’t do everything myself, though. We have a money team, including a CFO, an accountant, a bookkeeper and a financial advisor.
The one professional you should bring on as soon as possible is a bookkeeper. They don’t have to be expensive, and having one will help you keep up with expenses, credit card bills and taxes. When I was young, anything to do with the IRS made me feel overwhelmed. It was intimidating. If that’s your weakness, hire out. As CEO, it’s my job to make sure everything is covered – not to cover it myself.
If you hire an expert, having a basic understanding of what they do is important, too. I have biweekly meetings with my CFO. I don’t like surprises.
What’s in the works for Alikay?
I’m super excited to announce that our brand just got into 1,833 Walgreens stores! Customers can now purchase our Honey & Sage Deep Conditioner, Lemongrass Leave-In Conditioner, Shea Yogurt Hair Moisturizer and Essential 17 Hair Growth Oil there.
We are continuing to grow and provide solutions to all hair types. We’re also expanding into feminine care. Alikay is the second Black-owned, female-owned feminine care brand in the U.S., and we had to knock down a lot of doors to get here. This is not normal. It’s still a very male-dominated industry.
Currently, we have 26 employees and continue our commitment to making everything from scratch and working only with ethical vendors. That’s really important to me. For example, we buy from a woman who owns a shea butter manufacturing village in Ghana. We empower women across the world to make their own money.
Now that you’ve had your credit card for a couple of years, can you offer some advice?
As an entrepreneur, you will need good business credit. My personal credit was in the tank when I first started, and we had a lot of student loan debt. We bootstrapped everything. It takes years to build credit, so don’t wait.
Accountability and checks and balances are super important. Figure out your goals and set rules. Like, maybe you never roll over a credit card balance or always pay by a specific date. If you struggle with that, have someone else make you accountable, such as a bookkeeper. It’s so important. You don’t want to end up with a debt you can’t pay down.
Think about the credit line as an investment. Don’t use it to fund your business or for day-to-day operations. It should be for something specific. Want to grow the business? Great. How? It’s the “how” that matters. Be disciplined because when you charge, it’s the bank’s money, not yours.
Any final advice for small business owners?
Yes. You are the priority. Keep that in mind. To lead in any capacity, you must be your best self. I check in with God daily. Mentally, physically and emotionally you have to be OK. You won’t be able to help anyone if you are empty and depleted. Take care of you.