How one teen started a million-dollar beauty biz from her kitchen
Zandra Cunningham, 18, launched a beauty empire from her kitchen—then turned her profitable company toward philanthropy. Here, the teen mogul shares her story...and her secrets to success in the skincare biz and beyond.
"No" is pretty much the most frustrating answer a parent could ever give you—whether you’re asking to adopt a kitten, extend a curfew or buy a lip balm—right? But after funding her gloss obsession for far too long, that’s exactly what Zandra Cunningham’s dad finally told her when she asked him to make the purchase one day. “You want another lip balm?” he asked Zandra, then 9. “Learn to make it yourself.”
Nine years later, Zandra spends her time developing new products (she currently has 45 items across two lines—and counting), consulting on special retail projects with stores like Target and flying across the country to run STEAM-based beauty workshops. She also coordinates events and initiatives for Zandra TLC Foundation, her nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities for young girls in underserved communities. Oh, and did we mention she’s a freshman majoring in business at the University at Buffalo?
There’s a lot to learn from her story, so take notes. But if you remember just one thing, make it this: Next time someone tells you “no,” get inspired instead of annoyed—and *you* might be the next millionaire gloss boss.
From Glossy to Flossy
“When I was little, I obviously wasn’t allowed to wear much makeup,” says Zandra. “So if I could get my hands on a tinted lip gloss, I thought I was the bomb. I wore it every day like it was my job, my mission and my life’s greatest purpose to have shiny lips.”
So when her dad suddenly cut off the supply chain and challenged Zandra to get more self-sufficient, she switched into #girlboss mode by researching the formulation process (there were tons of tutorials on YouTube) and enlisting a support team (aka her mom). Together they ordered a DIY kit and started whipping up batches in the kitchen, testing different recipes in the quest to develop Zandra’s ultimate lip conditioner. Soon after, they shared samples with friends and family.
“One day I was giving out lip balms at my dad’s church when a lady handed me a dollar bill for one,” says Zandra. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, she gave me money!’ But I didn’t run off to the store to go buy candy with it. I thought, ‘If I can make a dollar today, how much can I make tomorrow?’”
Breaking Big Biz
Zandra invested those first dollars right back into her business to buy more supplies. Then, along with a loan from her parents, she set out to work on developing a brand and logo for her company.
She also enrolled in a kids' entrepreneurship program to learn the basics of building her empire. (After attending twice, she eventually landed in the University at Buffalo’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership program, and was the youngest-ever graduate, at age 14, in a class full of adults.)
On the weekends, Zandra packed up her products—which now included not just lip balms but also soaps, sugar scrubs and body butters—and set up shop at farmers markets and artisan shows, where she sold her get-glowy goods and worked on getting her name out.
She scheduled meetings with local boutique owners to show off the collection and pitch her products to be carried in their stores. As her line grew more popular, her products got picked up across Buffalo and beyond.
And then Etsy changed everything.
At age 14, Zandra applied to the digital marketplace’s “Etsy Open Call” program, where her business was one of 36 finalists out of thousands of applicants chosen to pitch to six major retailers. Paper Source, a national stationery store with over 120 locations, purchased 8,000 pieces from Zandra on the spot.
When Zandra Beauty products landed on those first major shelves, other big stores (like Whole Foods, Costco, Wegmans and Walmart) took notice—and eventually started stocking up, too.
As her sales started to soar, the media became majorly interested in the young business prodigy’s story—and Zandra started appearing in articles and on television shows to talk about what, exactly, makes her brand so special. (Hint: A lot.)
Going Beyond Beauty
When Zandra created Zandra Beauty, she wanted to develop a brand that embodied all of the skin and body care components she needed in a product—but couldn’t find in a store to buy for herself.
“I have super sensitive and dehydrated skin, so every morning I’d apply moisturizer right when I got out of the shower. But by the time we got in the car for school, I’d be dry again,” she shares. “Back then, natural products hadn’t gotten super popular yet, so I wasn’t able to find anything pure and plant-based that would really benefit me.”
Aesthetics mattered, too. “Nothing was geared toward young girls my age with a positive message or a cool label.” So as Zandra developed her all-natural range, she paired each product with an inspirational quote (think: balms and body washes emblazoned with wise words like, “A smile is the best makeup a girl can wear” and “Just keep going…u got this”).
“The quotes are meant to help lift you up with every use,” Zandra explains. “It’s not only about helping you feel good and look pretty on the outside but boosting your confidence on the inside as well.”
Zandra soon learned that spreading positivity can be extremely profitable—and it inspired her to work toward an entirely new set of goals.
“I got to this place where I knew my products were on point and really working for people. I had perfected the formulations to my standards. My business was making money. And I just felt like it was time for a new mission,” she shares. That mission was to make her business a vehicle of change.
Today, Zandra donates up to 10 percent of her profits to support girls education, serves as a United Nations Foundation ambassador and travels around the country to speak about equality and opportunity for young women. She also recently launched “Science Behind It,” an initiative for middle and high school students that uses beauty product formulations to explore aspects of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). The program also offers a business component, where Zandra teaches the basics of a biz plan and how to pitch a product.
If you could create any company, what would you create? Sound off below!