At 29 years-old, serial entrepreneur Nicole Sanchez has always been business-minded. The Harvard College and Harvard Business School graduate has been honing her skills since childhood.
At the age of 8, the New Jersey native started selling candy to her classmates after school (and charging interest for those late payers). By high school money became tight due to her parents’ divorce and Sanchez realized that she’d have to work for what she wanted. And work she did. She’d put in 60 hours a week during the summer working jobs as a fast food employee and lifeguard, and by age 15, she was able to hire four additional people to sell candy alongside of her at her school. Her candy business venture funded two high school trips to Europe and what she calls her “hair habit”--her love for keeping her hair styled. It was that same hair habit that drove her to work on the African American marketing team that helped launch Pantene Relaxed & Natural products in 2004 and inspired the conception of her start-up hair extension distribution company, VIXXENN.
When it came to creating her latest business venture, Sanchez sought to eliminate the struggle consumers face finding “high-quality [hair] products suited for us.” Her love for business and community impact came to a head in 2014 when she founded VIXXENN, a company dedicated to empowering hair stylists--whom Sanchez considers some of the greatest entrepreneurs in our community--to earn additional revenue beyond the services they offer their clients by becoming virgin hair distributors. Without ever having to carry any inventory, stylists earn commission with every referral they make to her online hair business.
EBONY.com chatted with Sanchez about her experience as a minority at Harvard, life as a serial entrepreneur and what’s up next for this Jersey girl.
EBONY: Part of your business savvy was gained by way of Harvard College and Harvard Business School. What was it like as a black female student there?
Nicole Sanchez: Being at Harvard was fantastic. Harvard has one of the strongest Black communities of any undergrad institution and I can definitely argue it has the strongest Black community in the Ivy League. People don’t realize [that] Harvard has almost equal gender balance and probably the best record in the nation of any institution on those terms. I think having nearly an equal amount of men and women really helped eliminate a lot of the drama you hear about at other schools. Ultimately, I loved Harvard when I visited because it felt so real. There are a lot of stereotypes, but Harvard really is a progressive school with many students focused on social justice. Trust and believe it’s a place full of authentic, fun, and down to earth Black people who are there to support you on your path to greatness.
EBONY: In what ways did that experience challenge you both professionally and personally?
NS: I always wanted to do great things. Harvard is a place of smart, dedicated, and ambitious people. Being constantly surrounded by excellence, charged me to step my game up. Now when I think of my personal and professional life, I always think of ways to surround myself with those who are excellent. Whether it is the best designers or technical team members who can bring VIXXENN to the next level or great prayer buddies that can lift me up when things are tough, it’s important that I surround myself with those who are great at what they do. I’ve realized the power of high standards and excellence and seek to instill those standards in my life.
EBONY: How did you come up with the business concept and model for VIXXENN?
NS: [It] really came out of my own personal experience as an entrepreneur. As my profile raised with my prior company, I was often asked to speak at events and conferences. With so many public appearances, my hair became a primary concern. I wanted to switch it up, stay fresh, and stand out so I used hair extensions. With every conference, others would compliment me on my hair and I realized the power of person to person referrals and sales. I was itching to do a company that would have a direct impact on my community, so that was the impetus for VIXXENN. The decision to partner with stylists was natural. We offer a high quality product and we knew that stylists would be the best advocates for this product.
EBONY: What differentiates VIXXENN from its competitors?
NS: Quality. Service. Approach. VIXXENN offers the highest quality hair extensions backed by our awesome service. With VIXXENN, you’re assured quality every time. We offer hair that you will covet and our clients love it. We also employ a unique approach. I was personally frustrated that in our community so many of the dollars spent on hair and beauty leave the community. It was important for me that in our business we exclusively partner with stylists to help them be rewarded for their referrals. With VIXXENN, that same stylist can now refer her clients to her own VIXXENN hair business vs. the beauty supply store and she is rewarded for those recommendations.
EBONY: How many partner stylists does VIXXENN currently have and what is their average commission?
NS: VIXXENN is invite only for stylists but due to the power of our network we now have a national network with stylists all over America. Our strongest markets are the northeast and southeast. Our top earning stylists are now earning $1500- $2000 per month by selling hair to their clients.
EBONY: You recently became a part of the Grand Central Tech Accelerator. Congratulations! In your opinion, is it in millennial’s best interest to explore the option of joining an incubator/accelerator and if so, why?
NS: Yes. Accelerators can be a fantastic way to jumpstart growth for your business. Four critical benefits are mentorship, community, resources and funding. Prioritization is the hardest thing to do as an entrepreneur. As you manage so many things, you're time can be diverted from the two most important things: (1) Serving and growing customers and (2) Improving your product. My accelerator, Grand Central Tech, was fantastic at providing resources to allow me to remain focused on my core business. They've paired us with great mentors. The community is full of other entrepreneurs excited to help each other out and they've invested in simplifying our lives. For example, they offered a unique arrangement that provided free rent for one year in prime Manhattan real estate. Knowing that space for my team as we grow is secured for a year is a huge benefit. Additionally, they recruited interns from top schools to join VIXXENN. These are great examples of how an accelerator can allow startups to focus on the most critical factors to grow their businesses.
EBONY: What is one major obstacle that you all have faced along your serial entrepreneurial journey and how have/did you work to overcome it?
NS: Being an entrepreneur can be a hard, lonely road. You start off excited, but the reality is that it’s incredibly hard to scale, attract customers on a consistent basis, and grow your business. The hardest thing is that because you’re blazing a path, it can be hard to get the traditional mentors that you would find in a corporate job. My best strategy has been to develop a strong support network of trusted advisors, mentors, and peers. This team expands the areas my business hits in entrepreneurship, tech, and beauty. So don’t do it alone. Immerse yourself in whatever industry or sector you’re interested in and develop the best support network to help you reach your goals.
EBONY: What is some of the best advice that you’ve received thus far and who gave it to you?
NS: The team at Digital UnDivided is dedicated to helping urban entrepreneurs and specifically black females thrive in the world of tech and entrepreneurship. I met one of its founder’s Kathryn Finney at SxSW in Austin in 2013. She was the one who challenged me to start my own company. At the time I had a great job, and had never seriously thought of starting my own company. At some point, I said "Thanks Kathryn, but why are you encouraging me?" And she said, "Why not you?" Too often we hear too many nos. So always, ask yourself. "Why not me? I’m talented, ambitious and destined for greatness. Why not me?"
EBONY: What is one of the greatest sacrifices that you’ve had to make thus far for your company and dream?
NS: Real talk, I was making $200,000 per year when I left my job to become an entrepreneur. I was blessed with a high income, and many thought I was crazy to leave it, but I knew what my dream was. My dream wasn’t $200,000. I never once sat down as a little girl and said that I want to make X amount of dollars when I grow up. Rather, I wanted to do well enough so that my family didn’t have to worry about money, and to be able to provide