Happy Black History Month!!!
My Wharton classmate, Wilglory Tanjong, founded this luxury and sustainable handbag company one year ago. The company’s mission, which is to empower Black Women and redefine luxury through an eco-friendly manufacturing process, aligns completely with my values. Wilglory and I met in July. As our friendship blossomed, I began to share my insights on marketing and fundraising to support brand discovery for ANIMA IRIS. By November, I decided to join her executive team as she is scaling and growing the business.
Entrepreneurship comes in different forms and is rooted in solving a problem or broad concern. ANIMA IRIS celebrates and empowers Black Women, and the handbags are hand-made in Dakar, Senegal. Wilglory has been self-financing for the past 12 months. As the company expands, more capital is required to fund the growth phase. As a result, Wilglory and I have applied to several pitch competitions.
The Jacobson Global Venture, launched in 2016, is for students at the Lauder Institute who wish to pursue building their business idea in place of a traditional summer MBA internship. This was my first pitch competition and I competed against 13 teams. The competition was stiff, and each team had seven minutes to present, followed by an eight-minute question and answer portion with five judges.
This was an emotionally intense experience. ANIMA IRIS was the last company to pitch and I sat on zoom ALL DAY feeling insecure, watching the other teams’ presentations. We even competed against last year’s winner and there are three winners annually to earn the Jacobson Global Venture Award. This experience taught me to get started with what I know, bet on myself and back it up with discipline. Additionally, my passion for entrepreneurship and ANIMA IRIS grew deeper as I created presentation materials to showcase WHY this company will be successful.
It is a myth that you need to “have everything together” before you start or support an enterprise. You will indeed make mistakes but persevere and learn from your missteps. Failing forward is putting your best effort into a new idea and maintaining a coachable learning posture. Think of feedback as a gift, so as you develop your business idea be resourceful and stay connected to an entrepreneurial ecosystem. This was true for Wilglory when she built her first handbag that was horrible. After much feedback and a Senegalese craftsman’s touch, she sold 500 handbags! This is also true for countless entrepreneurs who act on their ideas – or someone like me, who entered a pitch competition without any experience presenting a company to investors.
When Wilglory asked me to lead ANIMA IRIS’s non-equity fundraising and marketing efforts, I accepted even though I had never worked in either function before. I remembered that the Lauder Institute has an annual competition for budding enterprises and my professor encouraged me to apply. I had one month to build a pitch deck, executive summary, and develop an award-winning seven-minute presentation.
I knew about new venture competitions at various business schools, so I researched templates and necessary components to include in the executive summary – which summarizes the problem, solution, market size, competition, and executive team for your business. I actually enjoyed this writing phase to tell the story of ANIMA IRIS. I even reached out to the prior year’s winner for feedback on the summary and he was very helpful.
Next was the pitch deck – I built four versions in two weeks. I have never built a pitch deck and I connected with three consultants before I decided to outsource the aesthetics of the presentation. Business school is a team sport, and your village of resources is a competitive advantage, so cultivate it wisely. My pitch deck was informative and vibrant but needed a professional touch. I reached out to CP and he did not disappoint. He rearranged the icons, centered my headers, restructured how I told the story of ANIMA IRIS, and kept me encouraged during this challenge.
CP tried to refuse my payment, but I positioned it as a “gift card” to acquire an ANIMA IRIS bag for his leading lady. Subsequently, the pitch deck received numerous compliments, but the deck was not the star of the presentation – Wilglory and I curated an awesome pitch to share with the judges. We crafted a pitch that told the story of a Black Woman Entrepreneur who works with a personal shopper to find her the perfect handbag that would represent her untold story. Wilglory and I had high energy as we presented, gave the judges something to feel inspired about, and were succinct with our core message about why our business is an exciting investment.
BET ON YOURSELF
I am passionate about business development in Africa and becoming a global leader is why I came to business school. Earning my MBA is my opportunity to pressure-test my strategic thinking and create innovative solutions with the worlds’ emerging leaders. I struggled in these areas before I came to Wharton and I knew I would be stretching– this pitch competition is an elevated example. This ecosystem is an opportunity to step into the best version of yourself, in real life, as you learn from your MBA classmates and professors virtually. Even without formal experience, I believe in my potential and I have a growth mindset to become the best version of myself. Effectively, paying tuition is a formal “bet” on the craps table. Once the dice rolls and “classes start”, the real risk is the hard work and hustle level within you to be ready WHEN the opportunity presents itself.
My opportunity came when I took ownership over non-equity fundraising and marketing for ANIMA IRIS. Wilglory never told me what to do, I gave her updates and accepted her feedback graciously to create the pitch deck and executive summary. I am fully committed to her vision, and she respects my ideas. However, she also pushes back with positive criticism when I make a false assumption. Wilglory was slow to adopt my “personal shopper” presentation idea when I first shared it. I had to convince her that it was the right structure to tell ANIMA IRIS’s story. I have a sales background and I was confident that this approach would highlight our personalities and collective high energy. This is a competitive advantage when you are the last company to pitch out of 13 teams.
Managing an emerging enterprise is tough, but you have everything you need within your MBA community – course content, students, faculty – so leverage these assets to improve your decision-making. I remember pushing back on the advertising strategy after my marketing professor taught about ineffective mass marketing in class. Americus Reed advised that if a product is for “everyone”, then effectively, it is for no one. This is particularly true in the luxury retail industry. I outlined my approach to segment the market and together, Wilglory and I strategized a thoughtful solution to better engage our target audience. ANIMA IRIS Spring and Summer Collection launched on Feb 7th, and we should leverage a new customer segmentation model to grow sales.
Respectfully speaking, business school teaches you to throw away the “us vs them” mentality for competition. Instead, consider how the company executes on your target customer’s values or the risk profile to reduce your consumer’s concerns. This will help you develop the economic value of your product/service to the customer once you understand their expected utility. These are considerations that drive your price, social benefit, and long-term profitability. Within ANIMA IRIS, this is our competitive advantage. We center on Black Women through hand-made luxury handbags in ways that other luxury fashion brands fail.
ANIMA IRIS’s operation is centered around sustainability, quality materials, and progressive values that will disrupt a $313Bn global luxury fashion industry goods. The company is a solution to this concern since existing brands are slow-moving to cater to this demographic. Our pitch deck reflects this growing consumer segment, and our 31K followers on Instagram appreciate seeing Black Women showcase their agency in sustainable handbags that elevate their confidence. As I reflected on these values, the pitch deck, presentation, and all supporting components came together. Overall, this experience taught me to think as both a consumer and an investor, to ultimately pull it together and make history as the first Black Women to win the Jacobson Global Venture Award.
I also want to highlight two very important elements that can be helpful for any aspiring entrepreneurs or students looking to gain a competitive edge in a pitch competition. First, when you are building a business during your MBA experience, tell your professors. They have podcasts, business connections, and quality time for free consultations. Show them your data, problems, and be vulnerable when you need help. Professors are a guiding light as you elevate your business.
Secondly, leverage the virtual environment with recorded lectures. Should you come across a concern in your business and you vaguely remember a professor mentioning this topic – go back and review a previous lecture, then request additional guidance, if necessary. This will breed academic mentorship with professors who enjoy seeing students connect with and go beyond the course content.
Finally, shoot your shot as you develop your business venture. Closed mouths do not get fed, so I am encouraging students to be bold. For example, tag the CEO of a company you want to partner with on your LinkedIn page. Within the business ecosystem, I implore you to think like a CEO, bet on yourself, and be nimble when you face adversity. Additionally, cultivate a village of support amongst classmates, professors, and business advocates that empower you on tough days and coach you during key moments.
I hope to see you “Living on Locust” working on and pitching your business venture with soul, purpose, and a spirit of collaboration!
Here are two pages from our pitch deck:
Azline is from Waterloo, IA and became a National Gates Millennium Scholar in 2009. She studied International studies and French at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA and graduated Cum Laude in 2013. During her undergraduate tenure, she studied abroad in Fort-de-France, Martinique, and Geneva, Switzerland and also interned at Black Entertainment Network and Google, Inc. Azline worked for Delta Air Lines for seven years before starting a dual degree MBA/MA program at the Wharton School and the Lauder Institute.