Career Lessons from a 15-Year-Old Entrepreneur

WARREN, Ohio – When she was nine, Zandra Cunningham began to look at what it takes to make lip balm. In 2015, at age 13, she enrolled at the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at State University of New York at Buffalo before renaming her company Zandra and expanding her line of skin-care products.

Wednesday she spoke to 26 young women in the Inspiring Minds program, sharing her story of starting a business, developing products, supporting philanthropy and, through it all, succeeding in high school.

“It’s harder as a teenager because you still have that life you want to live,” Cunningham said. “You still have your friends. It takes a lot of dedication. You think of it as a sport or extracurricular activities. You stay committed.”

For Cunningham, the commitment has paid off. Beyond her company’s online store, Zandra products are available in stores across the country. She’s also in talks with Whole Foods and Abercrombie & Fitch for those chains to sell her products.

Her products are all plant-based. She won’t use inorganic chemicals, a decision Cunningham made from the start because of her own experiences in using beauty products.

“Going to malls and seeing things on TV, we saw the pretty packaging and smell-good scents, but it didn’t work for me,” she said. “I’d get dry 10 minutes later and it just didn’t work because of all the chemicals.”

In addition to making natural products, part of the mission of Zandra is to support girls’ education around the world, by donating 10% of its profits. In Buffalo, Cunningham’s hometown, Zandra sponsors Day of the Girl, which features guest speakers and presentations on healthful foods, cyberbullying, creative arts, STEM education and creating businesses.

As part of her day a Inspiring Minds, Cunningham showed them the basics of making her products, which range from lip balms to lotions to body scrubs.

She also offered some business advice to the group, who included some who already have sights on starting their own businesses.

“First off, do it. You just have to start. It is going to be hard. Running a business is hard and being an entrepreneur is hard, period, no matter what age you start at,” she said.

Among the crowd was Warren G. Harding High School junior Treona Crenshaw, who wants to own her own salon.

“I want to be a cosmologist with my own business. I’m going to TCTC [Trumbull County Career Center] this year, so when I’m done I’ll have my degree,” she said. “It’s very inspiring [to hear about Cunningham]. My generation isn’t like that. They’re not focused on things like that. I’ve read about her and she’s successful.”

One reason Inspiring Minds invited Cunningham to speak, Stephanie Gilchrist said, was to offer students the opportunity to not only see someone their age succeeding in business, but give them a chance to ask questions.

“We get them while they’re young and inspire them, give them that energy, education, tools and resources so that they can be a portfolio company at the YBI [Youngstown Business Incubator] and make a difference in our community,” Gilchrist said. She directs its Women in Entrepreneurship program.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.