Thirteen Lune & Mejuri: Leaning Into Consumer Trends and Cultural Shifts to Build a Powerful D2C Brand
In this episode, Nyakio Grieco, Co-Founder of Thirteen Lune, a direct-to-consumer e-commerce beauty platform featuring Black and Brown-owned brands, speaks with host Kate Barrett about how a cultural turning point led her to create a mission-driven startup, how to harness an ever-evolving marketing stack to drive growth, and the importance of vetting potential investors. Throughout the conversation, Mejuri CEO and Co-Founder Noura Sakkijha and NEA Partner Vanessa Larco share insightful commentary about changing consumer behaviors, how to hire for long-term growth, and the powerful ways in which measurement can help propel a business forward. Tune in to hear what inspired Nyakio and Noura to become founders, how their families and backgrounds shaped their entrepreneurial visions, and why it's important to infuse a company's values into every aspect of the business.
"I think we [CEOs] fall into this narrative of wanting to make everybody feel like everything is good and dandy, and I think that doesn't get you
to the right places because you need a shared reality and shared responsibility from those around you to solve problems."
TOPICS WE EXPLORE
- How family and culture can shape an entrepreneurial vision
- Measurement and the ever-changing marketing stack
- Ensuring your founding mission and values scale with the business
- Steering clear of "dumb money"
On this Episode
Nyakio Greico is Co-Founder of Thirteen Lune, an inclusive beauty e-commerce destination, launched as the first of its kind e-commerce destination designed to inspire the discovery of beauty brands created by BIPOC founders that resonate with people of all colors. On this episode, Nyakio chats with host, Kate Barrett, about how cultural turning point helped her to create and scale a mission-driven company.
Noura Sakkijha is Co-Founder and CEO of Mejuri, a global fine jewelry company that believes luxury should be accessible, fun, and part of your everyday. The brand works with top jewelers, who commit to exceptional craftsmanship and ethical practices, to eliminate middlemen and produce quality essentials to sell directly to consumers. On this episode, Noura chat's with Mejuri board member, Vanessa Larco, about fundamentally changing the way consumers approach jewelry purchases.
Kate Barrett (00:06):
This is Founder Forward, the podcast from NEA where we explore the company building journey with candid commentary from founders and investors; some legendary, some just getting started, all moving forward.
I'm Kate Barrett.
On this episode of Founder Forward, I spoke to Nyakio Grieco, co-founder of Thirteen Lune, a direct to consumer e-commerce beauty site that highlights products almost exclusively from black and brown owned companies.
Nyakio shared how a cultural turning point helped her to create a mission-driven company.
Nyakio Grieco (00:46):
I'm Nyakio Grieco. I'm the co-founder of Thirteen Lune.
Thirteen Lune is the first of its kind, truly inclusive beauty retail platform.
Kate Barrett (00:56):
And on every episode of Founder Forward, we like to fast forward to get some insights from a founder and investor who are walking this road together.
Today we'll hear from Noura Sakkijha, CEO and co-founder of Mejuri, a direct-to-consumer fine jewelry brand that introduces handcrafted everyday jewelry without the traditional retail markup; and NEA partner, Vanessa Larco.
Noura and Vanessa talked about how Mejuri worked to change the way people approach jewelry purchases and who the customers for those purchases are.
Noura Sakkijha (01:26):
My name is Noura Sakkijha and I run Mejuri.
And Mejuri is the ... I'm going to put my aspiration board here. Mejuri is the number one global jewelry brand.
Vanessa Larco (01:38):
Close. We're getting there.
I'm Vanessa Larco, I'm a partner at NEA. We fund early and late stage startups and partner with them across their journey.
Kate Barrett (01:49):
As you consider building your business in these changing times, join us to discover how these founders considered the landscape before them and really sought to make a difference to the customers and communities they serve.
Let's dive in.
Nyakio, when it comes to Thirteen Lune's journey, there's so much to talk about, but I really want to start with the beauty piece of this. I mean, it has been a career long focus for you, right?
Nyakio Grieco (02:17):
Yes. I mean, I was drawn to beauty since I was a little girl. I was inspired to create my first brand, Nyakio, based on family beauty secrets that were passed down to me by my Kenyan family.
My grandmother was a coffee farmer, and when I met her for the first time at eight years old, she taught me how to take coffee beans that she grew on her farm in Kenya and crush them and add oils and use rods of sugar cane to exfoliate our skin.
And my grandfather was a medicine man, and although he passed away before I got the chance to know him, many of his beauty secrets were passed down to my mom, who then, as a first generation American, practiced those rituals on me, which included being able to use oils that were extracted from nature to treat the skin and hair and ailments.
And so I'd say that my beauty journey started pretty early.
Kate Barrett (03:10):
Wow. So maybe not rooted in entrepreneurship with your family, but very much a family focus.
Nyakio Grieco (03:15):
Yeah, I mean, I would definitely say. My grandmother, as I said, was a coffee farmer; my grandfather on my mother's side was a farmer and a merchant as well. So while it's not the traditional, as we know here in the US, way to entrepreneurship, that's how they supported their families and what they grew, they ate, they used, they sold.
But I don't think I ever really sort of thought of myself as an entrepreneur in my early days. I definitely was the kid that always had the lemonade stands and the bake stands, the car washes. I got my first glitter nail polish kit when I was in elementary school and made a big mess, but still was able to hawk glitter nail polish to my friends in the neighborhood.
And it wasn't until I went to college, I studied business, I started my career working in the entertainment industry here in Los Angeles and then started Nyakio.
But I really started Nyakio because I felt that the continent of Africa was very underrepresented, especially in premium beauty. There were so many ingredients and rituals from Africa sort of being borrowed by many beauty brands, but there wasn't a lot of credit given to Africa and the sophistication and the honor of where these ingredients were cultivated and these rituals started.
So at the ripe old age of 27, I set out on a path to make my grandmother's coffee scrubs. So that's how it all started.
Vanessa Larco (04:48):
Noura, so tell me the journey you made to get to Mejuri.
Why did you start it, how did you start it? Let's start there.
Noura Sakkijha (04:56):
The story goes a long time ago.
I'm a third generation in my family to work in jewelry, so I've had a lot of passion for the product, the way that the product is made; gemstones, diamonds, et cetera. But I think being an insider also gave me access to seeing things from the inside to thinking more deeply about the industry.
And so some of the things that I didn't necessarily associate with is the fact that whether it's a mom and pop shop or a big brand, fine jewelry has always been positioned as this classic piece, exclusive price point, and the marketing campaigns are targeted for men to buy for women. And that felt a little bit outdated for me.
So I actually took a detour. I studied engineering, I worked in consulting. I didn't pursue the family business, and I moved to Canada.
And then started to make my own disposable income, wanted to buy jewelry for myself; even asking my friends, there wasn't necessarily a brand that we felt associated with.
And so that was sort of the aha moment that I wanted to create a brand starting with women buying jewelry for themselves.
And we had hypotheses, we had goals to basically change jewelry from being a once a year type of purchase to a frequent purchase; a product that women love to buy for themselves, can afford to buy for themselves. It's priced for them, designed for them, and designed for every day, celebrating every day.
And we also wanted to change the behavior from primarily a gifting behavior to a self-purchase behavior. And now we have 70% of our customers are women buying for themselves or for their friends.
And now obviously our aesthetic had expanded and we think, "Everybody, buy yourself a damn diamond."
Vanessa Larco (06:32):
Hmm-mm. I agree with that.
Did you always envision being an entrepreneur or did you just see this problem and it didn't let you sleep at night so you went after it?
Noura Sakkijha (06:43):
I think I had a mix of both.
I come from a family of all of them are entrepreneurs, so that probably in my mind made it a little bit easier to have a 'why not?' mentality and sort of break that boundary towards entrepreneurship.
And then this particular problem, I was very passionate about it, and it felt like I'm connecting the legacy of my family of generations and modernizing it. So I have a very emotional connection to the things that I'm doing.
Kate Barrett (07:14):
So Mejuri's really rooted in family tradition for Noura, and that's really forged the emotional connection she brings to her work, the passion she has for it.
Does that ring true for you as well, Nyakio?
Nyakio Grieco (07:26):
And going back to the co-creation of Thirteen Lune with my co-founder, Patrick Herning, that was really an answer, once again ... In the midst of a racial reckoning and a global pandemic, I found myself, as the founder of Nyakio, on all of the lists; you know, top black-owned beauty brand to shop and to follow.
On these lists, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands. I discovered brands that I'd never heard of. And I'd often been the only at shelf in my Nyakio beauty journey and thought, "Well, how strange that I've never heard of all of these brands." Because quite honestly, when it came to finding people who look like me, who I could call my community in the industry, there were very few. And who knew I was part of this larger community?
And I was also receiving a lot of support, but support in the way of being asked questions like, "I don't look like you, so can I use your products on my skin?" And thinking in 2020 that we still have to debunk the myth that black and brown people only create products for black and brown people.
And when beautiful initiatives like the Fifteen Percent Pledge and Pull Up For Change were happening at the same time, in my mind, I thought, "Well, gosh, there's a thousand brands here on this list, 500 on this list. Why is it so difficult to get to 15% and what's behind that?"
And really there were a few things that were behind that.
One, a lot of these brands I'd never heard of didn't have access to capital. And I knew the challenges. Even though Nyakio had many stops and starts, many of my challenges happened because I would grow the business to a certain point and then would have to pull back, banging down doors to get money to keep the business going, and have to shut it down and relaunch and shut it down and relaunch.
So I had the life experience that I could assume that many of these brands were experiencing, and as I started to connect with them on social media, I realized that that was the truth.
Two, I felt that I wanted to create the retailer that I always wished I had and help these others to learn from my challenges. They'll make their own mistakes, but learn from my challenges and get to success quicker.
And three, we were living in such divisive times and beauty is such a catalyst for connection. Beauty wins even in times of economic downturn. In times of sadness, beauty often just brings joy. And I thought, "Gosh, while we're all living in this really tumultuous time, both with a global pandemic and the height of systemic racism of our lifetimes, how can I answer a call and help the beauty industry find a way to come together and be a catalyst to help create generational wealth?"
So in both businesses, it really came from a place of, "How can I better serve the collective?"
Kate Barrett (10:18):
And Nyakio, every first time founder has to make that leap from the vision that they have to the business that they're actually going to build. And I think it would be really good to explore, how do you begin that?
Let's listen to Vanessa and Noura talking about the early days of Mejuri when it was founded back in 2015.
Vanessa Larco (10:40):
And so tell us a little bit, what did day one look like? Did you quit your consulting job, start with a whiteboard and stare at a wall? Did you bring in co-founders? How was that journey?
Noura Sakkijha (10:52):
So my partner, who's my life partner and my business partner, we started the business together. And we both used to work on it at night consistently, and there came a point where it was like we either go all in or it's not going to come to fruition. And so at that point, I decided to leave my job.
So I left my job in 2014, I believe, and then joined a business accelerator in Montreal. It was a very early stage business accelerator. And that's when we brought in a couple of interns and we brought in our CTO. And then we brought in also our Chief Creative Officer. So she's been there from the beginning.
I knew that I wanted to build something very big, and then we started there in order to get ourselves into a position to fundraise and start to accelerate growth.
Vanessa Larco (11:40):
I met you through 500 Startups in the very early days, but like you mentioned, there were so many D2C companies propping up, some of them were jewelry, some of them were other categories, it was really hard to make sense of all the noise.
But for me, it all became clear when I went home to Miami and my childhood best friends were talking about a jewelry brand, and they were talking about Mejuri, and two of them were wearing Mejuri. And I was like, "How did you guys find out about Mejuri? They're in Toronto?"
And ever since then, it was just very clear to me that this movement was hitting all parts of the country. It wasn't just the techies in San Francisco or the very cutting edge fashionistas in New York. It was all the way in Miami.
Noura Sakkijha (12:27):
I'm so grateful for your friends. I have to send them thank you notes.
The most exciting moment for me is I went grocery shopping very early on and then I saw someone I don't know wearing Mejuri. And that also is a sign; and getting a lot of good customer feedback.
And so the most important feedback that I believe I got in the early stages is a customer who wrote back to us and said, "I never used to buy myself fine jewelry until you existed."
So that was a big moment for me to understand that customers are actually changing their relationship with fine jewelry because of our message, because of our design, because our of our frequency, because of our price point. And that was a big moment that felt to me, "We're onto something; a movement more than just a jewelry company."
Kate Barrett (13:22):
What does Thirteen Lune's mission mean to you personally in that way? And have you had any moments like that where you're like, "Wow, this is potentially a really big deal?"
Whether it's as a woman, as a founder, as a person of color, how do you think about all that?
Nyakio Grieco (13:35):
I mean, it's truly amazing.
I think I mentioned earlier that some of my biggest challenges in my first business were really tied to lack of access to capital. And beyond lack of access to capital, it was lack of access to even getting in the room.
And so I'd say my first aha moment when we announced that within our angel group, friends and family, investors that we had relationships with, but not even VCs at this point, just people who love to invest, mentors of mine, and explained we wanted to start this platform, "We believe the business will be omnichannel, but we want to start online and we want to launch with 13 black-owned brands, and we want to speak to allyship ... "
And the trajectory of raising capital in those first couple of weeks before we launched the site was the fastest I've ever raised money and the most yeses I've ever gotten in my, at that point, 18 year, almost 19 year career.
So that was my first aha moment.
Outside of just the capital, it was also all of the brands that said yes. You know, the 13 black-owned brands and our first ally brand, which was Goop. And Gwyneth was one of our first investors along with P Diddy and Gregg Renfrew from Beauty Counter. So this community of entrepreneurs and tastemakers that really got on board.
But then once we launched and we're sort of out there for the first time with this message in such a big way, it was so validating that, from the jump, there were so many people of all different races that got really excited about Thirteen Lune and immediately started to shop.
And then 90 days after we launched is when we got the call from JC Penney asking us to become their new in-store retail partner in their beauty space.
And so it was a lot of, "Holy cow, this really works."
Kate Barrett (15:34):
That must have been incredible.
Nyakio Grieco (15:36):
Yeah. Well, it was so incredible, A, because it was still 2020; it was a business born out of Zoom with a very remote small team.
And it was hard work, but the reception was so easily attained that I knew that we were on to really speaking to people not only from a heartstring perspective, but from a need and people wanting to answer the call to be true catalysts for change.
Kate Barrett (16:04):
So it's amazing to find unexpected and sudden success, yet at the same time, that almost inevitably comes with pressure to grow and to change and to scale.
Noura and Vanessa discussed navigating those challenges with Mejuri, especially around building out the team.
Vanessa Larco (16:23):
I think the thing that keeps resonating with me is learning culture. You have a learning culture. You said from day one, you said, "Business is growing rapidly." You yourself have to grow rapidly with the business.
And there's this expectation of learning from every individual, but it also sounds like expectations of learning from every team and setting up those feedback loops that they can learn what resonates with customers and what doesn't.
Noura Sakkijha (16:50):
Everything is changing all the time.
Most recently, even with iOS changes, you were very happy with your marketing mix, and all of a sudden, it's completely changed and you have to learn.
And nobody has done that before. It's not like you can talk to somebody and figure it out. It's more of everybody's in the same position, trying to figure things out.
And so I think it becomes very important to create that learning environment where we can build on the successes of whatever experiments we're running.
And it's one of the challenges now with a hybrid work environment. Not to say that you only have to be at the office to learn, but it makes it easier. And now we have to intentionally create infrastructures and opportunities for that to occur while we're remote.
Vanessa Larco (17:34):
One of the things I find to be exceptional about Mejuri ... And I truly mean this in the way that exceptional is meant to be said. I rarely see anything like this; you hire extremely well. It's common for people to be at Mejuri for years. Especially the early hires. A lot of them are still with the company.
So what are some of the hiring philosophies or tips and tricks? Or how do you think about hiring in such a way that you've produced results that are very different than the industry?
Noura Sakkijha (18:03):
To answer this, I think one of the core things I would say if I take a step back is we know exactly what our culture and values are even from the beginning, and then we are very clear about vetting for these values as we do the hiring process.
And we also are very clear about the fact that if you are to continue with the business, you have to continue to acquire knowledge on your own.
And also we're going to help you through the business. We have internal coaching now. We have an L&D department obviously.
But we also do speak very openly about the fact that you have to invest in yourself and continue to acquire knowledge. Because if a business grows a hundred percent, 70%, it's a completely different business from year one to year two, and everybody, including myself, has to continue to step up.
So I think it's a mix of things. And most recently we've done interview training, we've put some processes in place, but I would say overall I think it's clarity on what really matters to you from a value standpoint and really being very, very diligent about vetting these values and these behaviors.
Vanessa Larco (19:09):
Are there any tips on how to vet for these values and behaviors? Did you start off by writing out the values and behaviors on day one, or did this kind of evolve?
Noura Sakkijha (19:20):
In the past couple of years, we wanted to scale the process, and obviously the interviewing process has to be ... You know, you have to approach it with a high degree of equity.
And so data is absolutely important, documenting everything, but also having the right questions on each value and providing this information to all of your teams.
So we ask the same types of questions for each value and continue to probe.
That adds a level of consistency across, because when you want to scale ... Obviously in the beginning, Majed and I and a few people would do the interviews, and it's easy, but right now you have to provide a bank of questions, you have to be very clear about the values that you're vetting for, and you have to ask for a documentation so that everybody is steering the ship in the right direction.
Vanessa Larco (20:04):
That makes sense.
It feels a lot harder to execute in real life. You make it sound so simple.
Kate Barrett (20:14):
Nyakio, I'd love to know how you think about hiring at Thirteen Lune, and sort of the role that the mission or the culture plays in the way you build the team and in the way you're growing the business.
Nyakio Grieco (20:25):
Absolutely. I mean, we've had such a trajectory of growth in 22 months, starting with, "We'll be a platform and one day we'll be omnichannel", to now rolling out 600 stores within JC Penney by March of 2023.
So we started as a very small and mighty, very consultant heavy team, to then quickly moving into key hires.
And I can use the example of how we define an ally brand; brands that we invite to be a part of the platform in our stores.
We define an ally brand as a brand that, long before 2020, was focused on serving all in their formulations, in their innovation, in front of the camera, behind the camera, if they have a C-suite, in their C-suite, or in their hiring process. We really vet that these companies are far from performative.
And so when we think about building our team at Thirteen Lune, we put our money where our mouth is. You know, it's a black co-founded business, my partner is a white gay male. And when we look at hiring and building our team, obviously we look for talent, but within that talent pool, we do a really deep dive into making sure that, from a mission standpoint, that we are not only hiring diversely, not even just according to race, gender identification, disabilities, et cetera.
It's very important to us that we are helping to lessen the wage gap, especially when it comes to some of our female identifying employees. And then really leaning into proper representation in the same way that we look at our assortment. And it's always going to be 90/10, but where are we with Hispanic and Latinx and Black African-owned, Black American-owned, et cetera, East Asian, South Asian brands/ We really try to practice that in our hiring as well.
I will say that most everybody that we have interviewed knows exactly what our mission is, so that makes it a little easier. Because we've had the ability to story tell a lot over the 22 months, and so it's about the mission first.
And we're a startup. So understanding that, as a startup, you're going to have to wear many hats, and that you're on board to do the hard work, but know that you're doing it because you're bettering the lives not only of yourself, but of others as well.
Kate Barrett (22:55):
That's a beautiful way to look at your work as a founder. And having those mission driven goals is so important.
It's also really important to know how you're doing against those goals. Let's take a listen to what Vanessa and Noura had to say about measurement, which is a huge focus for Mejuri.
Vanessa Larco (23:18):
So shifting gears a little bit, I think, Noura, the other thing that I've been really blown away by is how you and your team measure the right things.
It almost makes me a little sad, because I feel like my value add when I come to a company is to help people discover the right things to measure, and we go through this journey and then at the end of it, we're measuring the right things and everyone's like, "Oh, you helped me so much", and I'm like, "Yes, you're welcome", and I feel needed and loved, but I came to Mejuri and you were already measuring all the right things.
How did you land there? And continue. All your teams continue to ... The things they measure are the right things and give you ... They're leading indicators, not lagging indicators, and it's really impressive.
Noura Sakkijha (24:00):
Oh, thank you. That's great to hear.
I don't know, I called us data junkies from the beginning. We love data and diamonds.
Vanessa Larco (24:07):
'Data and Diamonds' should be the slogan.
Noura Sakkijha (24:10):
I think ... Honestly, I go back always to that experience where we had very limited capital in the beginning. We had this burning desire to make this company work, and that forced us to be sharper, I think, in a way where you can influence only a limited number of things with what you have and they better be the right things.
But I think being cognizant ... So this is one thing that I'm particularly proud of, is I define the next generation brands as those who not only introduce nice, well-designed, high quality products at an affordable price; it's all of the other infrastructure that goes behind it in terms of fast supply chain, making the right decisions for the customers, creating the right experience, whether it be from technology to fulfillment, et cetera. You know, we were cognizant from the beginning about that sort of infrastructural piece.
And we didn't start the business just on the product side, we actually started off also with technology and with supply chain from day one. And I think that forces you, A, to bring in very analytical people, and B, recognize the importance of, when you have limited resources, I need to really figure out the right decision making process, and where do I put my dollars, et cetera.
And so I think it started off from the idea that we really wanted to build a very scalable infrastructure so that this business can operate at high speed to market, can bring products at a high frequency; we pioneered the drop model because of the supply chain.
So I think it goes to the roots, and now we have an entire data team that sort of sets the infrastructure and data, enables decision making driven by data.
So it's something we valued from the very beginning. And once you recognize that that's something that you value, I think you start to hire people who think like that.
Now we are at a point where everybody faces it. We measure way too many things. So we are trying to scale back and say, "Let's measure the core-core things that matter to us." Because it gets very tempting to measure everything when you're data oriented,
Kate Barrett (26:18):
Nyakio, I'm sure this is something you've experienced building a D2C business. The tools are always changing, the way you do analytics is changing, customer behaviors and expectations are changing.
How do you keep up with that, not just from the standpoint of the business, but as a founder?
Nyakio Grieco (26:33):
Yes. It's not for the faint of heart.
When I started Nyakio, my first business, almost 21 years ago, there was no social media. You didn't pay talent to say they liked your product. You didn't have to set up shoots of them holding product. I mean, it was such a different world. My original marketing of Nyakio was going to former clients that I worked with and dropping off Tupperwares of coffee scrub and doing my own data analysis and how they liked it and it worked. And then they authentically would talk about it, not only in support of me, but because they loved the product so much. And it was a lot of door to door to retailers, et cetera, et cetera.
So it was very different.
And then of course I had to go through all the iterations of growth and technology through that business and luckily was able to have some teams around me towards the end.
But with Thirteen Lune, I'd say the benefit is that we launched post iOS updates. So when I would speak to my other friends with D2C businesses that were panicked because of the iOS update, we were able to just take a step back and not even turn on paid for the first year of our business and not spend those dollars trying to figure out algorithms, and really went to organic growth first and foremost.
Kate Barrett (27:56):
That was really good timing.
Nyakio Grieco (27:57):
Yeah. I would say that was a benefit and also a curse, because then brand awareness is a little hard when you're not doing ads, but really just word of mouth, old school press, all of that.
And I think we were also lucky that a lot of people were just home and still, so there wasn't a lot to do, but read the trades and follow maybe magazine dot coms that you hadn't been able to catch up on in a while and things like that.
And everybody was always on a screen, so any chance that we got to be a part of an integrated marketing story or something like that, we would take advantage of those opportunities.
And then even with streaming, we also started to see the effect of every time I would go on television, whether it be a morning show or Nightline, and just tell the story, that we would see sales climb, even if I wasn't speaking specifically about any product; because it was a testament to what we thought when we launched the business and what was proven to be true is that people were genuinely shopping with their heartstrings and shopping for good.
So once we turned on paid, it is a little bit of throwing spaghetti to the wall to see what sticks, but it really is having a holistic ... Whether it be paid media, integrated marketing, gifting, influencer, you know, you really have to balance it all. I don't think anyone works totally, especially with D2C.
And I'm not afraid of traditional media. My kids sing commercial jingles all the time, even though they don't watch traditional television all the time.
I mean, I think that it really has to be a holistic 360 marketing plan to find your consumer.
Kate Barrett (29:39):
Nyakio, you've built several businesses over the course of your career. So for all of those bright shining moments that are amazing, we know that there are some really tough times too that come with company building, and they're just as much a part of the founder journey as the victories.
I want to play an excerpt from Vanessa and Noura's discussion talking about the way that Noura has really responded to some of those obstacles she's faced building Mejuri.
Vanessa Larco (30:04):
So Noura, I think folks can look at the Mejuri story and say, "Well, it looks like it was always up and to the right. Things look smooth. The fundraisers came and the business grew healthily across all the years." But there have been some tough times. And maybe we can talk through, and it would be helpful for some entrepreneurs to hear, what are some tough times and what helps you get through some of the difficult times in the business?
Noura Sakkijha (30:31):
When challenging times happen ... And maybe we dramatically call them wartime; wartime CEOs and peacetime CEOs. I don't know if you've heard about that. But essentially, getting really, really descriptive and really accurate about the challenges that we're facing and creating a shared reality with the executive team and subsequently with the business.
I think that is step number one, is, "Here are the things that we're facing. We're not going to sugarcoat this. This is happening." That creates a sense of urgency and a sense of reality. It also should create a sense of prioritization for us to focus on the problems.
So I think that is the first thing.
And then where I also gravitate is having a momentum towards these particular issues. So talking about them frequently until they get to steady state.
And you get to become, as a CEO in these times, more directive than other times. We paid a lot of attention to our culture and our team in the past couple of years. We've created internal coaching, we created L&D, we created a lot of wellness services also for the team.
Because that brings me to point number two, is taking care of your people even in the tough times, never compromising their wellbeing. Because they are the ones, at the end of the day, who will solve problems, make things happen. And so that never should be removed from the conversation.
And like you said, because we're data driven, we keep our eyes on as many KPIs as that makes sense, and then we're able to steer the ship in the right direction.
I don't want to oversimplify it, I mean, it's a lot more complex to implement, but I think these are my three steps, is to sort of overcome short term challenges, and obviously you start to build the business for longer term.
So you start to take into consideration all of these challenges, and how would you then design for them more longer term, and how would you design to overcome these sorts of challenges in the longer term?
But I find transparency and honesty is the first step that you have to establish.
A lot of CEOs, I think we fall into this maybe narrative of wanting to make everybody feel like everything is good and dandy, and I think that doesn't get you to the right places because you need a shared reality and shared responsibility from those around you to solve problems.
And I think that's sort of a mental switch from being the optimistic person. You have to continue to be optimistic, but it's not like you have to cover the truth. It's bringing the right level of information to people so that we can solve it.
Kate Barrett (33:06):
Nyakio, is there any particular advice or are there any lessons learned that we haven't talked about that you would really want to share with other founders or that you wish somebody had told you?
Nyakio Grieco (33:22):
Gosh, so much.
But I mean, I kind of danced around it a bit, but just don't take dumb money. And I define dumb money as giving up too much of yourself, your business, your integrity, just to get a check.
I'd say one of the best pieces of advice that I got, probably a little too late in my life, was vet your investors. As I said earlier, it's an invitation. And so yes, it can be so exciting, especially if you're in the 0.0002% category, or 0.006 as women, who can get venture capital. It's really easy to get swept up in the potential 'yes' without doing a really deep dive into, "What does this mean for my potential equity, for my business, for my voice?"
I also define dumb money, when I take responsibility for my own actions, as not listening to my gut.
The gut is the most powerful muscle that we have in our body, and often it really does come up as physicality. It comes up as butterflies or anxiousness. And when you don't listen to it, you pay for that.
And so there are so many people in the world with money, there are so many good investors, strategic investors, investors that not only write the check, but truly, truly are there for you in the times of epic growth, but especially there for you when you're going through transition and hard times.
And so seek out those investors, vet those investors, trust your gut and don't take dumb money.
Kate Barrett (34:55):
That's great advice for any founder.
You know, Vanessa and Noura talked about how critical it is to find those strong connections, to have those shared experiences and be able to build trusting relationships over time.
Vanessa Larco (35:13):
The interesting thing ... Noura, I don't know if you realize this, but you were I think the first CEO since I'd been at NEA, so before the pandemic, to pitch the partnership fully remote.
And I remember folks asking like, "Well, can't we fly her in? We have to meet her." And I'm like, "Well, she's 33 weeks pregnant or 34 weeks pregnant with twins. It's getting really close. Probably not a good idea. We're going to have to do this remote."
Noura Sakkijha (35:40):
I remember that, and I remember the room.
It's actually one of the things that I was really impressed with and it made me feel even more excited to partner with you.
First of all, you as a woman VC who has kids and is building a family and recognizes that you can do both; that's table stakes. Because I have been asked before when I was fundraising before kids, if I was going to have kids, and obviously that was a red flag in other funds to not pursue the conversation.
And so knowing that, first of all, the person I'm talking to has the same lifestyle and really truly believes that you can do everything.
And then being able to, before the pandemic, before pitching over Zoom, to actually give me the opportunity and to go ahead with the deal was a big, big positive for me. And it really made me feel like I'm partnering with the right partner.
Because you want to partner with VCs for the long term. It's a really important relationship. It's not just about the money, it's about the knowledge and the connections. But it's also about the supports. They see you as a human being, a fully functioning human being and not just a CEO. And that was really, really important for me.
Vanessa Larco (36:50):
It's been amazing. It's been amazing getting to work alongside of you and learn and grow with you.
Noura Sakkijha (36:55):
Thank you so much, Vanessa.
Kate Barrett (36:58):
Nyakio, thank you so much for joining me today. I've enjoyed our conversation, and just some really incredible takeaways and great advice for founders. And it's clear that you have had a long and somewhat blessed journey here as far as being able to identify needs and build a great business, build several great businesses.
Best of luck to you and thanks-
Nyakio Grieco (37:20):
Kate Barrett (37:20):
... For sharing some of those experiences.
Nyakio Grieco (37:22):
Thank you. Thank you for having me. I so enjoyed our time today.
Kate Barrett (37:32):
It's always inspiring to hear a founder share their journey. It's inspiring and instructive to hear how a founder has lifted up underrepresented communities and given their customer base a new perspective on an industry or product. And I think getting to that level of detail about the company building journey really offers a lot to any founder that they can take away and apply in their own journey.
I'd like to thank Nyakio, Noura and Vanessa for sharing their incredible stories with us. It's been a pleasure to hear about their journeys and learn from their experiences. I hope you learned a lot too.
Founder Forward is a production from NEA, made in partnership with Frequency Media. From NEA, I'm your host and executive producer, Kate Barrett, with support from Ashley Mitchell, Erica Sunkin, and Shanna Hendriks. From Frequency Media, Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our supervising producer, Jordan Rizzieri is our producer, and Catherine Devine and Emily Krumberger are our associate producers. Our mixer and sound designer is Claire Bidigare-Curtis, with dialogue editing by Sydnee Evans. For more on NEA, visit nea.com. You can subscribe to Founder Forward on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your favorite podcasts.
The information provided in this podcast is for educational and illustrative purposes only and is not intended to be an offer of securities, investments, investment advice or recommendations. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, nothing in this communication should be interpreted to suggest that the SEC has endorsed or approved the contents of the podcast. Any offering of securities by NEA is restricted to qualified investors and is made pursuant to offering documents that contain important disclosures concerning risk, fees, conflicts, and other important information. The company founders or other executives featured in the podcast are not compensated, directly or indirectly, by NEA but may be founders or executives of portfolio companies NEA has invested in through funds managed by NEA and its affiliates. The host of the podcast is an employee of NEA and is compensated in her role as a NEA employee. NEA has paid to optimize the placement of this podcast on certain online search platforms.
NEA makes no assurance that investment results obtained historically can be obtained in the future, or that any investments managed by NEA will be profitable. The statements made by the founders, investors and the presenters in the podcast are their own, and are not intended to be an endorsement of the investment advisory services offered by NEA. NEA has no obligation to update, modify, or amend the contents of the podcast nor to notify the listeners in the event that any information, opinion, projection, forecast or estimate included changes or subsequently becomes inaccurate or outdated. To the extent the founders and investors featured in the podcast discuss hypotheticals, projections, or forecasts to illustrate their views, such views are their own and are not verified or adopted by NEA, nor has NEA tested the validity of the assumptions that underlie these opinions. The companies featured in the podcast are not a representative sample of all current or former NEA portfolio companies. Listeners of the information contained in the podcast should consult their own legal, tax, and financial advisers because the contents are not intended by NEA to be used as part of the investment decision making process related to any investment managed by NEA.
About Founder Forward
Founder Forward is a new podcast from NEA that explores the company building journey with candid commentary and useful insights from entrepreneurs and investors at every stage of growth.View All Episodes