A renewed appreciation for a natural cosmetics product used by women across Africa led two MBA students at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business to win the 2018 Clapp IDEA Competition, defeating more than 100 other student teams.
Second-year students Awa Diaw, of New York City and originally from Senegal, and Chelsea Trotter, of Plano, Texas, emerged victorious on April 6 over 39 other teams participating in the competition’s semifinal and final rounds, where they made pitches to investors and won the $15,000 cash prize.
As winners of the IU Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Clapp IDEA Competition, Diaw and Trotter also will receive access to resources provided by the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s startup incubator, the Hoosier Hatchery.
“It was stressful but also very empowering,” Diaw said of the experience.
In the fall, Diaw and Trotter were trying to come up with a project in lecturer Chris Littel’s new business venture learning class when Diaw mentioned she had a small business going on the side, selling shea butter creams based on a family recipe.
Since arriving in Bloomington, Diaw has received refined shea butter from Senegal through relatives. Initially, she combined it with essential oils to create something for personal use, but she later began selling it to others.
Nekawa Beauty was born in the class. After the project was completed, Littel encouraged Diaw and Trotter to continue pursuing their venture.
“I always look for a concept and a team that combine capability with feasibility,” said Little, who directs Kelley’s MBA Consulting Academy. “Can they take the concept to a level that looks to be ‘investible’ in the next six to 12 months, that serves a major unmet need, where the customer segment/targets are well-defined, and where they can find a channel to stimulate demand?
“Equally important, I look for teams that are eager and able to take the idea to the next level. Awa’s and Chelsea’s idea and plan clearly met these criteria.”
Their company name, Nekawa, means “choice, immaculate or pure” in Swahili. Spelled backwards, it means “awaken.” It also incorporates Diaw’s name. Originally, they looked for an appropriate word in Wolof, the Senegalese language spoken by Diaw’s relatives, but found it was too difficult to find the right name that would carry a similar meaning.
“When we were thinking about a name, we wanted to find a way to include me in it, considering that it’s a family recipe, also thinking about how we could tie it back to the continent,” said Diaw, who worked in education consulting before coming to Kelley.
In Senegal, shea butter is called “korite,” and it is harvested from a nut-bearing tree that is common in Senegal and elsewhere in West Africa. The nuts are soaked in water and then scooped by hand. Diaw then adds essential oils to the butter.
Trotter and Diaw offer three varieties of their organic and vegan skin and hair moisturizer: an unscented version, and ones with honey-vanilla and lavender scents. They have been sold to clients from coast to coast through the company’s website and also at local markets.
With the winnings from the Clapp IDEA Competition, Trotter and Diaw are looking to expand production and distribution without losing the product’s handmade flair. They currently make the creams in Diaw’s “really big kitchen” in Bloomington. With consulting assistance from Littel, they are widening their marketing efforts and hope to soon raise more capital via a Kickstarter campaign.
Social entrepreneurship is another key element of the venture. Trotter and Diaw hope to create a value-chain for the women who mostly harvest the shea nuts, making sure they earn what they deserve for their hard work and perhaps create educational opportunities for them. Diaw’s sisters work for a U.S.-based African NGO, and her family is helping to find a suitable nonprofit to partner with.
“Culturally, it’s nice to be able to connect with her and her family, who actually know their family ties in Africa,” said Trotter, who previously worked at Chevron Phillips Chemical and whose father also is a Kelley alumnus. “It’s nice to have a close friend who is sharing something that’s been passed down to her.”
When asked what differentiates the women’s story from those of other students, Littel said, “mainly Awa’s passion and belief in this product and its value to women like her. Awa’s drive and energy are infectious, and she is tireless.”
After graduation, both women are moving to Seattle, which will become their company’s new base of operations. Diaw has accepted a position at Microsoft, and Trotter will be at Starbucks. Both received fellowships from the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management, the nation’s largest diversity network.
“I see both of them in leadership positions at Starbucks and Microsoft or elsewhere,” Littel said. ”Like many startup partners, they could be leading Nekawa full time, which of course depends on how they manage the full launch of this and potentially other products while working full time at great and challenging roles in the private sector. I have no doubt that, if they want this business to succeed, it will.”