Updated: Jan 31
"You don't have to be an Einstein to have a successful business. You just have to be disciplined" ~Akilah Releford, Founder of Mary Louise Cosmetics
If you teach long enough, you reach a point in your career when you see your former students reach significant life milestones such as graduating high school and college, beginning their careers, getting married, having families of their own, etc. There is an incredible sense of pride seeing them become responsible, productive adults. And thanks to social media like Instagram and LinkedIn, former students are never far away. For example, not long ago, a former colleague of mine posted a video on LinkedIn featuring a mutual student named Akilah Releford. The video was of Akilah on the Tamron Hall Show discussing how at 22 years of age, while a student at Howard University, Akilah turned her dorm-room DIY all-natural, paraben-free, cruelty-free, skin-care creations into a multi-million dollar beauty empire called Mary Louise Cosmetics. Named after her maternal and paternal grandmothers, Mary Louise Cosmetics is a clean beauty brand that BuzzFeed has voted #1 in "21 Life-Changing Beauty Products You Should Try in 2019.
Akilah was my student ten years ago as a junior in my U.S. History class at the Northwest Career and Technical Academy (NWCTA) in Las Vegas, Nevada. I remember Akilah being a highly motivated student who gave 100% in everything she did. One memory that illustrates her commitment to excellence was the work she put into her National History Day project that year. Akilah did extensive research on Dr. Charles Drew. Drew was an African American surgeon and medical researcher who pioneered the field of blood transfusions, saving thousands of lives during World War Two. Akilah successfully tapped into her personal and professional interests to create an incredible project. But Akilah was more than just a good student. She saw opportunities when they presented themselves and took the initiative to capitalize on them, essential attributes that helped Akilah become a successful entrepreneur. I didn't have the vocabulary back then to articulate that special something that Akilah possessed, but now looking back, I realize that Akilah had an entrepreneurial mindset.
According to the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship or NFTE, "an entrepreneurial mindset is a set of skills that enable people to identify and make the most of opportunities, overcome and learn from setbacks, and succeed in a variety of settings." As an educator, I have wondered if an entrepreneurial mindset is something that one is born with or if it is something that can be taught. Akilah points out that her parents are entrepreneurs, and that helped a lot in developing her mindset. This can be seen in Akilah's early entrepreneurial endeavors. While a student at NWCTA, some of Akilah's friends commented that they liked her DIY hair bows and asked her where they could buy them. Capitalizing on her friend's interest in her fashion accessories, Akilah began to make bows for sale and soon had a profitable side hustle, complete with a website and order form. She said she loved to create products for sale to earn extra money and was an essential part of her entrepreneurial journey.
Thinking back to her high school experience, Akilah relates that giving students a choice is vital for building an entrepreneurial mindset. She believes that giving students the freedom to pick their areas of study and pursue what they are interested in can go a long way to developing students' interests, creativity, and positive attitudes. She says that schools that do not have program areas, or areas of specialization, should create space and time for students to engage in a passion project to explore their interests outside the formal curriculum without the pressure of grades. She believes that students will become more motivated and creative by providing students an outlet to be creative and explore their interests. This is what happened in Akilah's case. Akilah "majored" in biomedical science at NWCTA, intending to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon. While Akilah's products are positively transforming her customers' complexions, it is in a much different way than she initially envisioned.
Positivity is an essential component of achieving entrepreneurial success, says Releford. Despite intense competition in any given space, she points out that there is room for everyone who is passionate and stays true to themselves. "go into a store, and there are 30 different types of sliced bread. Just because you don't win this time doesn't mean you won't ever win. Failing is an opportunity in disguise." Many educators may think that Akilah is an outlier, that her spectacular success at such a young age can be attributed to innate qualities that helped her succeed. I asked her about this, is it possible to teach the entrepreneurial mindset? "I think it's something you can teach because you definitely don't have to be the smartest person in the room to have a unique brand. For example, some of my colleagues have graduate degrees and MBAs, and I technically haven't finished my bachelor's degree, but they send me emails all of the time asking me how to do ABC." She said that educators should teach students techniques to be "self-motivated, how to set goals, and to know what they want."
One of the most important things students must understand about entrepreneurialism is that it requires hard work and persistence. Akilah points out that "being a successful entrepreneur is 70% grit and determination and 30% hard work," and she says that it is not always "fun, glamorous and sexy like it appears to be on social media a lot of the time." Nevertheless, Akilah is incredibly optimistic for the future of entrepreneurialism, especially for younger generations like hers. "I feel like I'm really lucky to be living in a time where anyone can start a business and create something from nothing. I think is beautiful. And I think that it's one of the benefits of social media right now. Social media can be a very overwhelming place, but I think if it is used as a tool, in the right way. It can positively change your life."
What if all students had the opportunity to engage in lessons that offered them voice and choice while at the same time tapping into their unique skills and interests? What if schools taught students how to develop grit, creativity, initiative, and other so-called "soft skills" to help them succeed in the 21st-century knowledge economy? Teaching students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset will look very different from traditional education approaches. Still, the return on investment could be huge. Akilah Releford is an exceptional young lady, but her success does not have to be. Teaching students the entrepreneurial mindset could unlock the potential that resides in all students to make a difference.