June 6th, 2012 – By Rhonda Campbell
Maria Lee-Driver: Maria Lee-Driver is a Virginia native who combined her beauty industry experience and passion for serving others to not only found Oria’s O’Shay, Incorporated in 2008 but to do what was necessary to turn the company she started in her kitchen into a success. In 2010 Maria inked a deal with Whole Foods, placing her natural skin and hair products on chain store shelves. Endorsed by four doctors, Oria’s O’Shay products are sold worldwide and used by growing numbers of women, men and children. Maria is committed to providing consumers with products that promote long-term healthy, beautifully radiant skin and hair. She talked to Madame Noire about her path to business success.
MN: Is Oria’s O’Shay, Incorporated the first business that you started? If not, please tell us about other business ventures you were involved in.
MLD: I started my first business, Re-Ons Designing Impressions Hair Salon, in my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia when I was 19-years-old. I operated the salon for 18 years. Then I opened a cosmetology/barbering school. The salon was on one side of the building I owned, while the school was on the other side. I operated the school for four years. Because the business was located in a predominantly Caucasian side of town, I learned to be creative to attract clientele. For example, I also operated a tanning salon. During our peak years we generated close to $300,000 annually.
The name of my current business derives from my first name (Maria). My relatives used to call me and say, “Oria.” When I moved North to Philadelphia, I opened a children’s salon. While naming my Philadelphia based hair salon, I used the nickname my relatives called me. After conducting some research, I later discovered that Oria is an Irish name. Our first manufactured products are getting shipped to Ireland.
MN: When did you start Oria’s O’Shay and is it true that you started your company out of your kitchen? What were those early days of running your business like?
MLD: Yes. It’s true; I started Oria’s O’Shay in my kitchen and made a lot of mess. I’m a licensed cosmetologist. I buy strictly from distributors. When I operated my salon in Philadelphia I bought all my hair products from distributors, a favorite being Jane Carter. The last time I placed an order with the distributor, I kept being told that the product was on back order. But that’s not all. When I went home every day I passed a Muslim shop that sold Shea Butter.
Wanting to get hair products for my customers while the distributor’s products were on back order, I ordered jars of the Shea Butter and mixed chemicals with the Shea Butter, creating my own products. Clients in Philadelphia started using hair products I sold on their skin. They came into the shop and told me how well the products worked. Customers told me that the cracked heels of their feet were healing. Before I got the customer feedback I didn’t know the product I created was for the skin. I focused on creating a product for hair.
I made the products for 3.5 years myself then I landed a manufacturer. A wound care surgeon has endorsed Oria’s O’Shay. Customer testimonials at http://www.oriasoshay.com are phenomenal.
MN: Businesses cannot succeed without capital. What resources did you use to finance your business and how much did you initially invest in Oria’s O’Shay?
MLD: To start the business I utilized money I made from my hair salon – maybe $2,000 to $3,000. Since I launched Oria’s O’Shay I have invested more than $100,000 in the business with travel and marketing to spread the word about the products. More importantly, I invested my heart, sweat and tears into the business. I never thought about stopping. Family and friends also helped as they could.
MN: Madame C. J. Walker created a blend of hair products that, combined with her marketing savvy, made her America’s first self-made woman millionaire. But first she had to create a winning product. How did you arrive at the specific ingredients you use in each of your products?
MLD: As a cosmetologist I have used many different products which gave me the insight on what I would put into my own. My goal was to create as natural a product as possible. I also wanted to create a product that was safe for children.
MN: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a business owner? How did you overcome this challenge?
MLD: Capital – as a business owner you can have a dream. However, you have to face reality while working to bring your dream to fruition. I had to be very creative when it came to securing capital, generating cash flows and spending money on Oria’s O’shay. I started small; I easily handled small growth. Then the business started growing and I couldn’t meet my demand because large companies don’t pay you a check up-front. You deliver the product. The company sells the product and then you get paid 30-90 days later. To bridge cash flow gaps, I started doing events. At some events I made $500. At other events I made $5,000.
I am reaping these rewards now because I laid the foundation. I worked hard. I got up at midnight and started working, creating my products. I’d get a few hours of sleep and then get up and go back out and market. I was a one-woman show, developing, marketing and selling my products. Today we ship products to celebrities all over the world. Oprah has requested Oria’s O’Shay. I shipped products to Oprah two weeks ago, at the start of May 2012. To succeed in business, you have to lay your ground work.
MN: When did you realize that you had a viable business and what did you do to celebrate this milestone?
MLD: I realized I had a viable business when customers were buying my products for $22 at a flea market in North Carolina in 95 degree heat. It was then that I decided to take my products straight to Whole Foods! I literally walked in the grocery store and asked Whole Foods to sell my products; they agreed to give my products a try. It was that simple. When Whole Foods recognized me, that’s when I knew I had something. I celebrated when I came back to Philadelphia and realized I had winning products. It took me between 6 to 9 months to get my products on the shelf. Once I got on the shelf, I started getting in more stores. Now my products are in 23 Whole Foods stores.
MN: Tell us about the specific advantages of patenting your products and making them available through chain stores like Whole Foods versus only creating a website and selling your products direct to consumers online?
MLD: You gain validity when you get your products into chain stores. In many people’s eyes you’re validated as a business owner when your products are sold in major stores.
MN: Marketing, building brand and connecting with consumers is key to business success. Tell us about three to four effective online and offline marketing strategies you use to continue to grow Oria’s O’Shay?
MLD: I get out and meet my peers and customers. I’m continuously being heard and seen. I attend industry events. For example, I’m doing a Bronner Brothers Show. Before I started attending larger events, I attended local events. Now that the business has grown I can afford to go to bigger events and get more exposure. We are also doing a chain of mall kiosks in Virginia. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. To connect with consumers I also do television and radio interviews, have a website and I fulfill professional speaking engagement requests.
MN: What do you look for in employees you hire and why are these skills or behaviors important to the success of your business?
MLD: Hunger! Employees who work for Oria’s O’Shay have to want to move forward before I hire them. They have to have aspirations. It’s hard to motivate others. It’s enough to motivate yourself. I look for employees who already have strong self-motivation.
MN: Much has been made of mentoring. Do you work with mentors to hone and sharpen your business skills? If not, how do you stay on the cutting edge of industry and market changes, new ways to engage other business owners, etc.?
MLD: Yes. I stay in constant contact with likeminded people who love sharing, people who are genuine about helping you. My mentor is the owner of Morning Glory. He’s a multi-millionaire now. He is my mentor because when I first started out I went to an event in North Carolina. I had all my products (lotion, lip gloss, etc.). He approached my booth and said, “You have a lot of money on this table.” He was just starting out himself at the time. We kept in touch. He shared a lot with me. And now he owns his own beauty supply store. To show you how things go full circle, he’s featuring my products in his beauty supply store.
MN: Share three must-do tips with Madame Noire readers who are passionate about starting or expanding their businesses, tips that will help them to generate one million dollars in their businesses for the first time?
MLD: I’ll share the same advice I received. Find one thing and only one thing to focus on. Second, be true to your passion. Don’t allow other distractions to become attached to you. People not meaning harm will ask you to do things that take your focus off your goal. Stay grounded on your dream. Lastly, I want everyone to know achieving a dream is lots of work!
MN: What advice would you give to women entrepreneurs managing small businesses who want to land contracts with large companies but who feel reluctant to do so for fear that they will be rejected due to the size of their firm?
MLD: Challenge yourself when it comes to contracting with larger companies. I didn’t know all the details about Whole Foods or how big the company was. All I knew I wanted was that I wanted to have Oria’s O’shay on theirstore shelves! You have to start somewhere. The know how takes away fear. Map out a plan if you have to. But eventually, you have to walk beyond the fear and ask. My publicist is working with CVS to get Oria’s O’Shay in their stores. I don’t know how that’s going to turn out, but I also know that I’d never know if I didn’t ask. It’s also important to understand the price point for your products so you get your products in the right stores.
MN: What’s next for Maria Lee Driver and Oria’s O’Shay? Where would you like to see yourself and your company two to three years from now?
MLD: In the next two to three years I want Oria’s O’shay to be a household name.
Rhonda Campbell (http://www.chistell.com), an East Coast journalist, is the owner of Off The Shelf radio and publisher of the books, Long Walk Up and Love Pour Over Me.