Master Class: Salwa Petersen

After Salwa Petersen became the youngest counsel hired by the World Bank at 23, colleagues gave her the code name “Energizer Bunny.”

It’s an apt moniker even now, 10 years later, long after the Harvard Law School graduate with a business degree left that career to pursue her passion: beauty. First came corporate jobs at L’Oréal, including working on the floor of Sephora and in travel retail, before Petersen launched her namesake brand one year ago that taps into the heritage of African beauty, something she knows well.

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As a teenager, she lived in Chad with a great-grandmother, grandmother, aunts and cousins. “This was the best university I ever went to, because those women were beauty junkies — beauty junkies of the traditional sense,” said Petersen, a world citizen who speaks six languages, including Dazaga, French, English and Arabic. She was born to Chadian parents in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, left there at two and has since lived in 13 countries, such as Switzerland, Benin and the U.S. Today, Münster, Germany, is home.

Her collective experiences have shaped her approach to entrepreneurialism and her vision for helping the women of Africa. Here, she talks brand strategy — and the bigger picture mission that drives her passion.

What do you consider your role to be in the beauty industry?

Salwa Petersen: It’s beyond beauty. I see myself as a bridge to many cultures, being able to take these very old rituals from Chad and elsewhere in Africa, and make them accessible to modern customers everywhere.

How long had you been thinking about launching a beauty brand?

S.P.: At least 10 years. I wrote the first formal business plan for this in 2012, when I was studying at Harvard. I knew it would be related to Chad.

Why did you decide to base your brand on chébé, a traditional Chadian beauty ingredient that consists of Indigenous herbs to treat and grow hair?

S.P.: Chébé is something that you only find in Chad. What I didn’t realize is that it had never been used in modern cosmetics. It’s these little seeds you roast like coffee. We did the extract with that. It took us three-and-a-half years. In parallel, I was building the whole supply chain.

There is still a big gap in understanding African textured hair, because the truth is, in the beauty industry, up until very recently, everything was done from the point of view of Caucasian hair. That’s not the type of hair you have most in the world. I knew there was something to be done. In Chad, there was centuries-old knowledge.

I created [Chébé du Tchad] initially for my hair texture. The formula is so light, it’s inspired by skin care. It is an Ecocert formula and 97.97 percent natural.

Salwa Petersen’s Chébé du Tchad Hair Cream - Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

Salwa Petersen’s Chébé du Tchad Hair Cream – Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

How has sustainability become so important to you for everything from sourcing, formulation to packaging?

S.P.: Although I was a city girl all my life, I always spent my summer vacations in Chad. It’s so pristine. I was lucky to travel in the Swiss mountains and rural Africa with my parents and siblings. It would just [refresh] me so much. I could see what was being lost. When I was working on my company five years ago in New Zealand, after I left L’Oréal, every day — even though I was working close to 12 hours a day — I was either at the mountain, the beach, the forest. It is so important that we preserve them. We have to preserve the planet.

How are you supporting the women in Chad, who clean and sift through the chébé seeds?

S.P.: I’m paying the women who work with me three-times more than others. They are in a very difficult situation. From the very first product we sold, we have been giving 2 percent [of proceeds] to the African Parks network. We have a specific project with them, which is [improving the literacy] of women in northern Chad. The idea is to be able to do that more — also in other national parks all over Africa.

Are you planning on expanding into other product categories?

S.P.: Yes, definitely. The concept is really [about] ancient beauty rituals of Africa. The cradle of humanity is Africa, and the cradle of beauty, also. We’ll be going into all categories. We are working on other actives that have never been used in modern cosmetics before. Each time, I make sure that this will be my legacy, that women are respected and paid well. I want this to outlive me.

Your brand is sold on its own site to more than 30 countries. Will you expand to brick-and-mortar?

S.P.: Yes, very soon. We’re getting approached very often by retailers. It’s [also about] finding retailers who share our values.

What’s the most difficult business decision you’ve had to make?

S.P.: There are so many. The most difficult one was to delay significantly the launch. You can have a product in the markets within a year, but it was so important for me that the whole sourcing was as transparent, fair and respectful as possible — for the environment, for the people. It took me three-and-a-half years. I didn’t want to cut any corners, [but] it didn’t make sense at all, from a business point of view.

Another one — maybe equally difficult — was to turn down financing at first, because it was so important for me to stay independent and to decide how much I wanted to pay the women, to pay the community forward. What I want to do is to give back more than what I’m taking.

Would you make the same decisions again today?

S.P.: Yes. I would go even further if I could.

What do you know today about your work that you wish you’d known starting out?

S.P.: That it was so complicated, that it was 1,000 shades of gray.

Who have been some mentors?

S.P.: The women of my family. Anne-Marie Leroy, she was the senior vice president of the World Bank. She took a huge risk by hiring me fresh out of school and literally put herself behind me. Romain Gaillard, from The Detox Market, has given me so much of his time and advice. He has been unbelievably generous.


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