Ancillar NombewuBy Ancillar Nombewu|December 7, 2021|9 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

"Through war and disaster hair was there"

In her young, brief, life, Gisèla Van Houcke has seen more sorrow than most. Pain has punctuated a life that saw her train as a lawyer and end up as an African hair entrepreneur.

She was born in Goma, in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a politically unstable region. She saw war, in all its brutal ugliness,  before she was a teenager.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide, just over the border from Goma, and war in her own country,  that erupted  in 1996 , forced her and her family into hiding for months in a remote village. Nature poured on the pain in a cloud of smoke and stream of hot lavaThe volcanic eruption in Goma, in  2002 , destroyed half of her city.

“My family was for many years in politics and I witnessed first- hand how greed, corruption and lack of education were the main bottlenecks for the development of my country. My dad sent me and my two sisters to study in London, when I was very young, and I was privileged to be able to study and work there,” says Van Houcke.

She returned home in 2015 with a first-class honours British law degree from Cardiff University, a French law degree from Nantes University in France and working experience from a leading American law firm.

“I moved to Kigali to work as Head of Legal for a British solar company. [I wanted to] contribute to the economic development of the continent and my home country,” she says.

While adjusting to life back home, Van Houcke who has been wearing hair extensions since she was 14 years old says she struggled to find good quality hair and cosmetics locally or in the region.

“People around me were always asking me to bring back extensions and cosmeticswhen I travelled. As hair extensions had become such an important part of my identity and that of women around me; I decided to conduct market research on what seemed to me like an incredible business opportunity,” she says.

The main findings were that in order to get the type of hair they wanted, her soon- to- be clients had to go as far as India or China. No local vendor had the quality or the variety that they desired.

“Most imports that were done by mostly Chinese or Indian vendors were not suitable as they lacked knowledge of what went with our skin color or what systems were good for our natural hair,” says Van Houcke.

"I also watched many inspirational videos about women entrepreneurs and took a range of online training courses to quickly fill in my learning gaps in different areas of the business. Now we have 22 employees and around 15 resellers,

Gisèla Van Houcke

It became clear to her that getting the perfect hair for an African women would be best if it was done by an African woman. It was also big business.

She founded  Zuri Luxury in 2015. At first, it was a hobby which quickly grew into a small business where her sisters would sell hair door to door to an ever-growing clientele. The business grew into a mobile business through  Facebook advertising, organizing deliveries all over Kinshasa, with no guarantee that customers would pay. Very quickly, the demand for their products became more important than the supply. In 2016, she opened her first hair bar in Kinshasa, another one in Kampala in 2017 and this year she started using e-commerce to focus on Europe, USA and Canada.

“I made it my mission to come up with a hair bar concept through which we created a range of innovative looks for customers across Africa and the world. Customers would simply choose from various looks and find one that made them feel and look their best in whatever circumstance that they were in,” she says.

Bringing this vision to life hasn’t been easy. Like many African entrepreneurs, Van Houcke faced funding obstacles as she tried to get the business off the ground.

“I also didn’t have some of the required business skills needed to properly manage this business such as accounting, IT or even hair styling skills. When I started Zuri, I had just had my first child and juggling between family life and the roller coaster of launching a new concept from scratch was a steep learning curve that pushed me to plan a lot better, delegate more and generally be more organized in every part of my life.”

She risked family funds to found and grow the business and its strong performance earned them funding from a local bank.

“I also watched many inspirational videos about women entrepreneurs and took a range of online training courses to quickly fill in my learning gaps in different areas of the business. Now we have 22 employees and around 15 resellers,” she says.

Zuri Luxury now uses IT Systems to manage all their operations to keep ahead of the market, to stay in touch with their customers and keep up to date with new trends.

“This can only be easy when you are in constant contact with the client. Not many companies have this kind of set up. In addition, our quality control team in China ensures that all our products are of great standard before they are dispatched to any of our entities,” says Van Houcke.

Then came Covid-19.

“This meant a great loss of revenue. The industry was and still is in turmoil. We launched our e-commerce platform right at the beginning of the confinement which allowed us to keep selling during the crisis and delivering our products globally,” she says.

It was time to adapt or die.

“We joined all kinds platforms such as TikTok and intensified our social media presence during the lockdown to make sure we reached and sold to as many people as possible. Our clients were and remain very supportive.”

Van Houcke has shown how good hair can be great business no matter how painful the path to it is.

Eight Startup lessons from Gisèla Van Houcke:

  1.  Always review your goals to ensure that they are in sync with your business initiative.
  2. Analyze your failures in detail.
  3. Write down your mistakes and determine the lessons to be learned so that the same mistakes are not repeated.
  4. Be passionate about what you do because running a business takes a lot of time.
  5. Your environment can be the cause of your success as well as  your failure.
  6. Surround yourself with qualified people who inspire you with their success and to improve your skills.
  7. Quantify what needs to be quantified. Highlight the differences between what you expect and what actually happens.
  8. Spend more time putting proper processes in place and spend a lot of time with the staff to make sure that they are properly implemented.

All Images: 

Gisèla Van Houcke (@giselavanhoucke) • Instagram photos and videos_files