The debate over whether leaders are born or made will undoubtedly rage on as long as the sun rises in the east. The conversation has gained added relevance following the wave of entrepreneurship currently sweeping across the globe, especially in developing economies. This has only been enhanced by a number of glossy and highly-celebrated success stories, raising the temptation to assume it is a walk in the park.
In the scheme of things, fewer industries generate as much division as the beauty and fashion industry. The global human hair extension industry, in particular, has helped change the narrative. Worth US$7 billion (2020 estimate) it is expected to cross the US$10 billion mark by 2024 – at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8 percent.
At the centre (pun very intended) of changing the narrative of the beauty industry from its once-derided position as the preserve of the vain and gaudy, to the model for entrepreneurship has been the force of nature known as Gwyneth Gyimah Addo, an entrepreneur, business strategist and Chief Executive Officer of the industry-leading hair extension empire – Hair Senta.
A couple of weeks ago, she launched her maiden book, aptly titled ‘Direction’ which features her experiences and first-hand business strategies that serve as an experiential guide to readers in both their businesses and everyday living. The distinctive element of the book is that the guidance offered is inspired by Biblical principles that are very practical today.
Apart from the critical guiding principles of God through the Bible, how else did she truly hone her business acumen? Was it innate, or perhaps born out of life-shaping experiences? Perhaps, it is evidence of top-class business school training? As it is with many pacesetters, it is all that and more. Below, as Hair Senta marks a decade of leading the pack, we look further into the making of Ghana’s Queen of Hair.
Early Years and powerful impact of Charles Allen Gyimah
Gwyneth (Welsh for happiness), was born in 1982 at Korle Bu; the fourth of six children of long-established traders. As such, her home was her first and most practical business school. Of the dynamism of her father – the famed Charles Allen Gyimah – she says, “My dad was the entrepreneur. He was the first to start this ‘broni wawo’ (second-hand clothing) business in Ghana.”
Mr. Gyimah’s skillset was not limited to hardline trading as he possessed an enduring creative streak. “He was also one of the first to begin commercialising videos. In those days, when you went to the cinemas to watch videos, films and all that, he was the one behind it. His business was called Video City, and many old folks today remember it,” she adds.
The creative genes, it appears, were transferred to her brothers – Gerald ‘Ogee’ Gyimah and George ‘GYO’ Gyimah, who, after growing up around cameras, continued their father’s ‘legacy through their multiple award-winning company – Phamous Media. Gwen, on the other hand, displayed a natural leaning toward entrepreneurship.
“Unlike my brothers, I could not draw. They were the true creatives in that sense but I could pick up some ideas and my brothers will draw or actualise them. But I loved trading in little things. I would go to school and sell powdered milk scooped from a large tin into rubber bags and sell them and earn my own money… my mother was a trader in fabrics at Makola, so I’ll go to the store and take turns with my siblings,” Gwen recounts.
‘You are very pretty, stop worrying about your hair’
A sprightly child doted on by her father and with the constant presence of loving family, friends and parties, at their home at Laterbiokorhsie, one would imagine she had no worries. The truth was that she had one nagging stone in her shoes. Little Gwen had extremely scanty hair; she lacked the volume and texture of her peers, consequently, she had to resort to hair extensions as a kid. This would diminish her self-esteem as a child but serve as the springboard for her business empire decades later.
Here, her mother was her rock: “My mother played a very key role in developing my self-esteem because right from the beginning I did not have as much hair as the other kids. Going to Sunday school, all the other kids had rubber ties in their hair and my hair was too little to do much. It was very uncomfortable for me, and I had to start wearing hair extensions at a very early age but my mum would always say ‘you are very pretty, stop worrying about your hair.’ I do not know how I would’ve navigated that period without her.”
Gwen began her education at the New Hope Primary School, Lartebiokorshie. In school, she was able to make the most of her time there, in no small part due to her penchant for the ‘fun’ extracurricular activities.
In Class Four, a paternal aunt visited with grand tales of St. Monica’s College, Mampong. The prospect of being tutored by mostly nuns, coupled with the promise of an even wider range of extracurricular activities, was enough to leave a young Gwen eager to make the move.
The very next year, her dream came true as she was on her way to Mampong. The reality, however, left much to be desired. “At St. Monica’s there was no running water, we had to go fetch water. I was so shocked because I thought I was going to a place akin to a top-tier school in Europe or America where I supposed life was rosy because of the facilities. Eventually, I got used to St. Monica’s,” she explains then realised the school was actually the best decision that had been taken for her to become independent and learn about the diversity of life and how to navigate one’s way through these diversities.
Again Gwen found solace in organising entertainment-focused activities: “I was organising students to do these dance groups for entertainment night among other things.”
Her time in Mampong was short-lived as after two years there, she was once again on the move. This time, however, it was to a school which she preferred the most – Akosombo International School. The move turned sour rather quickly as she was once again at the receiving end of taunts, this time, for her frequent use of Twi in her interactions. In addition to that, her lack of hair was weaponised once again, bringing back unpleasant memories.
“At Akosombo International, I could not complete a sentence without speaking Twi because at St. Monica’s I was encouraged by my colleagues to speak my home tongue outside of the classroom and not English as much. This later became a struggle for me as I was unable to speak English fluently and my new classmates often teased me. They laughed at my hair and that was my first complex and second complex. I was intimidated by my own mates.” Concerns about her hair led her to apply hair relaxers, against school rules, getting her into trouble frequently.
It was not all gloom as she excelled in Literature, History and related subjects, and with that, a desire to pursue Law was ignited, perhaps, to follow in the steps of her grandfather. In addition, Gwen was once again leading the Entertainment troupes.
In 2002, she gained admission to the University of Ghana, Legon for an undergraduate programme in Philosophy and History. There, she fully came into her own transitioning from donning Hip Hop staples –used Timberland boots and throwback jerseys– to participating in the Miss Malaika beauty pageant in 2003. The Ghosts of Trauma past lingered, impacting her performance during the finals of the competition, despite being odds-on to win.
The experience, however, was an opportunity for growth as she would go on to feature in beauty campaigns and rekindle her passion for entrepreneurship. Gwen graduated from the University of Ghana in 2006, she would go on to earn an Executive MBA from China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in 2015, a move she credits for accelerating the growth of her then-burgeoning business.
Banking on hair
Subsequently, she proceeded to the mandatory national service at the Standard Chartered Bank. There, Gwen rose through the ranks of its Corporate Banking arm to be an Associate within relationship management focusing on Credit Analysis for companies.
During that time, she realised that in spite of its broad appeal, banking did not give her maximum satisfaction; a sense of purpose. At that point, she began merging her passion for hair (extensions), her knack for marketing, the growing demand for human hair extensions and a gap in the market.
On the influence of her childhood experiences on her business decision, she says, “Absolutely, my lack, made way for my gain; which was to start the hair businesss. I was very obsessed with hair. Then, I was more interested in human hair but nobody has actually placed a name or was branding it. They were just calling it Brazilian hair. I could see a very big opportunity there.”
After six years as a banker, she made the decision to transition from selling from her office bag, car boot and dining table at home to full-time sale of human hair extensions.
Armed with this resolve, the Hair Senta was born in 2012. Despite its promise, the business failed to kick off as expected as a plethora of factors, including misinformation, misplaced marketing, waning purchasing power of the target market and the proliferation of substandard alternatives took their toll.
The Hair Senta CEO admits that it was a chastening period for her as she began to doubt the wisdom of her decision. “At the time, fear and doubt were beginning to creep up on me as I was unsure if I had made the right decision. I had sunk in a lot of money into the business and failure was staring me in the face,” she recalls.
A key support system led by her husband – Charles Addo, her mother, siblings and a core group of friends helped her sail through the period. A stroke of genius appeared following her decision to pursue an MBA to keep in step with global best practices. A number of changes, including varying the mix of her stock and an aggressive use of social media, turned the fortunes of the business and cemented Hair Senta’s position as the gold standard for the local industry. Discount sales are consistently oversubscribed, and a number of related initiatives have been rolled out.
Gwen’s rapidly expanding catalogue includes beauty, social and leadership initiatives. She has since founded Correct Hair, an affordable, premium hair outlet, as well as wholesale distribution options for persons looking to venture into the hair extension business which failed. Other engagements are ‘Y3 Dea – the used clothing business from donations and using a part of the proceeds to support communities. Gwen also teaches business strategy to individuals and businesses.
In 2019, she launched the industry leading HairSenta International Beauty Show (HIBS) Africa; which aims to project, educate and get brands in the beauty industry closer to their target market through annual shows.
Additionally, she established The Leading Senta, a foundation to groom young minds. “We provide free business strategy sessions and financial support for start-ups and struggling entrepreneurs as we focus on curbing the growing deficit in leadership in the country,” she says. She recently launched her maiden book – Direction.
Awards and recognition
Her success has not gone unnoticed as she was adjudged Sales and Marketing Woman of the Year at the 2019 40 Under 40 Awards, the Most Promising Female Entrepreneur and won the Organisational Impact Award at CEIBS in 2017 and 2016 respectively. For Gwen, the highest form of recognition is found in the impact she makes.
Gwyneth Gyimah Addo is married to the aforementioned Charles Addo. They have two children.
Gwen is a Christian and credits her faith for her values and business success.
Reading is Gwen’s escape from the monotony of work and a way to broaden her knowledge. “My favorite book is by Don Miguel Ruiz, called ‘The Four Agreements’ and reading the book changed my mind. It talks about the domestication of man and the four key ways of reasoning that every man can use as a guide in living their life.
She believes and promotes the idea that a person should always strive to be the best at everything they do, both inside and outside of their environment.
To Gwen, the story isn’t all about “who did it first but who did it best”.
With her knack for hair extensions, it’s only natural for her to have a favorite, and the ‘corporate hair’ just happens to be perfect to serve her the look and speak volumes about who she is.
For leisure, soulful music does the magic and she would give anything to have her mother’s fufu and roasted chicken light soup.
In her own words
On business and lessons for upcoming entrepreneurs
In her experience as an entrepreneur, “We have to always understand that every great company that we see started from somewhere, never look at the end but always look at how they started.
Also in business, I use the servant business model where the money that I receive is not an end but a means to continue to do what I do. I reinvest into the business and that is how we grow. A lot of us when we start making a little bit of money, then we start diversifying too quickly, not being known for that one special thing.
We have to understand that it is important to do our due diligence; one of the things that hurt us is that we are not able to access data. We need to beef up our socialisation and start talking to people and be able to get the stories out. That can give you an idea of what is going on although they may not give you the numbers.”
‘Direction’ for all
To young people, who would benefit immensely from her maiden book – Direction: “We are going to go into schools and ensure that every student has a copy. Direction is not a book that is going to be kept for certain people. We are going to go from junior high schools to senior high schools and everyone will have their hands on Direction so that they can draw lessons and we can have a wider conversation.”
The Leading Senta (TLS)
On the impact of her Foundation, “At TLS, we want to drive impact. So far, we have spent over a GH¢100,000 helping individuals and people who need access to funding, as we cannot always rely on the government to provide every need. We believe we must do what is within our capacity to help the people who want to do something for themselves because the real impact is in legacy and what we leave behind.”
The good in social media for businesses
On the advantages that social media could offer, “Social media has been branded negatively in some circles and that is understandable. But social media is a unique opportunity to bridge the geographical barrier. People are not coming to the stores now because everything is moving on to the digital world. Even if you cannot manage social media yourself, you can hire a sound, creative person to manage your social media so you are able to get your message out there. If done properly, it works wonders.”
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