Female Founders: Sonia Khemiri of Beautyque NYC On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Don’t be afraid of failure: Failure is inevitable at one point or another for every business founder. Learn to appreciate failure as an experience that will lead to something greater. Everyone tends to fear failure, but everyone reacts to it differently. Never let fear hold you back from doing something.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonia Khemiri.
Sonia is the owner and co-founder of Beautyque NYC, the first multi-brand 3D virtual store in the beauty industry. She is a French-born, Tunisian and Canadian female entrepreneur who has started many businesses since the age of 27. In addition to holding an MS in Finance, she is also the founder of her own skincare brand, Sunia K. Cosmetiques Authentiques, and is a mom to a teenage daughter.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My path to becoming an entrepreneur started when I was a child. My father is an entrepreneur, and since a young age I’ve admired his courage in facing challenges and his happiness when his hard work paid off. I knew that someday I wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was 6 years old, but it became clear as I was finishing my master’s degree in finance that entrepreneurship would truly be my path. I chose the beauty industry because I wanted to be in a positive space where I could uplift people and help women feel comfortable in their own skin. I started my own brand, Sunia K. Cosmetiques Authentiques, by supplying the best skincare oil on the market and sourcing it from my hometown in Tunisia. From there came the idea for Beautyque NYC, to help fellow indie brand founders overcome their challenges and market their products. We were originally meant to be a physical store in SoHo NYC, but when the pandemic hit, we pivoted to the innovative 3D virtual storefront that we have today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting thing that happened since starting Beautyque was being approached by investors right after our launch — and not being ready for it. Soon after launching, we were approached by major investors with an offer that I’m sure most start-ups would only dream of receiving. We ended up not taking on the investors; we wanted to bootstrap first, and be sure that we had complete control of the direction we would take Beautyque.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Funnily enough, I would say that not moving forward with the investors (even if we weren’t ready for it) was our biggest mistake. Even if we didn’t have a solid plan at that time, after having to pivot our concept completely to the digital space, we should have taken advantage of the opportunity and figured it out along the way. No regrets here — it just made us tougher!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m always grateful to my dad for instilling the entrepreneurial spirit in me, even if he didn’t mean to — it’s in my DNA, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful to my daughter, for grounding me and driving me to push forward when things don’t go the way I originally planned; to my partner in life, who listens to me and supports me in all my business ventures; and to one of my previous bosses, for the trust he had in the young and inexperienced me.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Fear of failure and lack of confidence, as a result of the lack of support women entrepreneurs have received for generations. In many countries, women (including myself) generally are not encouraged to be in business, and especially not business owners. Since my childhood, everybody has had an opinion on what I should be — a doctor, a banker, a housewife, a mother — nobody encouraged me in any way to be an entrepreneur, especially growing up where I come from. I’ve also met many women, young and old, who haven’t pursued their dreams because they believe they aren’t good enough, aren’t capable enough, aren’t educated enough, or are too busy fulfilling their role as a mother, daughter, wife, sister, etc.
I can only speak for myself and what I have observed. For a long time, women have been told what we should be, do, and think. Of course, there have been very powerful and independent women throughout history, but in the patriarchal world we live in, that’s unfortunately not the norm. The road is still being paved for women to take control of our destinies, and I strongly believe that all women should be supportive of one another regardless of our race, age, culture, religion, or anything else. To me, feminism is about standing up for ourselves as women and creating the lives that we envision for ourselves.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
As individuals, I believe that we should encourage any woman who has a dream to pursue it realistically. What I mean is that we should not be blindly supportive and positive just for the sake of doing so, but rather genuinely encourage and uplift women to take on realistic business ventures that will bring them true success and happiness. There’s a saying, ‘You can put hard work into your land, but no matter how hard you work, if the land isn’t fertile, you won’t get anything from it.’ If a woman in your life is seeking advice, or asking for help — offering your guidance and resources is one way to do it. Share in one another’s success and spread your knowledge where you can. Supporting our fellow women is number one! We can be proactive individuals by associating with companies and organizations that support women in business, or even by creating these companies and organizations ourselves.
As a society, I believe that acknowledging the problem is the first step in finding a solution. The next step is to spread support all throughout the country, which requires marketing, and marketing of course requires money — which more private companies should be supporting. We’re starting to see venture capital firms helping women-owned businesses more and more, as well as companies helping women investing and more.
In my opinion, financial support from the government is the number one thing that should be done more. Unfortunately, injecting more money in these important causes are political decisions. But as policymakers, the people in power should recognize the value in supporting women-owned businesses and the job creation and economic growth that come from it. Many men in power support the cause, but more women in power should as well.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women in business are inherently different from men in business — not unequal by any means, but different — in terms of the way we think, the way we approach challenges, and the way we lead teams. We can observe this through many successful women-led businesses, for example, SPANX (the underwear/undergarment company) was created because the founder had a deep personal understanding of women’s wants and needs more than any man before her. Women should become founders because we bring a unique and much-needed approach to business and the industries that we work in, especially when it comes to serving women and children.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
The way I see it, being a founder does not automatically equate to being a CEO, especially for a start-up. You can have an idea, create a business, and fail (many failures often come before success). Don’t get caught up in the fancy titles… build your business to a point of success, and you will certainly become a powerful CEO!
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder, and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
As a founder, you are the originator of the company — the name says it all. A successful founder is someone who will lead that company to grow, build an effective team, generate income, and make the company successful. Getting to a point of financial success takes a lot of ups and downs, sleepless nights, problem-solving, predicting trends… It’s much more than a 9-to-5 job, and the icing on cake is that there is no guarantee that you will be successful regardless of the time and money you’ve invested. If the idea of high risk with the potential of high success thrills you, then being a founder is for you — otherwise, it’s best to stick to another job that makes you happy, because this is not always the happiest journey for everyone!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Believe in yourself: Even if no one is encouraging you, go for it. Stop hesitating, and you’ll figure it out along the way. Even if everyone says you can’t, listen to your gut and follow your dream. When I speak about guts, I’m talking about pursuing your goal no matter what external factors are working against you. As I mentioned, I was brought up in a very strong patriarchal society, and even within my family, as a girl I didn’t have the same opportunities as boys my age did. I never shared with them that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, because I knew what their reaction would be. No one encouraged me, and at a certain point, I thought that may be they were right — but my gut told me not to give up, and I’m glad I didn’t.
- Keep going no matter the challenges you face: The odds are that if you remain perseverant in a space with high potential, you will end up on a different path than you originally thought, and it will be much better than your original plan! The path to where I am now has been far from perfect. My original plan was to finish my master’s degree, work in one specific field for 15 years, and start a business in that field. Needless to say, things didn’t go as planned. I got married, had a child, got divorced, went through unexpected hardships, worked in many industries, and ended up starting a business in an industry I knew little about at the time. I kept going, even though it was different from my original plan — the goal remained the same.
- Don’t be afraid of failure: Failure is inevitable at one point or another for every business founder. Learn to appreciate failure as an experience that will lead to something greater. Everyone tends to fear failure, but everyone reacts to it differently. Never let fear hold you back from doing something. Before starting Beautyque and my own beauty brand, I tried a few ventures that didn’t succeed. Of course, it didn’t feel good in the moment, but I refused to let it define me. For example, I started a family venture in the marble industry; I did everything right (or so I thought), secured the funding, locked in wholesale customers before even spending the money for the factory, and in the end, it didn’t work out. Even though I put in the time and effort, in the end there was nothing to show for it, and I ended up having to take responsibility because according to my family, I was not meant to be a businesswoman. And from that experience, I learned not to do business with the family and instead pursue my own ventures — that was a great lesson for me!
- Enjoy the ride: It’s easy to enjoy the ups, but don’t forget to appreciate the downs, too. When you get to a room without doors, create a window — there is always a way. Within the first year of starting my own beauty brand, I faced all challenges that start-ups face. Many doors seemed to be closed, but instead of saying “The market is too difficult for my brand,” I saw it as more of a creative problem to solve for my brand and for others in the same position. To my surprise, through starting Beautyque, I ended up helping even bigger brands than my own.
- Be ambitious: Dream it, believe it, do it! I was born in France and lived there for 7 amazing years of my childhood before moving to my beautiful home country of Tunisia. However, the town we moved to was my parents’ hometown in the countryside, where there wasn’t too much to do for a young French-born girl. I dreamt a lot during that period — I live in NYC now, doing what I dreamt of doing back then. I guess by doing what my gut told me, I was able to achieve what I always dreamt about.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I haven’t achieved this on the level that I dream of just yet, but compared to a few years ago, I’ve made people happy through my business, I’ve inspired people even when I didn’t realize it — in one way or another, throughout this entire journey I am making the world a better place. I’ve helped people with skin conditions achieve better skin through my beauty brand. At Beautyque, we give people the opportunity to test and review products that they otherwise may not have been able to afford. We support people of all gender identities and celebrate their beauty by curating products and brands that truly work. Beauty is such an amazing outlet to take care of ourselves and feel good — and the more people we reach with exceptional, safe, effective products, the more people will be able to enjoy their beauty and enjoy feeling great in their skin.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I were to become a person of great influence, I would make sure that all indie brands with a strong mission, great products, and a business mindset could get off the ground successfully. I would give them the voice to be part of a change in an industry that needs to have more players. I would invest in minority-owned companies. I am talking about any community that is facing barriers — women, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ+, etc. Clean beauty and mission-driven beauty would be a standard, and brands would have a positive impact on the environment and their communities.
Also on the other hand, I would help people of all genders celebrate their beauty by giving them the space to learn how to feel beautiful, and giving them the voice to be and act beautiful. The world needs beauty. The more beautiful we are inside, the better the world is — and I would throw huge parties to celebrate all this!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
For me, Gabrielle Chanel will forever be a prime example. Not only was she able to build an empire and change women’s lives, but through her brand she was able to leave behind a legacy for all women. Of course, I’m not Chanel (yet), but I identify with her in many ways. She came from nowhere, she did not follow the rules, she wanted to build an empire, and she changed women’s lives through comfort and luxury. She made her rules and let others follow, instead of the opposite. Since Gabrielle Chanel is no longer with us, lunch with her unfortunately isn’t an option — the closest person to her alive in my opinion is Oprah Winfrey. She’s a living legend!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.