When I first meet New Zealand born and raised Anna Ross, founder of cosmetic and skincare brand Kester Black, I was convinced that she would one day take over the world. That was in 2014 when she was still working her administrative assistant job and Kester Black was still a side gig.
But from her tiny home studio tucked in the back of a sharehouse, her drive to play bigger was evident. Anna had studied design, relocated to Australia, worked in various fashion houses, paradoxically found herself in an administrative role and started a side jewellery and nail polish business. In the process of experimenting with her product range, she soon realised that nail polish was the more lucrative choice, and she focussed her attention to building that business.
All the while, Anna stayed curious, asked questions and sought the counsel of people who could help her. When she took on her first commercial lease, she couldn’t afford it on her own and took on tenants to help take the leap. She strengthened her personal beliefs and keep them at the heart of building her business, and surrounded herself with people who cared about the same things she did.
Anna’s design training keeps empathy and inclusion at the forefront of her product innovations and employee conditions. Tapping into an ethical purchasing gap in the cosmetics market, Anna developed one of the first high quality, vegan, cruelty-free nail polishes on the Australian market. She’s since developed a breathable nail polish allowing Muslim women to also wear it. Her staff benefit from above award wages, flexible hours, paternity leave, training funds and birthday leave. Her company donates profits to several social enterprises, and she continues to seek out collaborations. She’s evidence that design thinking works.
Anna now works full time in her B-Corp certified business, and credits daily yoga, meditation and gratitude practices as the levers that allow her to thrive in growing Kester Black into a globally stocked brand (she even earned herself a yoga teaching qualification!).
Since we spoke to Anna for this interview, she has gone on to win the national Telstra 2016 Young Business Woman of the Year. A natural step for someone on their way to world domination. After all, the future is female.
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
I was lucky, from the age of about 12 I knew I wanted to be a designer. Back then I wanted to be a fashion designer and that decision has really formed my entire career.
What did/do you study?
At high school, I dropped English and Maths as soon as possible and only studied art subjects. Art, printmaking, design, photography etc. I also studied a Certificate in Jewellery Manufacturing as an elective while I was still in high school. Once I finished that, I studied a Bachelor of Design, majoring in Fashion. I’m planning on doing my MBA in the next few years too.
What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?
Two things! The first one would have been deciding to quit my part-time job as an admin assistant to work on Kester Black full-time. That was a very stressful decision – what if we don’t make enough money, what if I can’t pay my rent, what if the business fails? etc.
The second biggest leap I had to take was signing a commercial lease! I’d never rented commercial property before, and the financial risk was the biggest I had ever had to consider. Although I agonised over that decision for weeks, it all worked out better for me in the end. Because I took so long to decide, the landlord dropped the rent and offered us three months free rent which saved us a lot of cash.
What were you doing before you made your leap?
I was working as an Administration Assistant for the Australasian College of Behavioral Optometrists! I loved the job and learnt a lot from my amazing boss there. I was sad to say goodbye to that position.
Who have been the biggest 3 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?
1. My wonderful boss from my last job, Veronica. She taught me about accounting, put me in touch with my bookkeeper (who has ended up training me to do my own books) and is always available to run an idea past or to ask a question. She has been a major support to me and has always been encouraging towards my business.
2. My mum. She has always believed that I could achieve anything. With her unconditional love and support I have been able to take risks and learn and grow from the mistakes I make.
3. All of my other female powerhouse friends. They might not think they are powerhouses but they are in their own rights. Often we can’t see our own best selves but it is easy to spot strengths in the others around us. Many of my friends wouldn’t know how impressed with them I am, but when I’m feeling lost, I draw on the energy from the people I surround myself with. Every single one of them has picked me up when I have fallen down and probably never even realised it.
What did you have in place before you made the leap?
I had a pretty solid business built up before I took the leap from it being a hobby to a full-time career. I had essentially worked two jobs for a number of years and the brand seemed much bigger than it actually was. As for a steady income, I certainly didn’t have that. It was scary but it all worked out for the best.
What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that led you to the leap?
It wasn’t so much a defining moment, rather a number of years working for other people who were inflexible and unwilling to listen to anyone else.
How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?
I constantly surround myself with people that have my best interests at heart. When I was making any of my leaps, I would ask my friends and family for their advice. I don’t always take advice given to me but it certainly opens my mind up to other perspectives. Sometimes I even ignore advice, then go straight back to the same person to ask them to help me. I am not afraid to ask for help, especially when I make mistakes. In recent years I have learnt to meditate and being able to quiet my mind has allowed me to listen to my heart. This would have certainly helped me in making my leap and I wish I had implemented this wonderful daily practice many years earlier.
I also don’t really believe in failure. If you have a goal, and you don’t quite achieve it, then I like to rearrange the goal posts. If every time we didn’t reach our goals we called it a failure then I don’t think anyone would take risks. Goals should never be set in stone and I see people making this mistake all the time. Plans change and being adaptable is the biggest tool you have, so learn to use it.
How did you fund your leap?
I started with $50 from a paycheck from my retail job and made my first jewellery collection with it. I just kept nurturing that money and very slowly it grew. Looking back on it now I am so awestruck with how far I have come. We haven’t had any outside investment or loans of any sort to date.
What other leaps have you made in the past?
I moved to Australia on my own not knowing anyone here. I was coming with a friend but she changed her mind and pulled out at the last minute. It was reasonably risky (I only had $1000 saved which wasn’t enough) and it took two years to really settle in, however it was a time in my life when I experienced so much learning and growing, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?
I can’t think of an example of when I took a leap and it didn’t work out, only because I can have a very forceful energy. I can think of a few examples of investments within my company where I invested money into projects (like the nail art book) that may have been better spent elsewhere. The projects still worked, we broke even and even made a reasonable profit but had I invested that cash into other parts of my business I would possibly be better off. I think through the process of taking leaps, I have learnt that sometimes I should let things fall through rather than use all of my energy to push them over the line.
I have now gained more of a ‘spiritual intelligence’, or an ability to trust my intuition, and when I have to push hard to make things happen, I take it as a sign that maybe they aren’t the best thing for me to be investing my energy into at that time.
What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?
I used to be terrified of everything! But now nothing much phases me. Sometimes I think about if I lost everything I had, would it be the end of the world? Probably not. I have had some big challenges at Kester Black and after much reflecting, I decided they didn’t actually deserve as much time as I spent worrying about them. Sometimes I do have terrible dreams that my cat dies. That is pretty much what’s at the top of my worry pile. All this change and reflection only came about when I started a daily meditation and gratitude practice. I meditate for 20 minutes, twice a day, and I even made it a company policy. Also the more I practise gratitude, the more I think about the wonderful things I do have and stop worrying about the things that may never happen.
How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap? 1 being sad, 10 being rad.
10! I love it. I love what I do, I love the office space I created and I love the people I get to work with most of all.
What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?
I am my own boss. I have made it my priority to create an amazing work/life balance. I work hard but that doesn’t mean I do it sitting at my desk until 8pm at nights when I have a lot to do. I make sure I go to yoga, meditate and travel, all things that I probably wouldn’t be able to get away with if I worked for someone else. I can leave work if I am stressed and come back to the job at a later time once I have a clear head again.
What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?
At first, it was the fear of not having a stable income. It’s always risky going out on your own but once you take the leap then you have to tread hard to keep your head above water. I just made sure I worked hard before and after I took the leap to ensure a steady income. Now I pay myself a set wage every week and I haven’t had any trouble in keeping that or any of the other staff wages steadily flowing.
What might be your next leap?
I think the next leap might be to bring on an external investor. It’s something I have been putting off for a while because I wanted to make sure that my company had a really steady foundation and I was 100% sure about the success it would have if I did take on investment. I also want to make sure I find someone who is totally in line with my vision as I have heard many disaster stories about founders leaving companies that get pushed in different directions once there is more than one player involved.
What are your favourite words to live by?
It’s better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. The Bhagavad Gita. Can you tell that I just became a yoga teacher?!
Who do you admire who also made the leap?
Honestly, I’m really inspired by all the little guys. Maybe they aren’t so little anymore. Jess Lillico, Chelsea Bagan, Nat Turnbull, Kylie Weir, Georgia Perry, Sean Fennessy. Just all the other amazing creatives I get to work alongside every day. When businesses are smaller, you get to build a personal relationship with the creative behind it as well as share ideas collectively.
A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?
Get going straight away. Ask your friends and family to help you. You would be amazed at how much time and effort people are willing to offer you just because you have passion.
Right now I’m:
Sitting at my desk at work, it’s a beautiful day and I have some exciting projects happening.
Hearing: Innerbloom by Rufus.
Eating: Mung bean sprouts, mmmmm.
Drinking: Green tea.
Reading: Good To Great by Jim Collins.
Loving: The beautiful weather and walking to and from work!
Who might you ask for help this week? Who could help you take the next step towards your leap? Take Anna’s advice, and don’t be afraid to ask.
p.s. You can watch Anna accepting her Telstra Business Women’s Award here, and hear her talk about the importance of aligning her personal values with her business purpose.
p.p.s. Purchase your copy of The Leap Stories book to access exclusive content only available in print. Buy Now.