In 2009, Anna Ross was just 20-years-old when she started a jewellery-making side hustle with a start-up cost of just $50, but little did she know it would later boom into an ethical beauty empire.
Now, about 10 years later, her beauty brand Kester Black is the first in the world to be awarded a B Corp certification – the highest achievement in ethical and environmental performance – and has raked in $1.16 million in revenue in the past 12 months.
“The $50 part started when I started making jewellery. I made a few necklaces and took $50 out of my wages, made a few necklaces, and then sold those and went back and made $200 worth of jewellery,” she said.
“I never had investment or money from my parents to start it.”
Originally from New Zealand, Ms Ross grew up on a farm in a small town in the city of Dunedin.
Her upbringing was very humble.
“I wasn’t very good at school,” she said.
“I can’t really read, I certainly can’t spell and I don’t know my timetables.
“I didn’t think that I would be anything.”
She studied fashion at university and then packed her bags and moved to Melbourne – your typical country girl moving to the ‘big smoke’ to pursue her fashion dreams – only she did not even have a sewing machine.
“I couldn’t afford to bring my sewing machine because I hadn’t saved any money,” Ms Ross said.
“I finished university and asked my mum for $30,000 to start a fashion label – she said no.”
In Melbourne, she worked full-time as a design assistant for a fashion label and that’s when her passion project making jewellery took off.
The idea for creating beauty products was born when she was colouring sterling silver with enamel paint, which made her think of nail polish.
By 2012, she had launched six shades of nail polish and had tripled her business revenue in three months.
The secret to her success may have well been having ‘zero expectations’ stemming from her modest upbringing, which ignited a fire of ambition for her to succeed without any added pressure.
“We were really poor and there was no pressure from (my parents) on me because we were poor,” she said.
“We grew up in this pudgy little suburb of Dunedin.
“There wasn’t a drive for me to be successful from them. I probably blossomed because I didn’t have any of that and I had no expectations of myself because I never thought I would be successful.”
Starting a business didn’t come without its challenges, Ms Ross laughing as she explained that after two years of shipping nail polish to customers she realised it was against the law to post the goods.
“Once I found out it was illegal, we couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.
“So I had to do this dangerous goods shipping course and it took me nine months to do it. I essentially did this course that was harder than my degree.”
The beauty mogul registered Kester Black – dubbed the world’s most ethically-conscious beauty brand – in 2014.
It is the only beauty brand that uses clean ingredients, is certified vegan and cruelty-free, B Corp, carbon-neutral and halal.
Ms Ross’s long list of fans includes Elle Macpherson and beauty editors from The New York Times, Grazia, BBC, Nylon, Vogue and Marie Clare, as well as the world’s most influential high-end retailers Liberty London (UK), Dover Street Market (France), and Nordiska Kompaniet (Sweden).
“I started this company not to make money, but to change the world and Kester Black is doing just that by raising industry standards for beauty brands,” she explained.
“(We) set the trends bigger brands follow. Consumers want to buy great quality products that don’t cost the world – both financially and environmentally.”
Ms Ross was crowned Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year in 2016, a prestigious award that shined a spotlight onto her business.
But from the added recognition came a wave of pressure to grow and succeed – something she feared would suffocate her.
“That really crippled me,” she said.
The weight of the pressure had become like a heavy burden of expectation to live up to and as Ms Ross explains, it was exhausting.
“I got advisors that would be like your business is going to be turning over $30 million in two years,” she said.
“I ended up getting chronic fatigue, so it’s been quite difficult to have an ongoing energy problem.”
While beauty is often known for its ‘glitz and glamour’, running a beauty empire is far from the manicured life that first comes to mind.
“About three years ago, for probably like 10 months, every night I would go to bed and cry and have a panic attack and lye awake all night,” Ms Ross said.
“There’s totally been times where I wanted to give it up and thought why I have done this?
“I could tell you a million stories of me going ‘omg what have I done?'”
While beauty has now become her world, she admitted that could not have been further from the truth during her teenage years.
“I was a total tom-boy – I played rugby for 14 years and didn’t really have any girlfriends – I had girlfriends but they weren’t very girly,” she explained.
“It’s something I have totally grown a passion for.”
Her advice to aspiring business owners and girl bosses: don’t be afraid to ask questions in order to grow and stick with it.
“I always reach out to people who I would never think would speak to me,” she said.
“I would go in with a set of questions that I wanted to ask.
“It’s all about asking questions and get as much information as you can before you decide on what product you want – but then I think you should just go all in.”