Chinonye Akunne: My purpose is to help people and save lives

Chinonye Akunne
Chinonye Akunne had unknowingly been practicing the craft of making products for years Click To Tweet

Chinonye Akunne is a Nigerian, born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. In partnership with her sister, Chinonye owns personal care company ILERA Apothecary. The company utilizes mostly organic materials, educates on health with relation to the skin and focuses on reducing the environmental impact of the cosmetic industry.

Chinonye is also co-founder of educational platform Motor City STEAM, a program that aims to increase student literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with art integration.

How did you come up with the name ILERA Apothecary?

ILERA means “health” in the Yoruba language of Nigeria and Apothecary is Grecian for a person who sold medicine and drugs.

Originally, ILERA Apothecary was called Delicate Serenity and Action Level, a women’s and men’s personal care line respectively. My family and friends gave me feedback on the company, leading to a name change and re-brand. I searched Google Translate for words such as ‘luxury’, ‘beauty’ and ‘health’.

Ilera Apothecary

As a family company, how is the responsibility shared? What role do you play in the running of the business?

My sister/business partner and I use our experience and educational backgrounds to run the business. Nneji has a Masters in Marketing, so she handles the brand of the business from social media design to marketing material. I have a Science and Manufacturing background so I handle the development process from sourcing ingredients, overseeing the batch processing up through final packaging.

Chinonye Akunne: I have always known that my purpose is to help people and save lives Click To Tweet

Since you have a degree in public health and come from a family of makers and healthcare professionals, had you always known this was what you were going to do?

I have always known that my purpose is to help people and save lives. Up until 3 years ago, I was on the path to medical school. A month prior to completing my Masters in Public Health I received admission to med school and a job offer. After much thought and planning, I took the job which eventually led me to where I am now.

It is interesting because I have unknowingly been practicing this craft of making products for years. As a child, I loved the DIY and beauty sections of magazines. It was from these magazines that I started experimenting with beauty.

In the 4th grade, I put eggs in my hair after reading about its great deep conditioning properties. Unfortunately, I did not read the part about rinsing with cold water. I rinsed with hot water and the eggs ended up cooking in my hair, it was gross. That day, I learned valuable lessons in following instructions, properties of a chemical reaction and trying again. Practices like this lead me to create hair products in grad school such as styling gel and almond hair milk, eventually developing into ILERA Apothecary.

Chinonye Akunne

How long did it take for the business to break even and yield profit?

We officially broke even with our first wholesale order which came 5 months after I launched the original lines (Delicate Serenity and Action Level). Breaking even is the easy part.

Sustaining and engaging old and new customers is the hard part and key to yielding high profits. As of today, we have not reached our target customer or profit goal. Honestly, it may be another 6 months to a year before we do.

However, every single day, we are getting closer with each customer engagement and sale. That sale may be online, at one of our stockist shops, via a wholesale order or at a vending event. As a company, we are constantly strategizing and finding new ways to reach future customers, many of which do not yet know we even exist. This takes time, forward thinking and persistence.

Yielding high profits in business takes time, forward thinking and persistence Click To Tweet

What does success mean to you?

To me, success is a combination of goals that ultimately leads to flexibility, peace, and growth towards being a better person.

Being flexible in what hours and what locations I work are important to me. Some days I am more creative at 9pm than at I am at 9am, or have the urge to work on my dining table versus in the office. I want to be able to visit my parents on a random Tuesday without having to request work off. That is the flexibility that I envision in success.

In terms of peace, it is being self-loving, mentally well and not owning debt (yes, you own not owe debt). Peace takes practice; you practice forgiveness; you practice stress management; you practice money management.

Though I often don’t see it, I am growing into the success I envision every day. I am increasing my global presence through platforms such as She Leads Africa, I discuss my issues with my therapist rather than holding it in, and my family and I are currently enrolled in the Financial Peace University. These simple steps are growing me into a better and more successful person.

Chinonye Akunne: Success is a combination of goals that leads to being a better person. Click To Tweet

What advice would you give to 16-year-old Chinonye?

“ChiChi (as I used to go by), Open your eyes. Listen to your mother when she blesses you with good wishes no matter how long and drawn out they may sound. Listen to your dad when he forewarns you about watching the company that you keep, ‘unsuccessful people are not friends with successful people…’

“Continue to speak your mind but make sure you finesse your words. Understand that in a few years you will forget the names of the people you are trying to impress so be yourself. The extra-curricular activities you partake in will lead you far so take note and never stop being inquisitive.”

Chinonye Akunne

Who would you take to lunch, Oprah or Michelle Obama?

Since I have to choose one, it would be Michelle. I love Oprah but at this point in my life, I relate more to Michelle Obama. As “unprogressive” as it may sound I want it all; the husband, children, and successful career. I will not feel as if I am living my full potential without the “trifecta”.

I am currently reading the book “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor; The New Way to Fast- Track Your Career”. The book outlines the differences between a mentor and a sponsor. Mentors act as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on, offering advice as needed and support and guidance as requested; they expect very little in return. Sponsors, in contrast, are much more vested in their protégés, offering guidance and critical feedback because they believe in them.

In my life, Oprah would be a great mentor, the person who can guide me based on her holistic life experiences. On the other hand, Michelle is the sponsor. The person who is in a similar circle and can give direct guidance on navigating everything from climbing the corporate ladder and creating social-based programs to having a husband and children

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Nneji Akunne: We are truly passionate about each customer

Nneji Akunne - Ilera Apothecary

Inspiration can come from anywhere and when Nneji Akunne and siblings weren’t satisfied with the skin care options that were available to them, they decided to develop their own. With experience as a Sustainability Fellow for H&M Germany and marketing consultant for smaller startup brands, Nneji has used her experience to develop ILERA Apothecary, a luxury personal organic skin care line.

Why did you start ILERA Apothecary?

We started ILERA Apothecary because we sought transparency in the personal care industry. Making our own products for personal use and seeing how effective they were made us wonder why other products within the industry needed so many ingredients to do the same job.

We looked as far back as 10,000 BC on more traditional practices, where Ancient Egyptians used elements from the earth to heal and protect their skin, and realised that the foundation of natural beauty came from the ingredients in the products used each day.

Why do you think organic and natural personal care is important and matters in the beauty industry?

What you put in your body is just as important as what you put on it. We are so blinded by big corporations marketing and advertising that sell us “younger looking skin” that we don’t pay attention to the ingredients used in each product. Because the FDA does not currently regulate the ingredients of beauty products in the U.S. with the same thoroughness done in the E.U., it’s up to consumers to read and understand each product’s labels; which in reality is something that’s not always done.

When you choose organic skincare, you’re choosing products whose ingredients work with the natural systems of your skin, not the scientific formulas that have been tested on animals to produce results unrelated to human beings. Organic and natural personal care companies like ours that are truly passionate about each customer, carefully spell out the ingredients used in all products offered and the reasoning behind them.

What makes ILERA Apothecary different from other personal care startups?

ILERA Apothecary aims to educate our customers about their overall health. It’s one thing to simply promote a more natural skincare regimen but, as stated before, what goes inside of your body is important as well. We take a more hands-on approach and speak about the health of the individual from all areas like diets, mental health and lifestyle.

All skin types are not created equal and while it would be easy to sell the same product to every customer as they come, we offer consultation services where we can get to know the customer better and understand their skin and lifestyle needs.

What is your favourite product and why?

Both of our personal favourites is the unscented body butter. I (Nneji) am all about the touch and feel of the skin along with being able to determine my scent for the day. For Chinonye, the body butter leaves her skin feeling so rich and smooth day and night which is very important since she has dry skin.

For your business to get to the next level, would you prefer funding or a high-value mentor?

High-Value Mentor. I say this because funding would only be able to take us so far. With a mentor, not only would the individual be able to provide us with networks we may not have been granted access to, but also the insight and experience of a seasoned mentor are worth way more than money can buy.


What can we expect from ILERA Apothecary over the next 6 months?

We are looking to expand the brand into international markets and entering into more retail spaces. We are also working to expand our product offerings to include a separate men’s line. While our products are currently unisex, we want to cater to the specifics of a man at all life stages.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned on your journey towards healthy skin and body care?

Understanding the importance of planning for the future right now has shifted our lives tremendously. We always heard that your body is your temple and it should be treated as such but it wasn’t until we began testing products to sell that we truly understood that notion.

Skin is the body’s largest organ that serves to protect your insides from the outside world. Where you live, what you eat, and what you do on a daily basis can determine the type of life you’ll live once you get further in age. Living healthy and active lifestyles are our goals as we age and taking care of our skin is one of the first steps in making that happen.

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