We have all been on the search lately for a more sustainable way of life — especially when it comes to products for our skin. Here’s your newest option, ILERA Apothecary, a plant-based line with a mission to deliver products composed entirely of sustainable ingredients co-founded by Chinonye Akunne.
Drawing on her Igbo roots, in 2015 the first-generation Nigerian American officially launched ILERA Apothecary alongside her sister. Paying tribute to Igbo terms, ILERA translates to the word health and Okwuma, is Igbo for shea butter. Okwuma is woven inside the line’s skincare products and naturally grown in West Africa. Today, the brand has expanded to include personal care and baby skincare items too.
As this week’s #InTheBlack business feature, we sat down with Akunne and she revealed how the support of the community in Detroit has helped her & ILERA grow into the rising skin empire that it is today. She also noted that customer support has helped the business to grow much faster than she could have ever imagined.
Tell us the story of why you started this business.
Akunne: As a first-generation American born to Nigerian immigrants, I was heavily influenced by my Igbo culture — from the food I ate, products I used on my skin, and even what I studied at my university. Growing up, I loved going to the library to get books on how to make makeup and jewelry. It wasn’t until my third year of college when I transferred to a small school in a very small town that this childhood passion re-emerged. The town I lived in had very limited haircare options for people with thick, coarse hair as myself. Talking to my sister, and now business partner, she suggested I use my skills and create skincare products. That is how ILERA Apothecary came to be.
At ILERA Apothecary, we create skincare products that make people feel confident, knowing they are using the best products for both their skin and the environment. We carry a range of body moisturizers, cleansers, masks, and oils [with sustainable packaging and now available for curbside pickup]. Also, five percent of each sale is donated to Jasper House Haiti, a non-profit organization that provides mental health, education, and economic opportunities for women in the African Diaspora of Jacmel, Haiti.
How has your city influenced you as an entrepreneur?
Akunne: I tell people all the time if you want to be an entrepreneur and receive the support and backing of the city, Detroit is the place to be. I moved here six years ago and didn’t know anyone, so I made it a point to attend networking and social events so that I could meet people. In doing so, I learned about the different opportunities and resources available for people to learn about entrepreneurship and starting a business. When the idea for ILERA Apothecary came, I enrolled in those programs and received the education, mentorship, and network to build the business out. Part of that network consists of other business owners who are growing their brands as well. We are able to collaborate, share ideas, and develop strong friendships through our commonality of entrepreneurship.
How have you been able to connect with customers and drum up support for your business?
Akunne: Our customers are able to search for our company within Google Maps and [are] directed straight to our headquarters, where we’ve been able to offer curbside pickup. [There are also people who have met] us at industry events, who found our Google business profile and contacted us directly. We’ve been able to bring them into our facility and re-engage with them. People are able to easily find where we’re located. I didn’t realize it until now but Google is an integral part of keeping our business going.
Can you talk about the resiliency of your business and how you were able to successfully pivot despite the impact from COVID-19?
Akunne: Absolutely, at the beginning of the year we developed this awesome plan of all the events we would attend and planned to reach 40,000 new customers in-person. We even paid for some events and booked travel. That plan was obviously squashed. Since we had built our business on word of mouth and in-person events we didn’t have a solid social media or marketing strategy. I am so happy for the support of our community [through our curbside pickup offering and amazing customer reviews]; because they not only sustained us but helped us reach milestones. We are doing a few things to remain recession-proof, like investing in marketing and brand awareness and creating more value-added resources outside of skincare (we’ll be announcing more of that in 2021).
How has your business benefited from the surge in customers seeking ways to support Black-owned businesses?
Akunne: I am so amazed by the support and rallying for Black businesses. So many people continuously share our business and have propelled our growth. We went from being in 6 stores to almost 30 within a 6-month time span. That growth allowed us to hire our first employee, double our manufacturing space, and have the ability to say yes to collaborating with 3 multinational brands on special projects that will be rolling out in 2021.
People have supported us by leaving reviews on our Google profile. We got our first, main review during COVID when we started offering some of our hand sanitizers. I’m able to see how people have benefited from reading that review and we are actively looking to encourage more of our customers to leave reviews. At ILERA Apothecary, we are so grateful for the people who have supported us and cannot wait to grow from being a baby brand to a multinational company which I believe will come much sooner than I even realize.
Moving forward, how can customers best support your business by engaging with your Google Business profile?
Akunne: Honestly, leaving a review on our Google profile would be tremendous for us. That is something that we would love for our customers and people who find us to do going forward. It really holds a lot of validation and when you look at companies who have reviews on Google, you have more trust in them.
Want to continue to support ILERA Apothecary and help Akunne accomplish the goal of becoming a household name? Look no further and visit their Google profile. Learn more about their products and curbside pick up options! You can easily help the business by leaving a review and sharing a photo of your favorite products. You can take these simple actions today to help support businesses near you stay #InTheBlack.
This editorial was brought to you in partnership with Google.