In a little over a year, Kelly Bonilla and Jade Palomino went from being co-workers, to best friends, to business partners.
Working together at Endeavor Miami, a nonprofit economic development organization, Bonilla and Palomino helped entrepreneurs by providing them with the resources and tools to help scale their businesses. Now, with the knowledge gained at Endeavor, they are in the midst of building their own startup, Slay, and are pursuing the foundational knowledge that will help them succeed.
Having left their full-time jobs in January of 2018, Bonilla and Palomino — both fellows of The Consortium — are now in their third quarter at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in Charlottesville, where they are pursuing an MBA.
In between studying and business planning, they took some time to speak with us about their venture, their decision to pursue an MBA and the importance of diversity and inclusion.
How did you come up with the idea for Slay?
Jade: While we were at Endeavor, we used to treat ourselves to weekly manicures. Of course, having nonprofit salaries, it was very costly to get these regular beauty services done, and we also found the process of booking these services extremely inefficient because it always involved having to pick up the phone. When we finally got someone on the line, we always had to worry about payment; some places only accept cash versus card, for instance. We thought it was insane that in every other aspect of our lives, we can use our phones — whether it be to call an Uber or get our groceries through Instacart. Everything is on demand, but when it comes to the salon industry, it remains a very old-school, pen-and-paper industry. So, we decided to change that.
How would you describe what Slay is and does in just a couple sentences?
Jade: We call ourselves the most flexible and affordable beauty membership ever. We allow users to find and book appointments at nearby salons with a monthly membership while guaranteeing a 15 percent discount on every transaction made through the platform.
You had already taken the initial steps to launch your company prior to applying and being accepted to Darden, so why the decision to pursue an MBA?
Jade: When we were working at Endeavor, we saw a lot of entrepreneurs having to step away from their businesses — from being CEOs, for example — because their companies would get to this point where they didn’t necessarily have the tools, skills or background to scale with the company. We never wanted to be in that situation. Of course, we can’t be experts in everything, but at the same time, we wanted to know what questions to ask and know what we don’t know.
Kelly: Exactly. And a huge part of why we both wanted to go to business school was to really gain those hard skills in finance, accounting, et cetera. Both Jade and I were liberal arts majors in undergrad, and that’s something that we really wanted to round out. We had developed really great business acumen and a lot of other skills through our on-the-job learning, especially at Endeavor, but we really wanted to add that to our toolkit to ensure that we could grow with our company in the future.
I understand that it was important to you to find a school that would support your entrepreneurial aspirations and your company. Why?
Kelly: Yeah, that was definitely a consideration for both of us, and what’s great about Darden is that they make a lot of effort to support not only students who are interested in entrepreneurship but also those who come into school with ventures. So that was a big differentiator. I was considering other schools and didn’t see anything similar.
Jade: Darden actually created a program specifically because of us, because we asked for it. The school has an accelerator program over the summer; typically that is only to support current students as opposed to incoming students, but Darden made an exception for us and our classmates because they understand that it’s important to support entrepreneurs coming into school. Since then, they’ve tried to build out a new program, Darden Venture Lab, whereby students are exposed to regular mentorship, collaboration and educational opportunities like lunch-and-learns with experienced entrepreneurs. Plus, they have constantly sought our feedback to improve the program. So again, Darden has made a really concerted effort to make sure they’re listening to our needs and speaking to our demands.
As fellows of The Consortium, are there ways that you have benefited from the organization’s network and resources as an entrepreneur?
Jade: Actually, one of our new mentors is a Consortium alum —
Kelly: Her name is Tawana Murphy Burnett. We met her here at Darden during a Diversity Week session. She’s an alum of color and works in the beauty marketing space at Facebook. We connected with her and had a really interesting discussion, especially about women of color in entrepreneurship, tech and venture. She’s also an angel investor, so she’s been really helpful and has been one of our more recent mentors who we are in touch with once or twice a month.
She’s also on the diversity board at Darden and feels very strongly about empowering students of color at Darden and beyond.
In what ways has the Darden community — faculty, staff, administrators and students — supported your venture and helped you take your product to the next level?
Jade: We’ve been really fortunate to have amazing classmates that are really proactive and helpful. For example, someone on my learning team, JB, he’s a finance whiz. When we were putting together one of our pitch decks for a presentation in New York — a really important pitch — he actually helped us put together a lot of our financials, so that was incredibly helpful.
In addition, both Kelly and I have been regularly consulting with our marketing professors from last semester to get feedback on everything from the verbiage on our website to our recent consumer insights survey.
Kelly: We also currently have three undergraduate students at UVA who are interning with us. They’ve been with us since August.
I know it was important to you that inclusion be a core principle of your business. Why was this important, and how have you incorporated it as a core principle?
Kelly: One of the things that really drew us to this industry, both being women of color, is that it’s one of the few industries where women actually make up the majority of owners. Over 85 percent of revenues in the beauty salon space are generated by small businesses, mom-and-pop shops, and the majority of owners are women — and an even higher percentage, compared to the national average, are immigrants and/or women of color. So it’s an industry where women of color actually own more of the businesses by a huge margin, compared to every other industry.
There’s such an opportunity for us through Slay to really help these businesses scale and grow sustainably. That’s something that we feel really passionate about: economically empowering not only these businesses but also the women of color who run them and work in them. That is something that’s really important to us and has always been at the forefront since we started writing our business plan two years ago.
Jade: We’ve also really taken into consideration diversity and inclusion in building out our app and the services offered on it.
I’m part black, and I have very particular hair. I find that a lot of times, many beauty technology companies, and beauty companies generally, don’t tend to consider the needs of women of color. So, something that we’ve been really thoughtful about is making sure, for example, that we’re onboarding salons that have stylists who are familiar with and comfortable working with African American hair, because women of color have different beauty needs than people from other backgrounds. That’s really been important in building out our network of salons.
In addition, in all of our marketing and campaign materials, we make sure we’re not just showing women of different colors, but of different sizes as well. Again, just making sure that we’re lifting women up, as opposed to having a very limited standard of beauty that’s been prevalent in the beauty industry.
Kelly: One more thing of note is that, as we build out our team and as we’ve had numerous interns over the past year and a half, we’ve been really conscious of who is part of our team and how that reflects not only our customer base but also our values. Making sure that we also have a diverse team is really important to us because we know how that enriches a company and enhances every part of a business.
How did you come up with the name Slay?
Jade: That’s a good question. We are big fans of Beyoncé —
Kelly: We are big fans of Beyoncé. But it was something that we toyed around with; we threw around name ideas for a while and couldn’t really find one that stuck, and I feel like we just — what did happen, actually?
Jade: We were playing with different names, but what resonated with us when we chose Slay is that it really speaks to our target consumer, that young millennial woman. They kind of all know what “slay” means; it connotes this idea of not just feeling fierce but also feeling confident and looking your best, all of those things.
Beyoncé has a couple of songs that reference “slaying.” It’s used colloquially, especially among millennials, as this term for empowerment, especially female empowerment. So, we thought that that name really encapsulated what we wanted our brand to embody.
Kelly: Exactly. We see it as an empowering female term. If I’m slaying, I’m crushing it — whether that’s in the classroom, at work, at home, in whatever way that might be — and really feeling fiercely me and feeling empowered in my own skin.
What are next steps for Slay?
Kelly: We’re in the final stages of completing our native app, which is a process that usually costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have actually completed it on a shoestring budget without taking on any outside capital, which is really great.
Once our app is ready this spring, we hope to launch it here in Charlottesville. We launched our beta in Miami last April. So, we had a pilot, learned a lot from it and tested a lot of our assumptions. It was a really small pilot with about 50 people so that we could learn the ins and outs of the industry and figure out what our product really needed to look like before we invested a lot of time and money into it. Now we’re at the stage where we are gearing up to launch in Charlottesville, which is really exciting. And we’re hoping to raise some money in the coming months to accelerate our growth.
I guess the plan is to eventually move beyond Charlottesville?
Kelly: Yes, of course. The plan is always to run the world. In an ideal world, [we’ll be] expanding to cities like D.C., Boston, L.A., et cetera.