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Herboo nails it!

NCU students' organic start-up receives international recognition

BY ALICIA SUTHERLAND Observer staff reporter sutherlanda@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, May 12, 2014    

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Less than two years in, Herboo Enterprise — a herbal cosmetic company in Cedar Grove Manchester — is a cottage industry with one product to its credit — an organic two-in-one shampoo and conditioner.

But the start-up company, which is owned and operated by five Northern Caribbean University (NCU) students, was recently thrust into the international spotlight when it qualified for the International Business Model Competition in the United States where it went up against teams the likes of Harvard School of Business and Stanford University in the US, and 40 others representing countries from all over the world.

The team, which represented Jamaica, was ajudged the best international team of the 20 countries represented in the competition, and placed eighth of the 42 teams involved.

For its troubles, Team Herboo walked away with prize money totalling US$6,000 (US$4,000 for placing first in the International Award category, and US$2,000 for placing eighth).

"(It) was amazing," said Herboo founder and chief executive officer Javin Williams, of the competition which was staged in Salt Lake City, Utah, from May 1-3. "You had entrepreneurs from all over the world there coming with their different ideas. The way how they spoke about their business ventures was just so passionate..."

The teams were required to do a 10-minute business pitch and facilitate a five-minute question and answer session about their products, with the general theme of the competition being 'Nail it, Scale it'.

The team's chaperone was Hazel Wright O'Connor, executive director of the Morris Entrepreneurship Centre, which lent business advice and guidance to Herboo in the development of the product and business. She told the Jamaica Observer that although the judges and many others were unfamiliar with the sorrel plant, one of the main ingredients in Herboo's deep cleansing formula, they felt the pitch was "awesome".

She said that they appreciated the awareness gained from Herboo's presentation, which showed that some of the haircare products on the market were, ironically, hazardous to the hair.

In fact, it was the frustration to find a shampoo to alleviate his dandruff which led Williams, who is currently studying mass communication at NCU, down the path of entrepreneurship.

He felt "the chemically-loaded" options available on the market only led to one problem after another.

Upon his grandmother's suggestion, Williams said he started experimenting with herbs such as rosemary, lemon grass and peppermint.

Figuring that others were equally frustrated, he did further research with medical technology student Kamal Smith and sought the expertise and analysis of the Scientific Research Council, which determined that the Herboo ingredients were safe.

The product has minimal lather because no sulphates are used and it is reportedly devoid of other elements such as paraben and lye.

Williams' sister and final-year social work student, Kamla, is also involved in Herboo Enterprises, as are Kimiesha Maxwell, a student of medical technology, and Alshadane Wright, also a mass communication major.

The team plans to introduce at least two more cosmetic products to the market by early 2015 by which time they expect to officially launch the company. They envision producing body and hair lotions, body wash, hand soap, face scrub and hair oil.

"Herboo has a long way to go," said Wright O'Connor.

The product, which is currently available in paharmacies across the parish, is made in the kitchen at Williams' home in Cedar Grove and herbs are sourced from a small backyard garden.

As the business grows and expands, however, there will be the possibility for small farmers to benefit by supplying the herbs.

Herboo's success to date is proof, Wright O'Connor says, that young people do not have to become a part of the statistics of unemployment in Jamaica upon completing tertiary studies.

She said also that the Herboo team which consists of all non-business majors was "living proof" that entrepreneurship crosses all disciplines.

"I really want students in Jamaica to recognise that entrepreneurship is a viable career option. I believe that students have what it takes to be innovative, to be creative and to create their own employment," she said.

Business modelling, according to the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ), is a relatively new phenomenon that is geared at reducing the failure rate of start-up businesses. It focuses on identifying and precisely defining the assumptions of the new venture, testing those assumptions in the field, and then pivoting (changing) based on the lessons learned.

The National Business Model Competition was conceived ay the DBJ Venture Capital Conference in September 2013. The finals took place at the Jamaica Conference Centre on March 6 and 7, where 11 teams from NCU, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Technology faced off for the national champion title — an all-expense paid trip to Utah and a cash prize of $2 million.

"For us at the university, it is a great moment. It is a great moment also for Jamaica as we push for the growth of entrepreneurship," said NCU president Dr Trevor Gardner of Herboo's performance in Utah.

DBJ chairman Joseph Matalon, meanwhile, urged the private sector to become more active in assisting young entrepreneurs.

"The world is opening up and Jamaica is not being left behind... The more of these opportunities that are created, the greater the likelihood of breakthrough enterprises emerging," he said.

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