Tahlia Gray is the founder of Sheer Chemistry, an e-commerce platform that specialises in tights for women of all shades of brown. We proud to have supported Tahlia through our Pioneer Programme (applications open again), involvement in the FFWD pre-Accelerator, our female workspace offer with WeWork / WeWork Labs, and for her to regularly play a key part in OneTech events and campaigns – we’re honoured to be a part of her journey.
Where did your business idea come from?
I’ve lived in several major cosmopolitan cities – London, New York, in Sydney, Australia, and Brazil – and I was always looking on the high street for products that were suitable for my afro hair and my skin tone but often struggled. It wasn’t until I started working in the corporate world that tights were added to my list of ‘wants’.
Everywhere that I traveled to I looked for these tights and I couldn’t find them, which was surprising especially in cities such as New York with high populations of women colour. During this process, I tried many brands but all of them were unsuitable in that they didn’t match my complexion and instead made me feel super self-conscious. And so I thought how hard could it be? I’m going to do this myself. I always wanted to start a business, so why not this? I started Sheer Chemistry because I wanted to empower women like myself to feel confident and gorgeous in their own skin and celebrate their diverse beauty.
“I started Sheer Chemistry because I wanted to empower women like myself to feel confident and gorgeous in their own skin and celebrate their diverse beauty”
Tell us about your startup journey
I have a degree in International Business and worked in the corporate sector for several years before becoming an entrepreneur. It’s been quite a long process to get to the stage where I was able to launch with products that I was comfortable taking to market.
It was a steep learning curve but I wasn’t in any rush. I spent time researching and developing the product, learning about manufacturing, PR, sales and finance.
What challenges have you faced?
There have been lots of challenges.
One example was with choosing a manufacturer. I got into difficulty coming to a contractual agreement with the manufacturer I had originally chosen in Italy.
I thought this would not defeat me. I went back to the drawing board, contacted all hosiery manufacturers in the region and within 3 weeks, I jumped on a plane and had six meetings with six different teams in six different factories. As a result, I feel like the manufacturer that I have now is 10 times better than the previous one. I had to see this as a lesson, rather than a roadblock. I came out a lot better off by taking it into my own hands.
I also realise in hindsight this was an important moment for me to establish my standards and what I will hold people accountable for. It’s one of those things that you have to be clear on for yourself right at the beginning in order for your business to be sustainable.
“advisors who challenge your ideas and assumptions in a good way that inevitably will prepare you for business success”
Another challenge came when I was on another startup-related programme. The Business Advisor I has been assigned asked me how I could prove that thousands of units of tights would fly off the shelf once I purchased my first stock order. It was a fair question but I left the meeting in tears. Until that point, I was really confident and I thought that speaking to my target audience as well as collecting and analysing hundreds of survey response was enough to prove there was demand.
To prove my concept, I, therefore, launched a Kickstarter campaign, and over a short 30 day period received a boot camp in all things marketing, PR and sales. It was a rude awakening because I thought I knew everything. But it shows that you need advisors who challenge your ideas and assumptions in a good way that inevitably will prepare you for business success.
“to have the backing of an internationally renowned brand that aligns with our values really gave me that initial kick to realise the potential value of Sheer Chemistry”
Have you had moments when you realize the business will be successful?
I‘ve had several, for instance when the W Hotel agreed to collaborate with me for our launch and sell Sheer Chemistry products exclusively for our first 6 months. I thought ‘This is amazing’. To have the backing of an internationally renowned brand that aligns with our values really gave me that initial kick to realise the potential value of Sheer Chemistry and increased my desire to build an equally successful and iconic brand myself.
What is your experience as a woman of colour in tech startup?
Outside of the One Tech programme, I haven’t seen much representation.
Telling people my idea has often been quite exhausting in terms of having to over-explain the need for my products and justify that there is a demand.
Luckily, I feel that this has been changing in the past few years and there are a lot more women in this space, particularly in tech. I love Sharmadean Reid. I’ve watched her journey from Wah Nails to Beautystack and it has been really inspiring for me.
More is needed but it’s great to see the work that OneTech is doing.
How has OneTech supported you?
I’m on three different programmes: The Pioneer Programme, Female Workspace support, and Founders Forward Mentor Programme.
Moving into Wilson Street WeWork was magical because it exposed me to an entrepreneurial community. It gives that kind of business support in terms of just being able to turn to someone ask ‘Do you know how to use Photoshop? I’m struggling with this. Can you help?’ Or just building relationships with people and having them give me feedback on my pitch deck or how to approach retailers. Having space with a buzz where people are doing things and meeting people, makes me think I should be doing the same and has really helped keep my momentum.
My mentor at JP Morgan has been really helpful, partly because she looks at my business from a non-entrepreneurial perspective. She asks very direct questions about business revenue, stock, turnover, and my own personal objectives. She helped me to focus my goals and make them really tangible.
What is your advice to other underrepresented founders?
I would say to find spaces where you can meet other women who are at a similar or maybe more advanced stage because it’s really important to get that support.
There are often times when you want to give up or you don’t think that the business is going to grow to meet your expectations. Having people around you who’ve been through a similar experience and able to give you advice or encouragement is really important.
Sometimes people in the corporate world are unable to relate and they say ‘Well, why you don’t just get a job?’ which is unhelpful. So it’s really necessary to find communities where you get that support and you are able to relate to people.
“find spaces where you can meet other women who are at a similar or maybe more advanced stage because it’s really important to get that support”
What are your plans for the future?
I am my business. I want it to grow globally. I want to expand on the product offering and develop my intellectual property. I want to grow it into a global, multi-million dollar brand. And yeah, I think that is possible within the next five years.
I really want other entrepreneurs to be able to look at me and see that it can be done, whether building a business or just taking a step out of the conventional path. I want to be a fully-fledged businesswoman who leads by example and every day, I am learning and growing to ensure I become her.