Posted 18 January 2024

From DIY to MBE: Sharmadean Reid’s lessons in launching a creative business

Sharmadean Reid is a true entrepreneurial powerhouse. Having founded her first initiative, WAH magazine, while still at university, she has since gone on to launch multiple highly coveted and successful businesses, including WAH Nails – a salon chain that welcomed the likes of Serena Williams and Margot Robbie – and most recently, Stack World. In A Colourful View From the Top, a new book by Jonathan Mildenhall, Sharmadean imparts her incredible insights and learnings from her career to date alongside 20 other exciting names. Here, we’re sharing an excerpt from her chapter.

Finding industry leaders you admire is one thing, but if you come from an underrepresented background, finding someone you can truly relate to is a greater challenge. TwentyFirstCenturyBrand co-founder Jonathan Mildenhall took this issue on head-first when he set out to compile an anthology of stories and experiences from leaders of colour. Published in 2023, A Colourful View From the Top features 21 voices at the top of their game in advertising, business and beyond – and are all proof that fulfilling careers aren’t defined or limited by race, gender or age.

One of these luminaries is the MBE-awarded founder, writer and creative consultant Sharmadean Reid. Over an impressive 20-year career, she has built a portfolio of incredible business ventures, starting out with women’s hip hop magazine WAH, before going on to found WAH Nails, FutureGirlCorp, Beautystack and, more recently, The Stack World, a platform empowering women’s communities. If all that wasn’t enough, she received an MBE for services to the beauty industry and was selected to join the inaugural UK Black Tech Cohort of Launch with GS – a $1 billion investment strategy set up by The Goldman Sachs Group – in 2022. In this edited excerpt from A Colourful View From the Top, she shares her learnings from launching these successful businesses and achieving these accolades.

You are your own best focus group

When I first came to London to do my degree at Central St Martins, my boyfriend at the time was a hip hop DJ, so I’d go to this high-fashion art school during the day, then at night I would go to hip hop clubs and parties. I started WAH magazine because I loved that music, but I found the whole culture of it very misogynistic. Whenever I’d go out, there would only be five or six women in a room of about a hundred men, so I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this wasn’t a very female-friendly culture.

“I don’t think about other people’s opinions – I make the things I want to; if other people like it, that’s a bonus.”

When I made the first magazine, it was pure instinct – I made what I wanted to make and included what felt right. That’s how I often approach creativity: I don’t think about other people’s opinions initially – I make the things I want to, and if other people like it then that’s a bonus. It doesn’t have to be perfect, for everybody, all the time. It may have partly been youthful naïveté, but I never thought my creative pursuits could go wrong. I never even considered, “What if no one likes it?” I always trusted my intuition and my taste and gut.

DIY does it best

We always said we had the punk DIY attitude with a hip hop shiny aesthetic. I made the first issue of WAH in my bedroom on a Mac Mini in the evenings after university. I would finish my classes, go home and make a magazine. The computer room manager at the university gave me a cracked copy of Adobe InDesign and I used the ‘Help’ function to teach myself how to use it. Determination, resourcefulness and hard work can get you a long way.

For the magazine, I would go to a club, find interesting women and ask them about hip hop, the scene or themselves. I’d interview them and take photographs that could be included in that issue. While I was making the magazine, I wasn’t quiet about it. I’m not like those people who are secretive about their projects – I’m the exact opposite. I told every single person I ran into that I was making a hip hop magazine for girls and women.

For the next three years, every time I went out, I would put a whole bunch of them in my backpack and give them out to people in the club myself. In the end that really helped me because that’s how the magazine got in the hands of the core audience. It wasn’t long before I started a blog for WAH. It was essentially all about me, my mates, streetwear, fashion and music – cool things we liked and talked about. It could be about getting my nails done or it could be about feminist history – it was wide-ranging and inclusive. It was also much quicker and more instant than a magazine, so it was easier to express what I wanted to get across.

The blog is what got WAH internationally known. It was quite early on in the blog space in 2006 – they were only just becoming a thing, so people were looking for them and were excited by them. They were finding mine and loving it – people would recognise me from my picture on it and would come up to me in the street: “Wow! You’re the WAH girl!”

Continue to trust your own instincts

Everything I’ve done has been from the jumping-off point of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if X, Y, Z existed?” I know that I could bring it to life because I have the drive and curiosity to see what the outcome would be like. That applies to anything; it didn’t have to be a nail salon or a magazine. If I’d run a bakery or a library or anything, I believe I would still have made it interesting.

“Everything I’ve done has been from the jumping-off point of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if X, Y, Z existed?””

I’m conscious that this isn’t the most commercial path to take, but that’s not really the point – sometimes you just have to go for it. I remember with the nail salon, in the beginning, I thought, “Oh wouldn’t it be cool if there was a place that looked like an artist’s studio because it actually did art on nails?” I never thought, “We are going to have to get this many customers a day so we’d better do this”, I just thought, ”Let’s do it”. It was only during the process of building the business that I kept refining and learning, exploring different revenue streams so we broke even.

We were ahead of the zeitgeist with the things that we did. I had and still have a natural intuition for the mood of the moment, although what I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is that we have to justify this with data and customer insight. That’s when you slow down and start to look twice at things you would have been sure about before.

Do what you know

My motto is ‘create what you consume’. Before I did WAH I loved reading other people’s stuff, but all the time I was thinking, “Could I make my own?” I loved getting my nails done, but I was thinking: “Could I make my own nail salon?” Whatever I’m heavily consuming, I like to create the perfect version of it for me.

Because my media consumption now flip-flops through a range of different things – business information, style and culture information, news – I always look through the different sections and I think, “Hmm, that’s interesting – why am I skipping this really vital bit of the paper that’s not really interesting to me? What would be interesting to me? What would a newspaper that’s not about women’s issues as we label them, but is written for half the population, be like?” There’s not an equivalent section in a newspaper that’s almost exclusively for women, is there?

It’s OK to take the easy route

One of the things I would say is that I like to make things hard for myself, and what I’m trying to learn now as I get older is that it’s totally OK for things to be easy, be natural and flow. From day one my whole career was based on my love of general media; from a really young age I was obsessed with film, TV, music, music videos, magazines, books and newspapers. I did a degree in magazines when I did fashion and communication at Central St Martins.

I made a magazine, I worked at magazines and then I took a completely divergent path and opened a nail salon. It’s now taken me fifteen years to get back to the written word with The Stack and although I feel I’ve never been more at home, even now I’m thinking “How can I complicate this? How can I make it hard for myself?”

Now, The Stack seems just such a natural fit for where I am and what I’ve experienced in my life and my career. I’ve been able to structure my days to work for me: I reserve Mondays for internal meetings and collaborations; Tuesdays for deep work and big picture strategising; Wednesdays are social days for idea generating and being exposed to new challenges and perspectives; Thursdays for external meetings and potential partnerships; Fridays for insight and expectations with investors.

I bookend my week with my inner-circle – my community of team members – building, crafting and curating spaces where mission-driven women can make meaningful connections. It is, in many ways, home for me. So I’m going to relax, hone my expertise and enjoy it.


This is an edited excerpt from the book A Colourful View from the Top by Jonathan Mildenhall, co-founder of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand – one of our brilliant Company Partners. Every year, we partner with like-minded agencies to support Creative Lives and keep it free for emerging creatives. To find out more about working with us, email [email protected]

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