In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting stories of three women business owners who faced challenges that disrupted their operations. Each found a way to triumph as they grew their businesses, expanded product lines, and emerged stronger.
How Angela Stephens survived an email phishing scam
Angela Stephens is the founder and CEO of RE-Focus, the Creative Office, a business that creates products to help people with focus issues. In 2019, she faced a setback when a wire transfer went awry. Discover how she maintained focus on her goal despite the chaos surrounding her.
Angela Stephens, founder and CEO of RE-Focus, the Creative Office, was baffled when a foreign-based manufacturer claimed it hadn’t received a $12,500 wire transfer she’d sent to cover pill box production.
Angela and her now 22-year-old son Drake founded RE-Focus in 2019, after she successfully created various products, such as calendars and to-do list legal pads, to help manage Drake’s ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). Customers who needed help with focus issues really embraced the RE-Focus mission, fueling Angela’s entrepreneurial spirit and inspiring new ideas.
The pill boxes were the latest addition to the company’s product line, designed to help customers manage their daily medications. The manufacturer, with whom Angela was working for the first time, notified her team that the product was ready, but the money was a no-show.
“They said, ‘You haven’t sent the money.’ I said, ‘Yes, we have,’ Angela recalled. “And so, we showed them the wire details from our bank.” After some back and forth, the manufacturer threatened to sell the product to other clients, leading Angela to send another $12,500 from her personal funds, thinking the first payment was lost in transit.
However, when the manufacturer still hadn’t received the second payment, Angela and her husband Darold Sauber, the CFO of RE-Focus, got on a call with them. Angela says, “We did a video and we said, ‘Look, this is the wire. You got it. You said you got it.’ They said, ‘That’s not our email.’ They showed us our email and we said, ‘That’s not our email.’”
We lost $25,000. We didn’t lose $25 million. If this company reaches the level of my vision for where I see it going, this will just be a bump in the road.
Turns out RE-Focus had fallen victim to an email phishing scam, where scammers use fake emails or texts to steal sensitive information. According to Comparitech, a pro-consumer cyber security website, as many as 79 percent of US organizations experienced a successful phishing attack in 2021, with business email compromise scams being particularly lucrative. Angela reported the incident to law enforcement authorities, but was informed that nothing could be done unless the amount in question was $100,000 or more.
In order to get the pill boxes, Angela and her team ultimately had to negotiate with the manufacturer through a broker based in the same country. But the money was gone. Angela cautions other sellers who have no prior experience working with overseas manufacturers to use payment methods that reduce risk to the company. She also credits Amazon’s Brand Protection program for helping to protect brands who sell in the Amazon store, as well as their customers, from fraud and abuse.
Despite the setback, Angela remains upbeat, and has put the painful episode behind her. “One of the biggest lessons I learned was really to calm your team because my team was upset and freaking out about what happened. We lost $25,000. We didn’t lose $25 million. If this company reaches the level of my vision for where I see it going, this will just be a bump in the road.”
In 2022, three years after the incident, RE-Focus made over $400,000 in sales selling in Amazon’s store. “That experience could have put many people out of business, but you have to keep going,” she says. “We just had a staff meeting, and we were talking about that, and everybody said, ‘We learn every day in this business. That’s what makes this journey awesome.’”
What the pandemic taught Moisture Love’s founder about business
Jeannell Darden, founder and CEO of Moisture Love, a natural haircare brand, was working to grow her small business when an illness crippled her company’s operations. Learn how she overcame a tough situation.
It was 2020, and natural hair care brand, Moisture Love, was having its best year yet. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased consumer spending was fueling record-breaking ecommerce sales for the brand. Everything came to a halt, however, when Moisture Love’s founder, Jeannell Darden, and other family members on whom she relied for business assistance, contracted COVID-19. “My mother and brother both got sick,” she explains. “My test came back negative, but I was just as sick as they were.”
To make matters worse, the company’s hair product packaging and bottles were in short supply. They’d all been snapped up by hand sanitizer manufacturers.
As a result, Moisture Love was unable to fulfill orders, which led to a halt in production and shipping. Some customers became enraged, forcing Jeannell to issue nearly $5,000 in refunds. “Imagine a small business trying to make products, shut down for several weeks,” she says. “It was difficult, and I thought, yeah, this might be it. This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Despite these difficulties, Jeannell was able to enlist the help of friends, who contributed their time to help process orders, as well as the support of some of her customers who were willing to wait longer for their orders. “I called our suppliers and begged, borrowed, and did everything but steal and cheat to get everything I needed on time,” she says. “It took us about two to three weeks to really get everything back together, but I figured it out.”
It pushed us to pay more attention to Amazon...We realized we needed a new customer channel, and we needed some logistical support that was a lot more robust than what we had.
As a result of the experience, Jeannell recognized she needed to attract new customers, and becoming an Amazon seller seemed like a natural next step to improve Moisture Love’s customer growth and logistical support. “It pushed us to pay more attention to Amazon, because we wouldn’t have had that problem if we had a fulfillment partner,” she says. “We realized we needed a new customer channel, and we needed some logistical support that was a lot more robust than what we had. I could also say [to customers]: ‘I know your product is going to be there in two days, once it ships,’ even if the rest of the supply chain was delayed.’”
The pandemic exposed an operational gap in Jeannell’s business, and she learned the importance of contingency planning and how to identify areas for improvement to prevent repeat issues. To avoid being seen as a brand that couldn’t deliver, she scaled back operations while she figured out how to ramp back up.
She credits her tenacity to her preacher father, who has always urged her to pray and have faith in difficult times. “I can’t say that I always have this strength within me because I’ve packed up and quit in my mind four or five times,” she says. “But every time I do that, something will come through: a grant, an opportunity, something will show up.”
Jeannell’s experience has taught her that business success does not come from taking a single big shot. “You might feel like you need to take that Hail Mary shot to win the game,” she says, referring to the sports term for a last-second, long-shot attempt by a losing team to come from behind and win the game. “But it’s not about the big, flashy moves. It’s about the small, consistent actions that make a difference in the long run.”
Numa Foods’ journey to finding the perfect product name
Some new business challenges can be foreseeable. Then there are those that business owners can not anticipate. Find out how founder and CEO Joyce Zhu and her co-founder and mother, Jane, handled a sticky situation involving their new company’s product.
In 2017, Joyce Zhu and her mother Jane founded Numa Foods to introduce healthy traditional Asian milk candy to North American consumers. Popular in China and other Asian countries, milk candy is chewy and produced from whole milk powder, whipped egg whites, brown rice syrup, nuts, and fruit.
While customer reviews on Numa Foods’ Amazon storefront were generally positive, the co-founders began to notice a trend.
According to Joyce, many customers thought milk belonged in the fridge and didn’t understand that the candy was shelf-stable. “How would they know we utilize dairy powders, which are 100% safe to consume when not refrigerated?” she says. “We sat down and thought, ‘Okay, there’s a gap in understanding here.’”
In Shanghai, where Jane grew up, “milk candy” is the direct translation from Chinese, but the name didn’t do well with North American customers. As CEO, Joyce, who was born and raised in the United States, understood that the company needed to meet the customer in the middle somehow. Her main concern was that people were still interested enough to try it, so they changed the candy’s description to “Asian nougat.”
Many customers, familiar with European nougat, resisted that description. Asian nougat uses rice syrup or maltose, which is denser and less sweet than European honey nougat. Asian nougat is also harder and chewier than European nougat.
To tackle this latest conundrum, the pair decided to focus on how people were describing their candy, without any labeling or branding. They found that many Amazon customers who ended up liking their product described it as “great taffy.”
“Having access to honest consumer feedback quickly, and in volume, from around the country through Amazon reviews has been critical in being able to make these decisions,” Joyce says. “When we got enough people [calling it taffy], we were like, ‘That’s what we should call it. That’s how we should meet people in the middle.’”
Access to honest consumer feedback quickly, and in volume, from around the country through Amazon reviews has been critical in being able to make these decisions.
However, this approach also led to criticism from some consumers who felt that the brand’s description was too “Americanized.” It was then that the co-founders decided to refer to it as an Asian-American candy.
“It’s a fine balance, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be about who we want to be as a brand,” is Joyce’s response. “And one of our missions is to introduce that part of our culture to more people who are unaware of it.”
Joyce advises food business owners experiencing a similar “identity crisis” to listen to customers, as she and her mother Jane continue to do. “Each product is different,” she says. “If I could take a food product sort of like mine, I would probably go to some kind of market and be very, very general on what the product is, and pinpoint the benefits and why someone would want to even try it. Ask, ‘What would you compare this to? What do you think of when you eat this? What does it remind you of?’ Listen to their thoughts—good and bad. Take good notes and look at what keeps coming up in feedback. This will help you communicate the product to the consumer.”
Despite these early branding challenges, Numa Foods moved to a dedicated production facility in 2018 and hopes to establish a fully-automated food production line by 2023, allowing the company to scale. The mother-daughter team remains unfazed.
“I think you get to a point in your business where you have a clear vision for what you’re doing and where you’re heading,” Joyce says. “If while on this route I discover there was something I did or a choice I made that is affecting me now, will that completely derail the entire journey? No. So all I have to do is figure out this one element which, in business, is smaller than you think, and which helps you move on because your vision is bigger than that.”