Beauty Startup Co-founders Turned UVA Darden Students Show B-School and Venture Growth Make Beautiful Match
By Dave Hendrick
Friends working in south Florida before beginning their MBA journey together, Kelly Bonilla and Jade Palomino didn’t waste any time when they arrived at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
With a startup already in development when they arrived at the School, the two First Year students are hard at work establishing a business that takes aim at one of the few services that have so far remained immune to the wave of disruption that has upended countless industries: the beauty salon.
Houses of haircuts, blowouts, manicures and waxes are ubiquitous but remain decidedly analog organizations. If you need an appointment with your stylist, you’re probably dialing a phone a number.
As two young women working in the high-tech startup world in Miami Beach, the calcified nature of even top salons in a world where much of life is available at the tap of an app struck both as slightly ridiculous.
“We would get beauty services done after work, and we found that the process was inefficient and really costly,” said Palomino.
The pair clearly knew the problem they hoped to solve, and, unlike many entrepreneurs, they also had the experience to sidestep common pitfalls and actually get the company off the ground.
Bonilla and Palomino, co-founders of Slay, a tech company offering monthly subscription services to a curated list of beauty providers, worked most recently as a two-person team at the nonprofit startup accelerator Endeavor, where they were responsible for vetting ventures seeking access to a global network of advisers.
They saw what worked, what didn’t and why — globally.
“Our job was to go around South Florida, find awesome entrepreneurs and bring them into the portfolio,” said Palomino, a Hawaii native who practiced corporate law before executing a radical career change.
“It was a great way for us to learn and get exposure to lots of different industries and entrepreneurs of all stripes all around the world,” said Bonilla, who grew up in Miami and worked for Teach For America after her undergraduate education.
An Unexpected Path to Darden
As they were becoming experts in the startup world — and becoming best friends — they were both increasingly thinking about leaving a job they loved to take a shot at bringing their venture to life.
“We spent a lot of time really learning about the market, and the more we learned about it, the more excited we became,” Bonilla said. “The market and the need were both larger than we expected.”
The pair are quick to rattle off statistics about the opportunity they believe they have tapped into with Slay: 100 million Americans go to a salon at least once a month, they say.
And while both thought they had the experience to sidestep common pitfalls and actually get the company off the ground, they also believed there was a limit to some of their hard skills. So, in addition to devising a business plan for what would become Slay, they were simultaneously preparing to apply to MBA programs.
“The big reason we both applied to business school was because, in working with entrepreneurs, we often found that they didn’t have the hard skills to take their businesses to the next level,” said Palomino.
Added Bonilla, “The concept would be great, but once they reached scale they would have trouble getting to the next level because they didn’t understand finance, or accounting or how to manage a team, and we didn’t want that to be an impediment to being successful.”
Darden was not on their initial short lists. After Palomino visited the School, however, she was enamored by both the warmth of the Admissions department and quality of future classmates.
“It was an amazing experience,” Palomino said of her Darden visit.
Bonilla, meanwhile, had accepted a full scholarship offer to a top program in the Northeast, but a visit to the campus left her cold, and she found it difficult to get answers to how Slay, which the pair formally launched in beta mode in April 2018, could be supported while she was at school.
Conversely, Bonilla said when she and Palomino began investigating venture support at Darden, a mentor at the UVA i.Lab connected them with i.Lab Incubator Director Jason Brewster, who outlined the ways the School would try to assist with their venture growth.
“Kelly and Jade embody the type of entrepreneurial spirit Darden strives to attract,” Brewster said. “There are few schools that recognize the entrepreneurs who come with an existing venture they want to take to the next level, but we are trying to offer support and programming for entrepreneurs at every stage of venture creation.”
Darden recently dramatically expanded its Batten Scholars Program, which offers full and partial scholarships to students in the areas of entrepreneurship, technology and innovation.
That support, coupled with Palomino’s experience and the reports Bonilla received from her former Teach for America manager Kimberly Diaz (Class of 2019) eventually led Bonilla to change course and join her co-founder in the Darden Class of 2020. Both Bonilla and Palomino are recipients of scholarships through The Consortium, the nonprofit group supporting inclusion efforts across a network of business schools.
Integrating Business School With a Busy Startup
With half of First Year in the rearview mirror, the pair continue to refine Slay’s initial offering: Slay Beauty Pass, which they have been testing with 12 beauty salons in Miami.
Users pay a monthly fee for the pass and are granted a certain number of credits that they can exchange for services at participating salons.
“We call ourselves the most seamless beauty salon pass ever,” Palomino said. “We allow users to book appointments at nearby salons with a monthly membership, and we guarantee a minimum of a 15 percent discount on all transactions on our platform.”
After a prototype scheduling platform saw little use from partner salons, the pair realized the process needed to be as seamless for the provider as the client, and retooled as an integration with Twilio, an existing enterprise software.
When a user makes a request for an appointment, the salon receives a phone call instructing the business to push a button to confirm the request.
The deliberate rollout has been critical in helping the company — a three-person team augmented by five UVA interns — learn more about the product.
“The controlled beta has also allowed us to really cultivate a unique voice and vision for the company,” Palomino said. “Obviously, the product is important, but at the end of the day it’s our brand that will serve as the largest barrier of entry for potential competitors and is going to set us apart.”
It’s important, for instance, that a company founded by two women of color to serve a diverse audience, and the pair cite inclusion as a key principle.
Bonilla and Palomino, who plan to expand Slay Beauty Pass to Charlottesville in the near future, also credit the Darden community with honing their product. They have participated in the Darden Venture Lab, a new program offering support and resources to student entrepreneurs. Professors such as Tami Kim and Lalin Anik have both shared their marketing expertise generously.
Their classmates, too, have rallied behind the venture in a number of ways, from helping to build out the business’s financial projections to asking to participate in the company’s daily scrum calls.
“When we start doing our A/B testing, we’re probably going to have most of the school on the app helping us find bugs.” said Bonilla.
As they start the new year, the pair are also busy trying to raise capital to aid the company’s growth and expansion.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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