Bonnie Howland, 22, talks about running a social enterprise and how contrasting experiences inspired her to create a business helping Pacific Island communities.

What does your business do?

We are a make-up brand that really cares about the world. Our tagline is "beauty brand that gives a damn" and basically what we do is we make ethical mascara, vegan and cruelty-free, and we sell it online. We donate 50 per cent of our profit to the Fred Hollows Foundation to help end avoidable blindness in the Pacific Islands. We've donated enough now that the equivalent of 250 people have been able to have surgeries to see again.

We launched about three months ago but I started the company about four years ago - it took a while to get up and running.


What was the motivation?

It kind of came about from two experiences that happened in a very short time.

I was living in Auckland studying event management and I worked on New Zealand Fashion Week as soon as I got back from a trip to Vanuatu and it was kind of those two experiences that were super contrasting that really opened my eyes to a lot of different things - one was how massive the fashion and beauty industry is and the other was all of the things in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands that I really believed at the time needed to change, such as increasing access to healthcare. This is why I work with the Fred Hollows Foundation, which treats eye problems in some of the world's poorest communities.

I could see a lot of cool ethical clothing companies but couldn't find any make-up companies that matched my values, that were doing anything creative with their profits and were super-high quality. When I first had the idea it was "Oh, someone should do that" but I was just so young and didn't have the self-confidence at the time to jump in and go for it.

Why did it take so long to launch the business?

The main reason was because our mascara is made in Milan. We had a lot of things we wanted for the formula so we had to create it with the manufacturer which took a long time because of product testing and getting it perfect. The other reason was I was 18 when I started the company. I dropped out of university and it was my first time doing anything like this. In the early days I was in Wellington working three jobs trying to start this up. I even had to move to Kapiti to live with my grandad.

How big is your team?

It's just me and Hannah Duder. After about three years of doing it on my own I brought Hannah on. She runs the company as CEO and captain of the ship.

Indigo and Iris has been selling its mascaras online for three months. Photo / Supplied
Indigo and Iris has been selling its mascaras online for three months. Photo / Supplied

What are your long-term plans?

Long-term we want to have a full range of beauty products and other organisations like the Fred Hollows Foundation to work with. We have been checking out some potential options and people we would love to work with.

We have seven designs and concepts for other beauty products. We're looking at eye shadow palettes for the next step. It's super expensive to develop and bring out a completely new product, especially if you do it Europe, so we are trying to save enough.

What were some of the early challenges you faced?

Our manufacturer in Milan has a minimum order quantity which is why it was tricky in the beginning as we needed to find a huge sum of money to be even be able to get any mascaras. We had to order 10,000 and raise about $100,000 to be able to put in our first order. We've been selling online for three months now.

What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?

My biggest piece of advice would be to make sure your motivation for starting the business is your own happiness, to make you happy, because when things get hard - which they do when starting a business - if you're starting it for any other reason it just won't be worth. Also, if you believe you can do it, you eventually will.