So at a time when more MBAs flood the jobs market each year, at a time when many countries are still dragging themselves out of recession, and when the cosmetics industry is more competitive than ever, funding her skin-care start-up was always going to be a challenge.
Entrepreneurship may be on the rise at business schools, but the majority of new ventures fail. When Sam setup Bote Natirel in 2009, in Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti, 40 per cent of the country was still unemployed.
When an earthquake struck a year later, it was estimated that it cost $8.5 billion in damage to Haiti's economy.
Sam hadn’t even begun her MBA at Grenoble GSB yet.
And economic forecasts are still significantly lower than other countries in the Americas and the Western world. But all that has done little to deter Sam, who was raised in both Florida and Haiti, an entrepreneur whom is living the American Dream.
After self-funding her way through college at the University of Florida, and working part-time “jobs from hell” to make ends meet, she saved up enough money – with a little help from family, friends and investors – to launch a luxury start-up in one of the poorest countries in the world.
“It was extremely difficult,” says Sam. “I wanted to stay in areas I was comfortable in and part of my family live in Haiti, so it was where I set up my flagship building, in Port-au-Prince.
“Obviously, our target demographic was women of a higher class level, and I was really comfortable in that world.”
She was raised in-part in Miami and speaks with an American accent. But her mother is French-Haitian, and Sam spent summer vacations on the island on her family’s farm, learning about local vegetables and fruits – “stuff that’s good for the body”.
Her inspiration came from an unlikely – and unfortunate – place. “I was interested in skincare because I had terrible skin in high school,” she reveals, although you wouldn’t know it now. “I was in desperation. Finally, after trying all the creams on the market, I focused on health, and more natural face-masks and ingredients.
“That became a hobby and I decided I wanted to do something I really liked. I thought, why not just open up a business?”
Sam launched Bote Natirel immediately after graduating from college. The business sold a small product range of body butters, facial locations, facial scrubs and face washes.
She funded the initial launch with help from friends and older relatives whom were already in business. And while most MBAs might jump onto the corporate track straight after getting an undergraduate degree before going it alone, Sam had to work in altogether less fulfilling roles.
“I did the jobs of hell. I’d be the girl folding the shirts for hours on end in retail stores, and making sure the displays looked nice,” she says. “But you do what you can in college.” Indeed. Sam is sure it was worth it.
“Absolutely. I didn’t come from a well-off family to begin with so being able to finance college on my own was advantageous. I was at least able to support myself,” she says.
I ask why she chose Haiti over Miami – not exactly a bastion of economic strength. Was it not difficult enough to compete with the big-name brands, fresh out of graduation? “Well,” she says. “I was a very broke college student, so when I approached investors the only way I could convince them to give me money was by sounding believable and confident.
“For me personally, with the comfort of growing up half in the Caribbean, it was easy for me to sell myself and say I can return your investment [in Haiti]. It was a big seal.”
Competition, too, would be fierce in the States or Europe. According to the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA), the market was worth €67 billion in the EU in 2010 – and the industry is dominated by big-name brands such as L'Oréal and Olay.
“I did not feel as confident in the U.S or Europe because it’s much more expensive for me to even open up a manufacturing site. I needed to make sure my voice was heard,” Sam says.
She planned to expand internationally and Bote Natirel soon sold products to the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. Sam’s biggest challenge was marketing those products to countries which are close in proximity, but vastly different in culture.
“Because the Dominican Republic is more Spanish-orientated, it was the tropical ingredients that were the draw for that demographic,” she explains. “But in Haiti, they cared more about natural ingredients; so we used a lot of pictures of women mixing the ingredients together in our marketing.
“Because of the culture and the way that people envisage skincare is different, you have to tailor it to that region."
After expanding into three different countries, it might seem strange that she chose to begin an MBA now. And even stranger than she did so at Grenoble in France, thousands of miles away from Port-au-Prince and Miami.
But you can’t stay in your comfort zone forever. “I was itching to get outside the Caribbean and I wanted a new challenge,” Sam says. She planned to get into the cosmetics industry – whether in her old business or in a new company – in South Florida.
“But the overwhelming feedback was that stores were already overstuffed with competition and that it was going to be super difficult,” she continues. “I had to be honest; I did not have the skillset. It was a big hint that I didn’t have the education [needed].”
She researched MBA programs and decided that she had to go back to school. The program at Grenoble, with a track in Luxury Brand Management, was the perfect fit. “France is the Mecca of the skincare industry, especially luxury, and I wanted the opportunity to network,” Sam says.
For now, her start-ups’ operations are on hold. After an MBA, the next step is cosmetics on an international scale. “I want a position in an international company, so I’m not sure whether or not I’ll re-open my business,” she adds.
She is aiming for London or New York City post-MBA. It’s a passion for the industry that drives Sam, whether that’s on the entrepreneurial or corporate track.
She has achieved a remarkable amount and there is still much more to be done. And thanks to entrepreneurship her skin, much like her business vision, has never been clearer.
Sam is an entrepreneur who you feel, with or without an MBA, is living the American Dream. Business school just adds another ingredient to her range.