Editor's Note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2015 Coolest College Startups package. Read on for more on the hottest startups to watch right now. Also, be sure to congratulate Ava Anderson Non Toxic on winning our March Madness bracket.
All sorts of events inspire entrepreneurs to action. For Ava Anderson, it was the news.
While watching TV with her mom in 2009, the then 15-year-old saw a report on a study of teens conducted by the Environmental Working Group. It showed that adolescents across America are exposed to--and often contaminated by--potentially harmful chemicals commonly used in cosmetics and body care products. That "horrifying" information inspired Anderson to start a blog, and eventually led her down the path of launching her own nontoxic beauty products line, called Ava Anderson Non Toxic.
"I was unable to find a full line to recommend to friends and family, and followers of my blog," says the new 21-year-old. "That's when I decided to do something about it. I knew that if I was looking for truly safe solutions, others had to be too."
Today Anderson is a student at Babson College and also sits at the helm of a nontoxic consumer products empire that offers 11 distinct lines and more than 75 products, including home cleansers, cosmetics, and candles. With the help of over 7,500 "Ava Consultants"--independent business owners sharing Anderson's message and products--Ava Anderson Non Toxic reeled in revenue of $20 million in 2014, up more than 300 percent from the previous year, according to the company.
Besides that progress, Ava Anderson Non Toxic has one more feather in its cap. The East Providence, Rhode Island-based company is Inc.'s 2015 Coolest College Startup, beating 15 other companies in a March Madness-style competition. To learn more about this young entrepreneur's rise to the top--and any secrets she has for fellow up-and-coming founders--check out Inc.'s interview with Anderson (which has been edited) below.
Why do you think the beauty industry is primed for disruption?
More and more people are aware of the burden of harmful chemicals from products that we inhale, ingest, and absorb. For our family, this has never been about money; it has been about education and creating a paradigm shift by sharing this important health message with millions. We know that nothing can change a marketplace faster than ticked off moms and dads (and teens!) demanding better for their families.
Why did you pursue the multilevel marketing business model, Ã la Mary Kay?
It is difficult to get into retailers, and even more challenging to explain why we are different to customers. There just is not enough room on the back of a bottle to explain why our ingredients are not harmful, and why the product sitting on the shelf next to it is--without the education piece of our "avaHOURS." (Similar to Tupperware parties, these product parties allow Ava Consultants to discuss the company's product lines.) Retailers pretty much own you as a new vendor, and you can always get kicked off the shelves. This way we control our own destiny and educate the consumer with the facts to make healthier choices.
What are the benefits of this type of model?
We have direct contact with our customers, and we offer a fantastic and low-cost entrepreneurial opportunity for thousands of American families. We have many earning six figures doing something extremely worthwhile. With more than 7,500 Ava Consultants all across the country now, we are really starting to have an impact.
When did you realize you were onto something?
Pretty quickly. We started with almost 450 consultants on day one. And everyone loves the products. Not only do we not have harmful ingredients, we have products with organic and natural ingredients that perform equally with or better than conventional products.
How do you balance your business with school?
I spend about 40 hours per week on business. I am cc'd on most emails, do product development (we now have 75 products in the line), training, social media, press, and other projects. We have a fantastic team now at the home office, with 17 executives and more than 75 employees. The time commitment isn't that much different from what my friends make to be on sports teams, and Babson has been incredibly supportive.
What has been your biggest startup challenge to date? And how did you overcome it?
In the beginning, it was hard for some to believe that a teenager really could start a business. Yes, I had help from my parents and a few employees, but this has been my passion and my idea from the beginning. Once people meet me or hear me speak, they understand that. For several years, I was too young to sign a check or contract, until I turned 18. Finding reliable manufacturers to help us with private labeling was also a big challenge, and most of them couldn't keep up with our growth, but we now have a handful, and we also recently moved some manufacturing in-house.
What's your best advice for fellow young entrepreneurs?
Know your market. Make sure it is a scalable product or service, get support from mentors or family, and be sure this is something you are going to want to be doing for many years to come. If it is your driving passion, you will love your work every day, and others will feed off of that energy and want to be a part of it!