Harnessing media and technology for female empowerment: in conversation with Sharmadean Reid MBE

Monday was International Women’s Day – one of the most important days of the year for celebrating inspiring women and reflecting on how to advance gender equality. Since Monday, however, there have not been many reasons to celebrate. This week’s news cycle has reminded us all just how far there is to go to reach gender equality, and the hurdles and dangers that women still face in their everyday lives.

One person who recognises this more than most is Sharmadean Reid. In what has otherwise been a distressing week for women, it feels refreshing to be profiling Sharmadean, who has committed her professional life to moving the needle on gender equality, in this week’s column.

Sharmadean is certainly a force to be reckoned with. At 36, the entrepreneur and changemaker is launching her third business venture; has been awarded an MBE; and has just been shortlisted for the Veuve Clicquot Bold Future Award, a celebration of up-and-coming leaders of the future.

Every one of Sharmadean’s projects has revolved around encouraging crucial conversations and creating safe, exciting and empowering spaces for women – both online and offline. Her first business, nail salon WAH Nails, became an institution before closing in 2019. Her second, Beautystack, is disrupting the beauty space with software that digistises the social experience of discovering and booking beauty treatments. And her third, The Stack World, might just be the most exciting yet: a media platform by and for women which rips up the rulebook to provide insightful, serious and practical content for female readers. 

In conversation with Sharmadean Reid, Founder & CEO at The Stack World

I caught up with Sharmadean last week to discuss her astonishing career journey, her efforts to empower women and why The Stack World feels like a natural evolution of her life’s work. Our conversation starts right at the beginning. I wonder if Sharmadean has always been as driven to succeed as she is today? 

“From the age of twelve, I knew which degree I wanted to do, and at which university,” she told me, confirming my suspicions. “I bought and poured over the Central Saint Martins prospectus every year for five years, learning all there was to know about the school’s Fashion Communication and Promotion course. The problem was,” she laughed, “by the time I arrived I already knew everything!” 

“I bought and poured over the Central Saint Martins prospectus every year for five years, learning all there was to know about the school’s Fashion Communication and Promotion course. The problem was… by the time I arrived I already knew everything!” 

Relocating from her hometown of Wolverhampton to London, Sharmadean completed her degree while simultaneously learning the ropes of the fashion world from the best in the business. 

“I applied to assist Nicola Formichetti,” she tells me, “and to stand out from the crowd I photocopied his shoots, made them into pop-up books and posted them to him asking to work for him.” 

The acclaimed fashion designer agreed, and Sharmadean spent her first few years in London working alongside industry icons, Nicola Formichetti, Kim Jones and Jo-Ann Furniss. “They all taught me so much. Nicola and Kim taught me about mixing commercial and creative work, and Jo-Ann was a great mentor, showing me how to commission work and how the industry really operated.” This balance, she tells me, has become her forte: “everything I do has to look and feel cool, but I always aim to make my work commercially viable as well.” 

Sharmadean launched WAH Nails in 2009, naming the salon after the hip-hop magazine she had started at university. “This was my first proper move into business,” she tells me, “I’d never done anything customer-facing before.” I wondered what the learning curve was like – juggling a fashion consultancy career, a thriving nail salon business and the arrival of a baby is no mean feat. “It cost me all my money – and all my twenties – but it was the best learning experience I could have asked for!” 

Sharmadean stands next to neon lights

These days, Sharmadean is perhaps best known as the founder of Beautystack, the online platform which connects beauty professionals with those looking for treatments, in a way that mirrors a real-life social space. “Beautystack came to me as a way of regaining control of my life at a time where I was struggling. I thought: there are so many male entrepreneurs raising money and I’ve got good ideas which people believe in. Why can’t I do it too?

“The thesis was: online booking happens independently, but it should happen socially. We wanted to digitise the experience of arriving at a salon, and swapping notes with the girl next to you on the best places to get your hair or lashes done. If we can take that online, through pictures and social, we think we can convert higher sales.” Sharmadean’s hunch was right, and Beautystack grew sales for its beta group by 30% every quarter in 2018. 

Powered by venture capital funding from LocalGlobe and Index, Beautystack launched to the public in 2020… just in time for Covid to grind the beauty industry to a halt.

“We had 1,800 beauty professionals signed up and nothing they could do!” Sharmadean tells me, “but we’ve kept them engaged by hosting events about business, about mental health, and about politics. For lots of people, this year has been the first time they’ve realised the impact that politics can have on them personally.” 

It is clear that this is what Sharmadean is most passionate about: encouraging important conversations and arming women with the information and understanding they need to succeed. The Stack World, which went live on International Women’s Day, is the perfect platform for this. Speaking on the media company, Sharmadean explains: “I thought – I’m going to create a media business on top of the marketplace that doesn’t sideline serious issues like finance, wealth and politics. It is my vision of what women’s media should be. It’s not here to diminish women’s power.” 

“I thought – I’m going to create a media business on top of the marketplace that doesn’t sideline serious issues like finance, wealth and politics. It is my vision of what women’s media should be. It’s not here to diminish women’s power.” 

The Stack World organises its content into five pillars – Beauty, Wellness, Culture, Society and Business – providing vital information and commentary around the issues that matter, from how the Budget will impact women to the (many) pitfalls of the UK’s childcare policies. I spoke to Saul Klein, Founder and Managing Partner at Local Globe & Latitude, about Sharmadean who said to me: “Sharmadean has got all the attributes of a great entrepreneur. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, a determination and an ability to articulate a vision for the way the future needs to look and she brings people along with her on the journey.  The Stack gives her the ability to articulate on a 360 degree level – not just about beauty but about business, culture and politics and women’s role in the next economy.  Sharmadean is an amazing role model”.

“My future career is based on using media and technology to advance gender equality,” Sharmadean tells me, “which involves sharing knowledge but also providing software which allows women to transact with each other and create economic empowerment.” 

Sharmadean is leveraging the social mechanics developed for Beautystack to enhance The Stack World. “Most technology is built by men,” she tells me, “so there’s very little understanding around how digital tools can actually help women help themselves. Female consumer behavior has been digitised in the past, but it tends to be done for the benefit of the bigger corporation. I wanted to use technology to create a self-sufficient hive for women to transact, to meet each other and to communicate.” 

I left my meeting with Sharamdean exhilarated and inspired, knowing that I want to be one of the first participants of The Stack – to make sure that I do not miss out on playing my part with the women in the next economy. 

Quick-fire questions 

Born? In Wolverhampton. I was the eldest child of a single mum.

School? Thomas Telford school, which was a pioneering, experimental school. 

Music/book? I was always inspired by those films from the 80s about women going to work, like Working Girl and Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. I loved Boomerang – it was the first time I’d ever seen Black people in non-stereotypical roles. 

Mentors? I don’t have formal mentors that I check in with, but I’ve had incredible female bosses from teenagehood who have taught me things I’ve never forgotten. I also make my own mentors from consuming content that other people create. 

Legacy? It was Maya Angelou who said to Oprah Winfrey “you don’t get to decide your own legacy… the people decide.” However, I’d love to think that for the tiny amount of time I’m on this planet I can create some real, cultural change – because that’s the most important thing. 

You can sign up to become a member of The Stack World here.

Moira.benigson@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup