Kester Black’s sustainable business success story

Learn how Anna Ross grew a globally-recognised beauty brand while employing sustainable business practices and staying true to her values.

Anna Ross, founder of sustainable beauty business Kester Black
  • Anna Ross started beauty brand Kester Black on a shoestring budget – and has grown it into a global sensation.
  • The brand made sustainability its foundation, achieving cruelty-free, vegan, and carbon-negative certifications, and becoming the first cosmetics brand to receive B Corp certification.
  • Anna shares that focussing on your own core values and keeping an eye on the supply chain help maintain sustainable business practices.
  • CommBank has a new Sustainability Action Tool that offers help on how to reduce your business costs and environmental impact.

Making sustainability the foundation

This beauty brand has gone from shoestring budget to global recognition, all without losing sight of its ethical ethos.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Anna Ross would find business success. Her entrepreneurial flair surfaced when she was just 16 years old in Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island. “I wanted to go to fashion school so I created a menswear range for a local store,” says Anna, founder of sustainable beauty brand Kester Black. “I struggled at school because I’m dyslexic but I loved making things so Mum bought me a craft book and I worked through that. Fashion was great because it was tactile and I ended up with a finished product. That was exciting for me.”

After graduating from fashion school in 2009, Anna asked her mother for a business loan. “Mum said ‘absolutely not’ and that I needed to go overseas and experience the world,” says Anna. “Flights from Dunedin to Melbourne were cheap so I ended up in Australia.”

She worked as a design assistant with a Melbourne fashion label but really wanted her own business. Shipping a sewing machine across the Tasman cost too much so Anna started making jewellery. She hit a roadblock when searching for nail polish to add colour to her pieces. The fix? Make her own. So, in 2012, Kester Black was born.

“It took 18 months because I was a nobody but I kept emailing polish manufacturers and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Kester Black launched with $2500 and made $90,000 in the first three months. The next year, turnover was $500,000 and the range went from six colours to 60. “It was a wild success because businesses hadn’t really thought of selling nail polish in design and fashion stores like candy on a counter. Plus, we had a beautiful, quality product.”

Kester Black for The Business

Translating your values into your business

During a business-development course, Anna had to identify how she could translate her values into the business. Transparency and integrity were key and led to Kester Black gaining cruelty-free, vegan and carbon-negative certifications. The company was also the first cosmetics brand globally to achieve B Corp certification – a rigorous process that analyses a business’s entire social and environmental impact.

Business lessons learned early

Clever Facebook advertising helped grow a loyal fan base but there have also been challenges. Anna didn’t know she needed a licence to send nail polish through the post – the six-month wait halted business growth. And taking a five-year commercial lease on office space was nerve-racking.

“I called Mum and cried because I was paralysed by fear. But I sublet desks and made a profit,” says Anna. “The difficulty I had at school taught me to think outside the box and I hacked my way through business in the early days. I only put together a business plan when I took on investors.”

Time to raise capital

In 2020, Kester Black ran a virtual crowdfunding capital raise and 1600 people – mostly customers – invested $2.3 million. It allowed Anna to increase product volumes and develop a skincare range, which launched in May 2023. 

Anna has chosen to grow through reinvesting profits and the capital raise and has shied away from debts. She took out her first $40,000 overdraft from CommBank after being named 2016 Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year.

“I’ll look at loans in the future because now I know we can trade out of any debt,” she says. “My fear was taking out large loans and not being able to repay them. It’s taken longer to grow but the slow game has been a strategic decision. I never wanted to create a brand that grew overnight and then lost relevance and fell off the face of the earth.”

For now, she can sleep soundly knowing that not only is Kester Black here to stay but it’s one of the few beauty brands making its (pretty) mark on customers, not the planet.

“It took 18 months to launch because I was a nobody... but I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

How to incorporate sustainable business practices

For a triple bottom line that measures success by profit, people and the planet, here are some tips on where to start.

  • Consider the values that matter to you. There are many paths a business can take to be socially and environmentally sustainable. Like Anna, identify the values that you want reflected in your business.
  • Review your supply chain: If you make and sell a physical product, analysing your supply chain can spotlight quick wins.
  • CommBank’s new Sustainability Action Tool can help you learn more about how to reduce your business costs and environmental impact with a range of practical actions.

This article was originally published in Brighter magazine

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