When freshman Jasmine Lawrence ran for president of Armstrong, Fitten and Hefner residence halls early in the fall semester, she was asked a question: What leadership experience would she bring to the position?
She managed her high school basketball team, but if she didn’t want the presidency to slip through her fingers, she figured she’d need a better answer than that. So, after some hesitation, she revealed some information about her past she’d been keeping from her classmates.
“I said, ‘This is a secret, it can’t leave the room, OK?’” Lawrence said in retelling the story a couple of months later. As if reenacting the scene, she leaned across the table and said in a hushed tone, “I told them real quick, ‘I ran a business for five years and made millions of dollars. That’s my leadership experience.’ I said, ‘Shh, don’t say anything.’”
In the hours that followed the meeting, word of Lawrence’s high school extracurricular work as founder and CEO of the all-natural hair care line Eden Body Works spread through Facebook after her classmates’ Internet research retrieved countless newspaper and magazine articles about Lawrence and video clips of the teen’s television appearances on Oprah and The Today Show. Needless to say, she was elected president.
Lawrence settled into a seat in the Student Center on an October morning, fresh from a hall council meeting. Sporting a pale yellow, hooded Georgia Tech sweatshirt and jeans with her full, natural hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looked like any other busy student hustling between classes and club activities — not at all like an 18-year-old millionaire.
Prior to Lawrence’s arrival on campus in August, Eden Body Works’ line consisted of nearly 30 products available internationally through her Web site and in a variety of stores, including Whole Foods and about 1,000 Wal-Mart stores.
Lawrence developed the first Eden product when she was just 11 years old, after the chemicals in a relaxer caused most of her hair to fall out.
“I was basically bald at 11,” Lawrence said. “After that, I never wanted to use relaxer again. I was scarred for life.”
Lawrence scoured stores, books and the Internet for all-natural alternatives to the hair care products she’d been using. When none surfaced, she concocted an all-natural hair oil out of the kitchen of her Williamstown, N.J., home.
At 13, Lawrence received pro bono legal and financial services and packaging and distribution advice through the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship to help her get the business off the ground. Her parents helped out with a $2,000 loan. Lawrence used money saved from her allowance as collateral.
Despite the extensive help she received from industry professionals through the entrepreneurship program, Lawrence said she wasn’t always taken seriously. “It was difficult to do at 13 because a lot of people thought I was joking. My mom had to co-sign on a lot of things for me that just became legitimately mine when I turned 18 this year.”
Lawrence said the company grew mostly through word-of-mouth and her after school appearances at career fairs and expos and door-to-door sales pitches to stores. Soon local newspapers became interested in covering the story of the 13-year old CEO. Not long after that Oprah, CNN and Fox News came calling.
What began as a family-run operation in Lawrence’s home soon grew so large that a Chicago factory specializing in all-natural products was hired to manufacture the Eden line.
“It expanded pretty quickly,” Lawrence said. “It’s been five years now, but it went from just me making it out one bottle at a time to making 55-gallon drums of it a month.”
Lawrence recalled how tears filled her eyes when she saw the products lining the shelves of her local Wal-Mart. She had developed a friendship with the store manager through her frequent trips there to pitch the Eden line. But it wasn’t until Black Enterprise magazine nominated her for Teenpreneur of the Year that Wal-Mart decided to pick up her products.
In addition to TV appearances, Lawrence was invited to speak at business conventions and company events across the country. A speaking engagement for the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its Black History Month program led to an internship with the agency in Philadelphia.
Despite initial concerns that their daughter’s teen years had become all work and no play, Lawrence’s parents were incredibly supportive. Until recently, her mother was working for her. “She totally became my number one employee,” Lawrence said.
Before beginning her first semester at Tech, Lawrence halted production of all Eden Body Works products so she could concentrate on coursework and club activities. In addition to her work with the residence hall council, she’s a member of the crew team.“In high school it was fine. I could keep a 4.0 and get my homework done and still travel to California for the weekend and do this little speech,” she explained. “But here, Tech is way too difficult. It’s the type of school that needs your hundred-percent attention. And I knew that when I was coming into it.”
With parents in the military, Lawrence said she has dreamed about becoming a computer engineer since she was a youngster and attended an engineering academy.
“I’ve always been immersed in technology and computers, and I just fell in love with it. I think it was a Take Your Daughter to Work Day at my mom’s job that made me realize I really want to be an engineer. I really just want to play around with things and figure out how they work.”
Lawrence said her dream job is to work for the CIA in artificial intelligence.
“Eden Body Works was something that just happened for me. It was something I stumbled upon, cause and effect,” she said. “But engineering is something that I’ve been working toward and that, ultimately, I want to do as a career even if I don’t have to.”
Lawrence plans for Eden operations to be up and running again this spring, but under new management. She will continue to be the “face of the business,” appearing at speaking engagements, doing interviews and helping develop products. She also recently became a contributor to Seventeen magazine’s new money section and Web site advice column.
For Lawrence, it’s not about the money. “It doesn’t really matter to me,” she said. “It’s about how many people I reach. It’s the e-mails and letters from old ladies who say, ‘Your product changed my life, I finally found something that works.’ … And the before and after pictures.”
Lawrence recalled her own before picture in which she’s standing in front of a street sign for Eden Road. “I’m standing next to it, and my hair is like this short,” she said, placing both of her hands within about an inch of her head. “There are patches and bald spots. Now I just wear my afro around campus because I can.”