In any freshman lecture hall, it’s not hard to find students doing things other than taking notes. But you won’t find 18-year-old Joann Zehenni texting or playing Wordle — the first-year at Loyola Marymount University is more likely to be emailing cosmetic labs and retailers as part of her responsibilities as the founder and owner of skincare brand Gemini Beauty.
Zehenni has been working on creating and running the company for almost three years; today her products are sold online on her company’s website, by beauty retailer Thirteen Lune on their site, and in 10 JCPenney stores. Soon, Gemini will be sold in 75 JCPenneys across the country.
Zehenni has been in college for less than a month. Like many first-years, she found that adjusting to college brought some challenges along with lots of excitement. But unlike most freshmen, Zehenni has to juggle running a company on top of her classes and the freshman-year social life, which can be overwhelming on its own.
But she makes it work. “I usually find time to work on Gemini during the day,” she says, “and then at night is homework and friends.”
KEEPING INVENTORY UNDER HER DORM BED
When she launched Gemini Beauty, Zehenni quickly found out how much running a business is about finding creative solutions to challenges and constantly adapting to changes. “Every day, there’s something new,” she says. “There’s always something good and something bad, and they balance each other out.”
She says she keeps inventory and test samples of new products under her bed in her dorm, and says that everyone she’s met at college is “so supportive” of her business. Her friends have been helping Zehenni test out new products and providing feedback and testimonials.
An entrepreneurship major in Loyola Marymount’s College of Business Administration, Zehenni has already applied what she’s learned from her classes in her role as a business owner. “I’m learning everything that I need to know for Gemini, which is perfect,” she says.
Some of the most valuable lessons haven’t come from her professors. “We listen to podcasts every class about huge entrepreneurs,” Zehenni says. “Just hearing their story and hearing about the failures and successes and how long it took, it’s just very reassuring.”
ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN HER GENES
Zehenni was raised near West Hollywood in a close-knit family. Her family are the first people she goes to with news about her business. Entrepreneurship is in her genes — her father was a real estate mogul and her mother works at his development company.
She stayed close to home for college, which is convenient both for running her company and for getting to spend time with family. They have been her biggest supporters and inspired all the products and the brand as a whole. “I don’t really make any big decisions without them because I want their feedback,” Zehenni says.
When she first started working on Gemini Beauty, Zehenni would sit down with her parents at least once a week to talk to them about her progress and get their advice, “They were there just to talk and also to help me learn how to handle my finances, and also learn to think ahead, because I never really did that when I first started.”
Zehenni was 15 when she came up with the idea for Gemini Beauty. She was already getting started with the college application process, attending talks and virtual tours. “They kept saying, like, ‘What’s your passion, what makes you different than all these other students?’” Zehenni wasn’t sure. Her passions seemed out of reach for someone her age. On a walk with her mom at the end of another day of hearing these questions, Zehenni said maybe she should just start her own skincare brand. Then she would have something she was truly passionate about to set her apart.
She was joking, but her mom took her idea seriously. “Why not start now?” she asked her. “From that day, every day it’s been Gemini,” Zehenni says.
‘ESPECIALLY IN THE BEGINNING, IT WAS A HUGE LEARNING CURVE’
She started brainstorming product ideas and researching ingredients. She worked and saved up money for almost a year after the start of the pandemic. Eventually, she brought a proposal to her parents and asked them for a small loan. This money helped her get 500 of each of her products to be made in a lab. Her older sister and brother helped her design Gemini Beauty’s website, while her twin sister helped with marketing.
The company launched online late last year. A month later, she signed with online beauty retailer Thirteen Lune. Zehenni says she didn’t expect to start working with a retailer for at least a year after starting her brand, “I just assumed that wasn’t even an option.” She says talking to people with knowledge and experience who she’s met along the way has been crucial to being able to successfully run and grow a business before she’d even graduated high school. “Especially in the beginning, it was a huge learning curve,” she says.
Now, she says her main source of money for the company is what she makes from product sales. “I know that I have [my family’s] support, but I don’t want to rely on them because it’s important for me to do it on my own.”
Zehenni is close to her grandparents and credits her interest in skincare to her grandmother. Growing up in poverty in Russia, Zehenni’s grandmother would use different fruits and vegetables from her garden on her skin “even though it might not have done anything,” Zehenni explained. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she saw her grandma doing this once again at their shared home in Los Angeles, since she couldn’t go out to stores to buy skincare products. “That’s kind of where I got my inspiration for using six different fruits in the moisturizer,” Zehenni explained.