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How helping out in her mom’s home salon gave this woman a taste of entrepreneurship from a young age

After nine years in the Canadian Military as a supply technician with the marines and air force, Gina Delisme retired her uniform in 2015 and stepped into full time entrepreneur life as the CEO of NAGI Cosmetics — a line of beauty products for women of colour.

Once she knew she wouldn’t finish her career in the military, Delisme started to think about what would come next. She always had side businesses while serving, and knew when she left the military she wanted to be in control of her work and her schedule.

She says that although makeup wasn’t part of her life while in the military, beauty is something she’s always had an interest in. “I was the girl who thought she couldn’t wear makeup, that my lips are too thick. I’ve always thought makeup was beautiful, just on other people.”

Surprisingly, the jump from the military to the beauty industry wasn’t that far for her. Her mother was a hairdresser and had a salon in the home. “We spent a lot of time in my mother’s shop after school,” she says. “We used to help, too. We would help on Saturdays washing hair, and we’d sit and watch her do her job.” 

For a short stint prior to joining the armed forces, Delisme had her own make-shift salon as well. She says hairdressing was never a career for her, it was a means to get her through a rough time, but also the birth of her entrepreneurialism.

“If I need something, I will do what it takes. I built a business when I was out of work,” says Delisme. “I was making enough income to survive — I’m very resourceful.”

That desire to be her own boss, in combination with her natural resourcefulness and skills she learned through her military experience, gave her the confidence she needed to step out on her own after leaving the armed forces.

A lot of times [in the military] I found myself physically exhausted and I would find the strength to go on.

While being in the military and being your own boss seem like polar opposites, there are lots of aspects of being an entrepreneur that overlap. “As an entrepreneur, you need to have perseverance. It’s not easy. You need to be able to keep pushing, stay positive and stay motivated when things are not going well. You need a lot of discipline and a lot of mental strength,” she says. “A lot of times [in the military] I found myself physically exhausted and I would find the strength to go on.”

During her time with the military, Delisme was given the opportunity to participate in business bootcamp training with Prince's Charities Canada. Delisme took part in the Prince’s Operation Entrepreneur program, a national program that provides transitioning Canadian military personnel and veterans with education, tools and resources to open their own businesses.

Through this experience, Delisme says she learned how to sell herself in less than five minutes and other important business know-hows, but it was the one-on-one coaching she received that changed her business. “I was catering primarily to people of colour but I felt I didn’t want to leave anyone out. I criticized other brands for doing that,” she said. “This businessman told me, no — you don’t have to cater to everyone. The best are specialized in one thing. Your specialty will be the reason for your success.”

After that meeting, Delisme revamped her business approach and was able to get a better foothold in her market. She realized that just like in the military, everyone has to have their specialty, and leaders need to know how and when to change course. It can be a matter of survival, and it was for Delisme and Nagi Cosmetics.

Watch her Dragons’ Den pitch

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