Story by Erik Potter
Teanna Bass stood in a line with 38 other people, walking backward toward Traditions Plaza. She hadn’t been to a Mizzou ’39 reveal ceremony before, so she had no idea what to expect when she turned around.
“You hear the screams from the crowd, and you can only imagine,” Bass says. “It sounds like a lot of people, but it might not be a lot.”
Every February, the Mizzou Alumni Association pays homage to MU’s 1839 founding by recognizing 39 seniors for their accomplishments in academics, leadership and service. Mizzou ’39 recipients are kept secret until the reveal ceremony.
“I didn’t realize how big it was until I got revealed,” Bass says. “When you turn around, you see the whole people, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, support! The love is real.’ ”
The love was real, but it came amid a cascade of experiences that felt unreal for Bass.
Several months before, Bass had entered her senior year with an enviable opportunity. Through the Missouri Student Unions Entrepreneurial Program, she had moved the makeup salon she’d been running from her apartment into the MU Student Center and its 12,000 daily visitors.
To go with it, she had also started her own makeup line, a longtime dream come true. For years, Bass had been frustrated trying to find makeup that had the features college students wanted — something that wouldn’t clog pores and wasn’t tested on animals — at a price they could afford.
Working with a manufacturer in Toronto, she launched Sweet Tea Cosmetics, which she sold in-store and online.
Also, her space in the Student Center was big enough that she turned it into a full-service salon, renting out booths to a nail technician, barber and hair stylist.
Growing up, Bass had known many people — many friends — who’d had hopes and dreams that didn’t come true. She had learned to never expected life to bend to her wishes. “I was expecting I’d fail,” she says. “So I was ready with plan B, C, D, E — all the way to Z.”
Despite her expectations — or maybe because of them — she didn’t fail. The makeup application business did well. Her salon partners did well. And the cosmetic line did well. She shipped product all across the country.
As soon as it was humming, she faced a looming question. Her lease only lasted until the end of the school year. Then she would graduate. Then she would leave. Then she would do — what?
She actually deleted the email the first time she saw it.
The University of Missouri System was holding a four-campus pitch competition for the best startup business idea. Called Entrepreneurial Quest, the program put selected entrepreneurs through an eight-week startup accelerator where they got mentorship and technical and legal advice. Then they pitched their ideas in a campus competition. The top three would earn cash prizes and advance to the system-level competition where the top three would win more cash.
At first, Bass scoffed at the idea. There was no way she could beat those odds, she thought. “But then I went back and said, ‘You know, that’s pretty interesting.’ ”
She prepared her application in the fall and was accepted. Then she prepared her business pitch with the help of Greg Bier, an associate teaching professor in the Trulaske College of Business and director of the Entrepreneurship Alliance, a program in the business school that trains student entrepreneurs.
Instead of pitching the entire Sweet Tea business, Bass took Bier’s advice to “scale down so you can scale up.” She focused just on her makeup line. In a pivot from her original sales model, she decided to pitch it as an online subscription business.
Through her research, she found that the market for subscription boxes is already massive — billions of dollars — and growing. The beauty segment of the industry is second only to food, but none of the big players cater to ethnic, minority customers.
Bass saw an opportunity for Sweet Tea.
In March, she pitched her idea at the campus competition. She took second place, which came with a $10,000 check. Bass is a textile and apparel management major in the College of Human Environmental Science, and her department and college kicked in an additional $6,000 of prize money.
A few weeks later, she competed at the system level and took third overall, winning another $5,000.
“Coming from where I come from, we didn’t have a lot of financial resources, so touching a $10,000 check and it snowballing into $21,000 was just crazy,” Bass said shortly after the competition ended. “I think it will all hit me like a train wreck once graduation actually happens.”
Delta Sigma Theta
Bass will use her prize money to go back to St. Louis and lease an office where she can run Sweet Tea full time. She’ll live with her mom to cut down on expenses.
She’ll bring another valuable resource with her from Mizzou besides money: sisterhood.
During her last semester at MU, Bass joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. The international organization has 1,000 student and alumnae chapters worldwide, including one in St. Louis. Each is devoted to community service and mutual support.
“I love the sorority, I love what it stands for, I love what it has given me,” Bass says. “Even before I actually became a part of it, they supported my ideas for Sweet Tea.”
Bass hopes to incorporate the sorority’s service priorities not just in her volunteer work but also in Sweet Tea. “It’s a full-circle kind of thing,” she says.
She’s already off to a good start.
One of the areas the sorority focuses on is education — something close to Bass’ heart. This spring, she visited Hazelwood East High School, her alma mater, to donate $500 for a college scholarship for a graduating senior.
She hadn’t been back to the school since she’d graduated. Walking in, seeing the metal detectors, police officers and fights in the hallways, she thought, “It’s gotten worse.”
But the longer she stayed, the more the strangeness gave way to familiarity.
“I thought back on my high school days, and it was just like that,” Bass says. “I’d almost forgotten.”
She remembered what it was like to be 14 and to feel small next to the odds against her graduating in four years, going to college and graduating there in four years. At each step, many of her friends fell behind. Bass doesn’t see herself as better than them, just lucky. Blessed. That attitude has kept her grounded.
“It’s humbling,” Bass says. “You can’t be too excited [about your success] because you don’t know when you’re going to be next.”
Before she started at Mizzou, Bass received a last-minute scholarship that met a critical financial need for her. It helped her get started and take root.
As she stood on Traditions Plaza that chilly February night, she reflected on her journey.
“I remember thinking back, being a sophomore or freshmen with no kind of GPA, not knowing how to navigate college, really just nervous and scared how my college career would go,” she says. “I felt really good at that moment.”
She took that memory back with her to Hazelwood East.
“This scholarship is one thing I can do,” she says. “I at least want to give one student a chance to make it out so they can think about coming back to make it better, too.”
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