Supermodel, Television Personality, And Entrepreneur Tyra Banks On Launching SMiZE Cream, Personal Branding, And More

"I walked into the room expecting to see all men, but there were all women ... This is not how this place [the UAE] is portrayed back home, and to see these women who are real executives, decision makers, and women in power, giving me strategy for my ice cream business, like, 'Do it like this or that,' or 'I can get you this person for distribution,' and so on, was amazing!"

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Although a globally known supermodel and Emmy award-winning television producer and personality, Tyra Banks could not help but tap into her entrepreneurial instincts on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi- she used her time in the UAE to research potential local competitors for her new super-premium ice cream brand, SMiZE Cream. "My first night here I downloaded the Talabat [food delivery app], and I got 15 pints of ice cream to see how it was tasting over here," Banks said during an on-stage interview at the Forbes 30/50 Summit held at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Colin Baldwin / Forbes

For Banks, the journey she's had launching SMiZE -a term that she coined years ago to describe a model smiling with her eyes only- has been teaching her a lot of lessons about starting a food brand. "One is that you cannot sacrifice taste," Banks said. "There have been times when we could have saved money by saying, 'Okay, maybe we should go with this ingredient instead,' but then you taste it, and you're, like, "No.' Taste is the most important thing. The experience of tasting our ice cream is paramount. That is something new for me, because I used to know how to wear a cheaper dress, and make it look good. But that is not the case in this business."

And that is why, in order to turn her SMiZE Cream into an innovative ice cream company with an edible surprise in every serving (aka the "SMiZE Surprize"), Banks decided to seek advice from those who knew this industry best. "I surrounded myself with experts," Banks explained. "I know marketing, I know branding, but I don't have enough of a subject matter or historical expertise with ice creams, and so, I'm surrounding myself in the company with the best of the best. I have to defer to them as the experts, and although I have the final say, I still need to listen to their expertise."

Banks confirmed that she is actively working on bringing her ice cream to the Gulf region by setting up production facilities on Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. "We want to contribute to the community here, create jobs, and keep jobs consistent," she said, a sentiment that is in line with another business lesson she gained from venturing into the ice cream sector. "Just because I am an American, it doesn't mean that the company needs to be only in America," Banks explained. "I had the opportunity as a fashion model and a TV producer to travel the world, and I have strong connections globally, so SMiZE Cream is an American-born ice cream business, but it does not have to be an American-raised ice cream business."

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While attending meetings in Abu Dhabi with an aim to explore the opportunities for expanding SMiZE Cream across the GCC region, Banks admits to have been surprised by the level of female participation in the UAE's business sector. "I walked into the room expecting to see all men, but there were all women, and I was like, 'Wait, what's going on?'" Banks said. "This is not how this place [the UAE] is portrayed back home, and to see these women who are real executives, decision makers, and women in power, giving me strategy for my ice cream business, like, "Do it like this or that,' or "I can get you this person for distribution,' and so on, was amazing… We don't know that about this country back in the US, and also, we don't have that in the US, where I still don't see many women in boardrooms. It was a beautiful surprise and an awakening that there is a change happening, and I'm interested in taking that even further."

Tyra Banks first made a name for herself as a supermodel- she was the first female model to appear on the cover of GQ magazine, and the first Black woman to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated magazine's swimsuit edition. She also produced two TV shows: America's Next Top Model, which ran for 24 seasons, and The Tyra Banks Show, which was broadcast from 2005 to 2011. The last three years have also seen Banks teaming teamed up with Allison Kluger, a lecturer at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, to teach a course at the school titled, "Project You: Building and Extending Your Personal Brand."

At this point, when asked for her advice on making personal branding work, Banks replied, "You have to find out who you are when it comes to your personal brand. Are you just famous for being famous? Do you just want to promote yourself, or do you have a product or a service that you want to promote connected to you, or are you both? Do you want to promote yourself and/or your product? Those are what I call A,B, and C. That's the first thing that you have to do. After you do that, you have to check yourself, and ask whether what you are offering is different enough, or is it just like somebody else. I'm all for differentiation, differentiation, differentiation. There is a strategy to be a copy cat, and there are a couple of the two's and the three's who are doing just fine, so choose. But I choose differentiation."

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