More And More Black Women Are Starting Their Own Businesses — Thanks To The Natural Hair Movement

by niesha davis

According to a 2015 State of Women-Owned Business report by American Express Open, it is estimated that black women in the United States currently own 1.3 million businesses nationwide, making them the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs today. The last ten years have seen an increasing number of black women embracing their natural beauty by “going natural,” eschewing the chemical relaxers used to permanently straighten the natural curl pattern in favor of learning how to properly style and maintain their own hair without chemical alterations.

The black hair care industry, once dominated by the sale of harsh chemical relaxers and other styling aids designed to “smooth” or straighten naturally kinky-coily hair, appears to be undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts. As more and more black women are now choosing to wear their hair in its natural state, a new market has emerged catering to black women’s changing hair care needs. Thanks in part to social media, the natural hair movement, once deemed unprofessional and confined to left-thinking students, activists, and artistic types, has steadily been gaining more mainstream traction over the last ten years.

Sales of hair relaxers are on the decline, decreasing by as much as 18.5% between 2013 and 2015, while sales of styling products have increased by as much as 26% in the same time period, according to research from market research firm Mintel. As a result, a growing number of black female entrepreneurs have figured out how to turn black self-love and the natural hair movement into viable and sustainable businesses.

Jamyla and Pierre Bennu, the husband and wife team behind the family-owned Oyin Handmade, began selling their honey laden hair products to natural hair aficionados through word of mouth and online in 2003. When Jamyla Bennu first went natural in the early ’90s, there was a distinct lack of cleansing and styling products for women with afro textured hair. “I was interested in products with high-quality ingredients but they didn’t exist. It turned into a hobby of mine,” she said.

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Bennu insists that when it comes to natural hair care products, it’s what’s not in them that matters most. Mainstream hair products formulated for black women traditionally use ingredients like mineral oil, sulfates, and silicones, things that dry out and weigh down kinky hair, acting as nothing more than cheap fillers within the product. Derived from the Yoruba word for honey, the ingredient, which is known as a hydrator for hair and skin, is featured prominently in the Oyin Handmade line. “We like to use ingredients that can moisturize from the outside in, like coconut oil, olive oil, and of course honey.” Their array of hair and body products include cleansing products like the honey hemp hair conditioner, styling products such as the burnt sugar pomade, a modern take on old school hair grease, along with shea butter body creams, soaps, and natural deodorants. What began as an online business selling products to friend and family, has flourished into a mini-empire with products being sold nationally in Whole Foods stores, Target, and soon Rite-Aid. In addition to their own brick and mortar store in Baltimore Maryland, they also opened up a natural hair salon in 2014.

Kim Etheridge, a self-described “Mixed Chick,” says the concept for the hair care company Mixed Chicks, which she runs with business partner Wendi Levy, came out of a desire to fulfill a personal need that was lacking in the marketplace: “My hair product company really was developed from a personal need, having combination textured hair.” It was straight, curly, and dry, and growing up, the beauty industry really didn’t make products designed for a blended texture.” A chance encounter with Levy at a family barbecue sparked the initial idea for Mixed Chicks: “Wendi was wearing her hair curly, and my hair was straight, and she said, ‘Oh, I use about ten different (products)’ and we laughed.”

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Realizing so many other women had the same hair troubles, the two set off to create a product that would be a solution of sorts for their specific hair type. “That was our goal, one styling product.” In 2004, the Mixed Chicks leave-in conditioner was born, becoming the company’s flagship product. The line has expanded to include clarifying shampoos, moisturizing deep conditioners, and styling serums designed to define curls and block frizz. Today Mixed Chicks is sold online, in big retailers like Target, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart, and beauty supply stores nationwide.

For hundreds of years, doing black hair was mainly about somehow covering it up with hair weave, or chemically contorting it to somehow mimic the straightness of Caucasian hair. At the turn of the century, free black women in America were not only tasked with navigating life in a dangerous post-slavery era, as time went on, many black American women found themselves also struggling to conform to European standards of beauty.

Without the tools and knowledge to properly care for their hair, many black women suffered from scalp diseases that would cause severe hair loss and inability to grow healthy hair. In the early 1900s, Madame CJ Walker was amongst one of the first to see a need for a product to help black women deal with their hair struggles. Creating a hair growth pomade, Walker first got the word out about her product by selling it door to door, and also doing demos in African-American churches. According to the official Madame CJ Walker website, she set up shop in St. Louis Missouri, opened up a factory and beauty school, and eventually became the world first black self-made millionaire.

Madame CJ WalkerMadame CJ Walker

Natural hair and beauty blogger Patrice Yurik of knows firsthand the transformative power in taking control of one’s image and reveling in the idea of your own beauty. Growing up in a Trinidiadian household, Yurik says the narrative of having unruly and unmanageable hair was passed down generationally: “When my grandmother had company, if my mother didn’t have her hair combed, she couldn’t come down and mingle with the company.” Yurik recalls getting her first hair relaxer at the age of six. “It was the easy way for my mom to take care of my hair.” She continued the ritual every few months well into her early 20’s, finally stopping when she got married.

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In 2005, seeing a void in current media regarding black women’s beauty issues, she created her blog in hopes of celebrating natural hair and black beauty from her own perspective. Running a black women-focused beauty site has given Yurik opportunity to branch out into other avenues. She has hosted red carpets at The Academy Awards, The Bet Awards, and New York Fashion Week. Yursik has also been featured in campaigns for hair care brand Cream of Nature and beauty giants Lancome and MAC. Today she also hosts events, writes beauty columns, and speaks at blogging, beauty, and business events worldwide.

Yurik believes that that natural hair movement has had positive effects on the collective self-esteem of black women as a whole: “It’s been a movement not just in terms of vloggers and bloggers, but it’s allowed a generation of women to see each other and find inspiration in our beauty when we weren’t getting featured in magazines.”

In a world that often tells black women they are less, based on the color of their skin, the idea that successful businesses have sprung from a movement that promotes self-love is revolutionary.

At the turn of the century, Walker had to go door to door to spread her message and build her business and brand, but thankfully, we live in a time  where women have the means to create, promote, and seek out images, information, and products that help to affirm their natural beauty with ease.

Niesha Davis is a writer and vlogger currently living in Shanghai. She has written for:  Bust, Bitch, Time Out Amsterdam, The Establishment, XoJane, The Awl, and other publications. Keep up with her travels on youtube at: black girl in the rok. 

Photos via brands mentioned

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