Woman-led beauty brands are too rare — this one is thriving and changing lives in Haiti

Story by Carly Bertolozzi. Photos by Tim Chambers.

Yve-Car, a social entrepreneur tackling unemployment and gender inequalities in Haiti, with Kreyol Essence employees

When your beauty brand has fans like Whole Foods and Sephora, you know you’re doing something right. When you’re able to make those beauty products in a socially impactful way, that creates jobs and improves the environment, you’re doing something extraordinary.

For Yve-Car, the CEO and founder of successful social enterprise Kreyol Essence, that extraordinary journey all began with a hair catastrophe.

After going to a beautician in Philadelphia in 2008 who burned her hair, Yve-Car searched high and low for black castor oil — a product her mom used often on her hair growing up in Haiti. When natural and West Indian stores turned up short, she asked her mom to send her a bottle.

“When she sent it to me it was in a rum bottle filled with tape — very Caribbean-esque — and I jokingly said ‘for something that we know works so well from home, I should start a business out of it,’” Yve-Car recalls.

Photo courtesy of Kreyol Essence

Fast forward to September 2014, Yve-Car followed her own advice and pursued her dream by asking lenders on Kiva to fund a $100,000 loan for her business to produce eco-luxury beauty products including black castor oil, body creams, facial cleansers and more. It was the largest loan ever posted to Kiva.

Yve-Car told lenders she planned to create 100 quality jobs in Haiti through the loan and within 3 days it was fully funded by 2,986 Kiva lenders excited by Kreyol Essence’s socially-minded business model. In addition to the social impact of the business, many of Kreyol Essence’s supporters were inspired by Yve-Car as a role model, something she is both honored and humbled by.

“I didn’t realize how important it is to see images of young women of color in charge, doing positive things.”

“I didn’t think that what we were doing would have such an intrinsic impact for women of color, both in Haiti and the U.S.,” Yve-Car says. “I didn’t realize how important it is to see images of young women of color in charge, doing positive things.”

By locally growing and processing the castor seed plants in rural Haiti, Yve-Car achieved her goal of creating hundreds of jobs for women and farmers who would otherwise be unemployed.

The country as a whole is still recovering from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, hovering around a 40% unemployment rate and women in particular have difficulty finding quality jobs.

“While women are the ones who keep the community and keep the household going, they’re usually the ones who suffer from the most unemployment injustice,” Yve-Car said.

Kreyol Essence also has a positive effect on the environment because the cultivation of the castor seed revitalizes depleted soil — something desperately needed in Haiti, as its forested lands have been reduced to less than 2%. The plant is one of the few perennials able to repair soil with limited rainfall and minimal agricultural inputs.

Since she first received the Kiva loan, Yve-Car has molded the company into a successful venture and recently secured a partnership with Whole Foods for Kreyol Essence beauty products to be distributed at 250 locations worldwide.

With Whole Foods as a distributor and 95 stores already carrying the product, Kreyol Essence grew to 355 employees. An additional 550 jobs will be added when the beauty products reach all 250 locations.

In order to accommodate this huge step forward, Kreyol Essence worked with Kiva to create a payment plan that temporarily postpones repayments on the company’s loan.

This will allow the company the capital it needs to ensure success with its new corporate partner and speaks to the unique flexibility that Kiva can provide to borrowers.

Kiva’s flexibility means Kreyol Essence can prioritize other measures of success beyond financial metrics. Demonstrating the vitality of social enterprises is important, Yve-Car says.

Photo courtesy of Kreyol Essence

“This really cements the idea that a social business can be a viable business, and that by us providing a product that women want… it in turn provides living wages and a way for farmers and women to have dignity in Haiti where jobs are so scarce.”

Kreyol Essence’s success is a bright light in the social enterprise world, but Yve-Car herself recognizes that the balance between social and commercial demand is tricky to maintain.

“When it comes to production and supply chain, it’s never an easy thing,” she said. “One of the things we’ve learned is that we have to keep a strong hybrid production model where we work with cooperatives but we also do direct hiring and producing ourselves.”

The company uses this setup to account for personal emergencies or challenges that the farmers and women may run into throughout the course of their everyday lives, while still maintaining reliability for distributors.

This year, Yve-Car’s innovative efforts won her 1 of 10 coveted spots in the 2017 accelerator cohort at Sephora, a renowned leader in beauty retail.

As part of the Sephora accelerator cohort, Yve-Car is working to address the disparity of women suppliers in the beauty industry. Sephora has pledged to support 50 women via the accelerator with mentorship, bootcamps and funding by 2020. As Yve-Car explained, Sephora’s clientele is primarily made up of women. Their top sellers, on the other hand, are businesses owned by men. This accelerator strives to lessen this gender divide between consumer and supplier, all the while promoting natural and social impact beauty companies like Kreyol Essence.

So, what does this mean for Kreyol Essence? Two things.

First, this means Yve-Car will be better equipped with the resources and skills to expand the company’s partnership with Whole Foods to all 450 locations. Her vision for the partnership is to expand to all 450 locations and reach at least $1 million in sales.

“Only 2% of women-owned businesses reach that $1 million mark… we really need to increase that”

She explains, “That’s important for a few reasons: it really allows us to get the capital needed in order to continue to grow and scale the business… and only 2% of women-owned businesses reach that $1 million mark in revenue, so I think we really need to increase that in terms of the number of women who are successful in their business, as well as minorities.”

Second, this accelerator means that Kreyol-Essence has a promising future in terms of an exclusive line with Sephora. Though nothing has been discussed concretely, the experience will be a huge asset for Kreyol Essence when it’s ready to expand further.

Amongst all this success, we asked Yve-Car what she was most proud of. Thinking fondly of being on the farms in Haiti, amongst people doing dignified work they are proud of, she referenced the positive impact she’s been able to have for women of color and the human connection that this experience has created.

Yve-Car also still feels a connection with her early Kiva backers. She encourages everyone to head to Whole Foods for a bottle of black castor oil, all the while knowing that “what the Kiva community has started with us, in terms of providing jobs — that’s going to continue.”

To support similar entrepreneurs, you can make a small loan on Kiva here.

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