Picture this: a young woman, skin of mahogany and hair that defies the laws of gravity. It’s Sunday — and thus wash day. ‘Wash day,’ familiar to many in the Black community, refers to that selected day of the week in which hours on end are spent prepping Black hair; pre-pooing, washing, conditioning, moisturizing, sealing, and setting. Between the “can I touch it?” and the “it looks like cotton!” remarks, her story is equally distinct and uniform. While she has her own hair type, her chosen go-to beauty supply store, and her favorite bloggers, she is yet one of many Black Americans spending nine times more on ethnic-targeted beauty and grooming products than the general market.
There is nothing new about the Black hair industry. Madam C.J. Walker invented a line of African-American hair care products in the early 1900s, and eventually became the first American woman of any ethnicity to become a self-made millionaire. Today, the industry is worth roughly $9 billion. It is vast — including natural hair, weaves, salon services, physical products, and more.
Since the days of Madam C.J. Walker, Black hair has become a hugely significant component of global Black culture as a whole. Anyone who has seen films such as Barbershop starring Ice Cube or Beauty Shop starring Queen Latifah can see the process of “getting your hair done,” is far from transactional. Communities form through bi-weekly shop visits and getting cornrows on the steps of a Brooklyn Brownstone. However, the Black hair industry often goes under the radar in terms of conversations around industries to watch. This is despite racking in millions and billions of dollars each year.
Recently, though, people in and out of the Black hair industry have decided to ride the technology wave taking over many of the country’s hottest cities, specifically in Silicon Valley. Surely, you’ve heard of specific sectors such as #BioTech, #AgTech, #EdTech, and more. Though not currently as catchy, #BlackHairTech is scaling in way that will soon make it a leader in the industry at large. But, as Black hair gains more clout in the tech industry and inevitably becomes more mainstream of a sector, will it lose its roots? Listen to any die-hard indie music artist fan and they will remark on their worries of the artist going mainstream and sacrificing their ‘essence’ in exchange for more exposure. Will veteran members of the Black hair industry become victims of the same through appropriation, selling out, or the like?
Follow along through the chronicling of #BlackHairTech’s winners, losers, and everything in between.
Introducing Tristan Walker. The Brooklyn-born Stanford MBA graduate is heralded as a forerunner when it comes to marrying tech and Black hair. His company Bevel, focuses on offering a better shaving experience for people of color using ergonomically engineered clippers. Walker hustled for years to get his product in front of the right eyes, and ultimately diversify the tech industry as a whole. Before founding Bevel, he co-founded Code 2040, a program that creates access, awareness, and opportunities for top Black and Latinx engineering talent to ensure their leadership in tech. After an apprenticeship under The Hard Thing About Hard Things author Adreessen Horowitz, and reciting his 12-second pitch hundreds of times, Walker launched Bevel under Walker & Company Brands. What kept him pushing the product? Knowing the value and widespread effect of Black American culture. In an interview with TIME, Walker remarked, “Black culture leads to all global culture. I fundamentally do believe that: food, music, dance, etc. My biggest frustration was living in Silicon Valley, the earliest-adopting region on Earth, and its knowing very little about the earliest-adopting culture on Earth.”
Eventually, Walker got a good portion of The Valley to wise up to the power of the importance of this culture. Bevel products are being sold in Target, and rap legend Nas himself included the brand in the lyrics of a song on his most recent album feature.
“My signature fade with the Bevel blade.”
-Nas, Nas Album Done
Bevel has basically become a ‘normal’ household brand for so many men of color.
Walker’s success speaks to the genius of data based specialization. Everyone knows that Black hair is unique. Strands that coil 360 degrees and absorb the sun’s rays aren’t anything to play with. Playing up to this uniqueness is what makes Walker a visionary and what keeps Bevel afloat. Well, playing to that uniqueness and having an unbeatable hustle. There’s no secret that most people in venture capital firms don’t have hair like Tristan or his target audience. His obsessiveness — randomly popping up in headquarters throughout the Valley and reciting that 12-second pitch like it’s his first name — that’s also a huge factor. And that huge factor isn’t distinct to Walker. On the contrary, many entrepreneurs in the Black hair tech industry have similar obsessive stories.
Diishan Imira knows personally the amount of work to get a sufficient amount of nods about a Black hair tech idea. Imira is the CEO and co-founder of Mayvenn, a hair extension company that partners with stylists who serve as the sales force for the hair extensions their clients buy. Mayvenn — Yiddish for “trusted expert” — allows stylists to make 15% commission off of the hair they are installing. The business model works because women who want these styles installed are going to buy hair anyways. Stylists are going to install the hair anyways. Mayvenn’s system allows for stylists to not only make extra money, but also better advise their clients on the best hair to get for certain desired styles. Stylists in the community basically act as brand ambassadors.
Imira’s story of obsession does not differ too much from that of Walker. He constantly spoke with venture capitalists, convincing them that getting into HairTech was a good idea. “I was selling hair extensions out of the back of my car and I started to understand the bigger picture of distribution of these products,” he told Essence Magazine. He built rock-solid global connections in China, a huge source of many hair extensions, to build credibility. Finally, enough people believed that he wasn’t talking crazy to invest. Those people? Ben Horowitz, Serena Williams, and Andre Inguodala just to name a few. The company raised a whopping $10 million in its Series A funding. Today, Mayvenn has more than 10,000 stylists in its community, in addition to partnerships with Essence Mag and some of Instagram’s most influential influencers.
Imira came to the industry with the same insight as Walker: Silicon Valley was largely ignoring the power of Black hair as a fruitful sector of tech. “What we’re actually talking about is a $9 billion African American hair products market that hasn’t been touched by technology.” Innovating Black hair with modern technology will surely bring much monetary gain, as the Black hair industry is not foreign to the idea of innovation. Madam C.J. Walker’s redesign of the hot comb to work with Black American hair is what gave her the ‘umph’ to start a whole hair system. Imira and Mayvenn are taking the cultural implications behind getting hair styled, applying a little HTML, dabbing in a bit of community management, and using that formula to succeed.
Priscilla Hazel is also using this formula to cook up some magic. Hazel is a co-founder of a new app called Tress. Tress was started by three Black female software engineers and allows for women to find the source of styles and products they see on a day-to-day basis. When Black women move to new cities, they look for a staple stylist to start going to. When Black women plan events/trips, they look for inspirational hair to finish the outfit. Tress helps with all of this by offering a community-founded database system to fill in the gaps of finding that style or stylist. The application includes detailed info such as the exact hair products used, how much it costs, and the salon’s location.
Also similar to Imira, the co-founders of Tress bring a global aspect to their product. The application has a huge focus on and was actually developed in Ghana, making the sense of community a huge tenet of success. It was a good decision, because the application has more than 60,000 users from across Africa, as well as in the UK, U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe. Tress’ founders know their fair share about obsession and hustle. Though the product is fairly new to the space, they went head first into getting coverage. Cosmopolitan Magazine calls them “The Instagram of Natural Hair.” They’ve also been featured in Refinery29, Newsweek, Essence and more. Priscilla Hazel is a former apprentice of Y Combinator, an accelerator that has served as home for startups such as AirBnb, Instacart, and Weebly.
As experienced software engineers, the co-founders are hoping to combine their love for tech and Black hair to make a stake for a portion in the Black hair tech sector. “I want to enhance myself so that I encourage people and challenge people and ladies to put in their best and get into the tech space as well,” Cassandra Sarfo, one of the co-founders, told Refinery29.
. . .
All of these founders took a basis of culture, found a niche within it that they had a good enough handle on and interest in, and innovated within that niche. Culture is the foundation of success within hair technology, but it isn’t all that makes a successful story. Still so, many see Black hair as a solely cultural sector of the world. But in reality, and especially with the emergence of #BlackHairTech, this sector is loaded with money to be made.
But recently, some argue that something must be lost in order to gain stake in The Valley and the tech world at large. Will bridging the gap between Black hair and tech create another Shea Moisture fiasco?
What do you mean by ‘Shea Moisture fiasco’?
Shea Moisture was created as a hair product brand for women of color, offering specific formulas to work with the chemical balance of curly, kinky, and coiled hair. The brand quickly grew to be a favorite of many, with stories of full racks in Target selling out within hours. Shea Moisture knew its audience and did well to work with and for them. In late 2015, the company sold a large stake of investment to Bain Capital, a company founded by former POTUS candidate Mitt Romney. The brand came under a lot of heat, but mended relationships with customers by assuring the leadership did not change and that products wouldn’t either. Since then, a lot of the consumer base has been accusing Shea Moisture of changing its signature formula/ingredients and, in whole, whitewashing.
The biggest, and perhaps most fatal, blow to the relationship between Shea Moisture and its consumers came early 2017 when the company aired an advertisement featuring all but one woman of color. The one non-white woman in the advertisement was very fair skinned with very loosely curled hair. This advertisement was starkly different than those of the Shea Moisture that was new to the market. As The New York Times reports, “Understanding Shea Moisture’s target market is critical to understanding this backlash. The brand has long been marketed to black women with “natural hair” — hair that is not chemically straightened. For black women, the choice to “be natural” is simultaneously private and extremely political. It shouldn’t matter what black women do with their hair, but racism means that it matters a great deal. Deeply ingrained bias against black women’s natural, unstraightened hair has tangible effects on women’s lives. Lighter-skinned black women and black women with straighter hair are more likely to marry than other black women. Black women with natural hair have been subject to discrimination at work and in the military.”
Prominent social media influencers, and even celebrities, vowed to never purchase the brand again, noting that the change in advertisement reflects a change in the C-level management as well.
Shea Moisture messed up — even they know it. But one could argue they did what any scaling company would: attempt to grow the product base. Is the fate of Shea Moisture inevitable for other companies taking claim of the Black hair tech space? The tech industry isn’t inherently Black — if anything, it’s closely opposite, with Black workers making up less than 5% of the total tech workforce. From attempts at monetary gain through fundraising or VC pitching, to scaling attempts to bring in more of a user base, there is a lot of room for cultural appropriation or ‘selling out.’
There are various factors that could help determine whether a company will eventually leave its core consumer base high and dry. One, and pretty important, is the makeup of the team. It’s a no-brainer that, when reaching out to a niche audience, someone within that audience will intimately know how to reach and communicate with them. If a company’s work force and its consumer base don’t at all look alike, there might be a Shea Moisture fate in the cards. Second, the ultimate goal and mission of the company should be paid attention to. Some people are in the game just to make money. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting a fuller wallet, a mainly monetary focus could lead decisions to stray from the benefit of the core customer. “For The Love Of Money,” people will do anything, including leave behind the consumers who built their clout in the first place. Third, the level of focus on community is very important. In the tech industry as a whole, many companies have begun to place a large focus on community.
“Community manager,” a role that didn’t exist two years ago, is now vital for startups like AirBnB. Priscilla Hazel of Tress remarks that community is a leading component to what drives the startup’s purpose. Black hair specifically thrives off of a sense of community, and any company entering the Black hair tech space without a focus on that will soon whitewash to a point of no return.
There are many more niches within the wide world of Black hair that have yet to be tapped. How innovators take culture and learn the audience base within their desired niche will determine their success
. . .
Are you the founder and/or CEO of a Black Hair tech company and want to grow successfully? Hire Sierra Boone to join your content, social media, or community management team! ;)