The “Natural Hair Renaissance” is in full swing. More black women than ever are rocking their God-given curls with pride, and now finding the perfect product for every kinky texture is as easy as making a trip to the neighborhood drug store.
We’ve come a long way, baby, but for those of us who cut the “creamy crack” cord more than a few years ago, the dark days are still fresh in our minds.
Mahisha Dellinger, founder and CEO of CURLS hair products, was one of the early converts, deciding in 2002 to scrap her relaxer in favor of a natural style. Maintenance was a problem, though, and she found herself pacing the hair care aisles, unhappy with the heavy greases and texturizers that were developed for ethnic hair.
“I was looking at my options and thinking that this could be a potential business opportunity,” she said. “I was sure that there were other people who had hair care needs that weren’t being fulfilled.”
It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that was definitely true in Dellinger’s case. With $25,000 of her personal savings, she hired a cosmetic chemist to begin working on the formulas that would eventually comprise the CURLS line of products. And while she admits that she was no science geek, she knew exactly what she didn’t want in the final product: parabens, sulfates, silicones, or any other additives that would prove harmful to chemical-free hair.
From there, the road to success was slow but steady. In a pre-social media world – and well before natural hair and natural hair care products were a trending topic – Dellinger had to get creative about building her customer base. She partnered with sites like NaturallyCurly.com to reach potential buyers directly, and she set up her own e-commerce site, shipping direct from her garage.
It was a realm Dellinger was comfortable in, having served previously as a marketing manager for Intel Corporation. But providing hands-on marketing training wasn’t the only way that Dellinger’s stint in corporate America readied her for entrepreneurship.
Towards the end of her Intel tenure, Dellinger worked under a manager who she claims was trying to get her fired, despite her record and performance. Ultimately, he took a job with another company, but Dellinger was forever traumatized by the experience.
“Once he went away, I was relieved,” said Dellinger, “but then I realized that the glass ceiling was still there, and the color barrier was there. I needed to be able to own my own destiny.”
Before launching CURLS, Dellinger considered other business opportunities, including a corporate child care service that would have directly eased one of her own pain points as a working mother. But it was her personal beauty epiphany that would lead to self-employment bliss and a company, according to Dellinger, that’s now valued at a cool $15 million.
Taking the entrepreneurial leap is never without trial, but Dellinger credits her mentor with making the road considerably smoother. She met her advisor, a former Fortune 100 executive, through SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). The organization provides a variety of free resources for new business owners, including mentorship pairing and assistance in drafting business and marketing plans. Dellinger’s experience with SCORE was so beneficial, in fact, that she steers every budding entrepreneur she meets directly to their local office.
“If you don’t have the experience, if you don’t have a mentor, if you don’t have the business background, I definitely recommend SCORE,” she said. “It’s free, it’s everywhere, and it’s an amazing organization.”
In addition to wise counsel, much of Dellinger’s current fortune can be traced to her products increased accessibility through retailers like Target and Sally Beauty Supply. And certainly, if the (not so) secret to success really is “Location, Location,Location,” Dellinger’s profits will continue to rise. CURLS products are scheduled to land on Wal-Mart’s shelves this February.
Unfortunately, though, the natural hair revolution and the willingness of big box retailers to jump on the sales bandwagon have created new challenges for Dellinger and company. She notes that some manufacturers are more concerned about revenue than providing quality products for black consumers.
“It’s really an interesting environment for us now because we wanted the exposure, but it’s brought a plethora of new competition from brands that are just looking to make money,” Dellinger said. “They may not have a path into the market that is authentic to the consumer, but they have the power and the resources to drop $50 million in advertising.”
Multi-national conglomerates aside, Dellinger is still pressing forward into a decidedly frizz-free future. She’s in talks to star in her own reality show – documenting her life as the “Curl Queen” – and she’s also writing a book. Dellinger’s days are much busier now, but she’s in control. And following her experience at Intel, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“After I got through that, I said I would never, ever let someone else hold my destiny in the palms of their hands,” she explained. “If I was going to put in all those hours, I wanted to do it for myself, for my kids, for my legacy, and for my well-being.”
Andrea Williams is a journalist and writer based in Nashville, TN. For more, follow her @AndreaWillWrite.