True Indian Hair Founder Karen Mitchell Talks Racism, Sexism Within Weave Industry: “It’s A Secret, But Not Really”
Weave has been big business for years now, with new hair lines popping up just about every other month it seems. But as consumers become more savvy about their hair care regimens, looking closely at all products they put in their hair from chemicals to oils, and now weaves, only forward thinking business providing quality options will survive and True Indian Hair is one such success story. Started in 2004, over the past 10 years, founder and owner Karen Mitchell has built a brand of virgin Indian hair that clients stand by, stylists recommend, and celebrities swear by. But how did she do it in an industry wrought with massive competition, racism, and sexism? Check out her story below and her tips for easy weave and natural hair maintenance.
How did you start True Indian Hair?
I was a fashion coordinator and I got to travel to India with my boss to visit factories. While there I realized that Indian hair was starting to be a huge trend, especially for African Americans. Indian hair has been around forever, but it wasn’t such a big deal for us. We were getting package hair and it wasn’t a big deal for us. I started buying a couple packs for myself and I would bring it back and sell to friends and family. About a year later I got laid off from my job and during the hustle I was doing for my hair business, I realized it could be lucrative. I started doing research on large companies who were making millions and some even billions and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m laid off. I could do this or go back to a 9 to 5.’ So I started doing this full-time. I decided I was going to open a store and I opened my first flagship store in Brooklyn and that was in 2005. I’d been selling the hair since 2004.
The weave industry is notoriously racist against African Americans. Has that been your experience?
Being a woman was more of an issue. I found when I started I wasn’t being respected. I wasn’t getting good prices. I wasn’t able to sit down and negotiate the way I wanted to. I was brushed off and they didn’t want to take me seriously. I find that within the virgin Indian hair market, there’s definitely more room for minorities and women to break into it, as opposed to the packaged Chinese, Korean hair market. So, it was a little bit easier. I have friends in the other market and it’s hard. We’re not allowed to sell that hair. It’s literally kept from us. They give us the cheapest brands to sell. You’ll see there are few African American stores that sell packaged hair because it’s kept from us. It’s a secret but it’s not really a secret.
What has growth been like for True Indian Hair during the past 10 years?
Business has grown tremendously. I’m planning to open two more stores within the next year. I’m looking to open a store in New Jersey and one in Atlanta. I have three stores. I ship all over the world. I literally went from being a $100,000 business to being quite lucrative, where I could be considered a millionaire at this point. It’s a great business, but it’s not easy. I see so many people get into it thinking it’s easy. Some people don’t take it serious. I don’t get sleep. I do my research. You have to stay on top of the quality.
How do you handle competition?
I always say ‘Everybody and their mama sells hair,’ I mean everyone! It’s a good thing because the virgin Indian hair market is actually easier for us to break into. A lot of the racism that people experience in other markets doesn’t necessarily exist in this market. The doors are open. You have to have funding and you have to know what you’e doing and love what you’re doing and believe in it. I wear weaves. It’s apart of me and our process when we get the hair is very hands on and involved. We still have a team of people who wash every single bundle that comes into our warehouse and do the standard brushing and pulling to make sure the hair’s not shedding excessively and the wefts are sewn properly; if it’s not we’ll send it back. We all love a quick buck but if you really want a brand that’s going to become something that competes with other brands you really have to become apart of the process.
How has the natural hair boom affected your business?
It’s actually been great for my business because now I get to add additional lines to my business that cater to people who want those natural textures. I’m natural under this [weave]. I love it. Our new collection, the Inspire Collection, has a z curl pattern which is like an afro curl. It’s soft. You can blow it out and wear it straight. It’s still virgin hair so you can color it. It’s great for women — and men. Our Relaxed Straight option is very sleek but there’s some texture to it, which is similar to relaxed hair on African American women so it’ll match that texture very well. And then we have kinky-curly which is similar to a biracial curl. It’s flowy, has a lot more movement. It’s a sexy, bouncy curl.
What inspired the new Vixen collection?
My 34th street location really opened the market to so many other cultures and women. I have a lot of Caucasian clients now and people who are asking for colors that I didn’t have. We started doing custom coloring but that’s a process so I wanted to begin with a line of standard colors and the Vixen collection was born. We have bold which is a platinum blonde; caramel which is a golden blonde; and we have honey which is a lighter shade closer to number 27.
What’s the proper maintenance for True Indian Hair?
If you take care of your hair, it will last six months to one year. If you bleach it it may not last as long because you’re breaking down the hair and it requires more maintenance and moisture. Maintenance is easy. The first maintenance point is to buy your hair from True Indian Hair (laughs). You have to wash your hair every seven to 10 days. What happens with buildup and oils from your own natural hair is it gets into the weave and when extensions are dirty it tends to tangle So wash your hair every seven to 10 days. Use a great moisturizing shampoo and conditioner. The hair is no longer getting nutrients because it’s no longer growing from the scalp so it needs moisture. It’s real hair.
Don’t sleep with wet hair, especially curly hair. You have to let the hair dry. When you sleep with wet hair the strands are just rolling around each other and tangling. Salon maintenance is also important. If it’s colored hair, for you to maintain the hue, you have to use a shampoo and conditioner geared for colored hair. Don’t keep extensions in for more than six to eight weeks. Condition your own hair and trim your ends. I like to tell people to give their hair a break of one to two weeks before weaves. You can use clip-in extensions or ponytails from our line in the meantime.
What separates True Indian Hair from the masses?
The quality. It’s our hands-on approach. Our quality assurance is on point. Our clients love us. The company’s growing and we have great reviews. We value quality first and foremost.
For more on Karen’s line of extensions, check out TrueIndianHair.com.