They say that necessity is the mother of invention. That was indeed the case for Gwen Jimmere, CEO and founder of natural hair care products company Naturalicious. She came up with a fast all-in-one hair treatment for her natural hair because she faced a major time crunch being the mother of a young child. As you know, taking care of natural hair means you typically have to block out a few hours in your day–something Jimmere no longer had the luxury of doing. When others started asking for her new creation, she knew she had come up with a much-needed product. Instead of rushing to the market, Jimmere made a very smart — albeit tedious– business move. She went through the complicated but worthwhile process of getting a patent for her invention.
According to the African American Patent Holders Database, as of 2006 there are more than 500 African American inventors listed. Just three years ago Jimmere became a member of this small group. And in fact, she is the first Black woman to hold a U.S. patent for a natural hair care product.
Patents are important for inventors, as they protect the rights of the product’s owner and allow “the inventor to exclude others from making, using or selling his or her invention in that country during the life of the patent,” wrote MIT professor Joe Hadzima in the Boston Business Journal. Patent protection in the United States lasts for 20 years and a patent application must be filed with the Patent & Trademark Office no later than one year after details of the invention are made public or the invention is first put on sale.
It was wise of Jimmere to get a patent for her product, and this decision has served her well. Today, Jimmere’s natural hair care product line is sold in such stores as Whole Foods Markets and is not only available in the U.S., but also Trinidad, Indonesia, and she’s hoping to soon distribute in South Africa.
And to think Jimmere started Naturalicious as a side hustle. Jimmere also co-founded Pitch Proof, through which she coaches and trains entrepreneurs on how raise capital for their business ideas. Recently, the mother and inventor talked to us about life in the competitive hair care industry as a Black female entrepreneur.
MadameNoire (MN): You are the first African American woman to hold a patent for a natural hair product. How did that happen?
Gwen Jimmere (GJ): After giving birth to my son, I needed something that allowed me to complete my wash day quickly without costing a fortune. I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I initially created it in my kitchen. I ended up developing the first product made from Rhassoul Clay that does the work of a cleanser, conditioner, deep conditioner, and detangler, while doing the work of a leave-in conditioner all at one time. This is called our Moroccan Rhassoul 5-in-1 Clay Treatment.
After numerous family members, friends, and friends of friends started offering to buy it, I knew I was on to something. At the consistent urging of my mom, I applied for a U.S.patent on the product. After about 15 months, I was awarded the patent. It sounds easy in retrospect, but applying for a patent is a very grueling process, especially when you do it on your own without an attorney. Many people apply for patents, but very few are actually awarded. At the time, I didn’t know I was going to be the first Black woman to hold a patent for a natural hair product. To be the first Black woman to do anything is truly an honor.
Since this happened, I’ve seen and read several articles aligning me with Madame CJ Walker. To be even mentioned in the same sentence as such an incredible trailblazer is humbling. She is definitely my inspiration and I can only hope she would be proud of me, as she too owned a patent (for a hair straightening product).
MN: Why did you start Naturalicious?
GJ: I went natural while I was pregnant with my son. My wash day would take me anywhere from two-and-a-half to four hours. It was a long process, but this seemed to be the status quo for “wash day” and everyone I knew with natural hair was taking almost half a day to complete their whole hair care routine. But after my son was born, I realized very quickly that babies don’t care if you need 2, 4 or 6 hours to do your hair. They just want to be play, to cuddle, to eat…you know, baby stuff. You’re on their time. So I had to quickly find a way to complete my whole wash day, keep the ingredients safe and natural, but get my entire process done during his nap which was about an hour long. And that’s exactly how the OooLaLocks Hair Box and the one-hour wash day process came to be. I originally created the system for myself because I really needed something that allowed me complete my wash day quickly, without damaging or unsafe chemicals. I officially turned Naturalicious into a business in 2013.
MN: What niche do you feel Naturalicious fills?
GJ: We fulfill the needs of women who want their hair to look beautiful and be healthy, but want to save money and time without compromising the quality or safety of the ingredients she’s using. Our OooLaLocks System is a simple 4-step system that does the work of 13 products, and gets you from wash to ready-to-style in less than an hour. We save you over 60 percent of the money you’d normally spend on your hair and over 80 percent of the time you’d generally spend on wash day. And everything we make is sulfate free, paraben free, mineral oil free, petrolatum free, gluten free and even cruelty free. It’s a major game changer.
We even have an unmatched, unprecedented power guarantee: If you don’t love our products, send them back within 60 days and we’ll refund 100 percent of the purchase price, plus we’ll buy you a competitor’s product of equal or lesser price. There’s absolutely no risk with us.
I developed this product line because our customer is pretty much like I was when I started my natural hair journey. She is someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time or money on her hair, but she still wants it to look and feel amazing and be healthy. She doesn’t want to go through a lot of trial and error with a bunch of products. She wants something that works, and something that she can use on the entire family. Our customer, in general, is not someone who enjoys buying and trying a wide variety of products on a regular basis. She doesn’t enjoy being a “product junkie.” She’s busy, she doesn’t want to spend all day on her hair on wash day. She just wants her products to work, she wants them to be healthy, and she wants to save money and time in the process.
MN: Are more Black-owned companies taking control of the industry?
GJ: I think that with several recent happenings in the news, Black people in general are becoming more and more aware of the need to support Black businesses, which will help to build generational wealth for our families and our communities. We’re also becoming more keenly aware of the importance of keeping the Black dollar circulating within our communities as long as possible. Black-owned hair companies are taking back control of things from the product development and manufacturing side, but we are still far outpaced when it comes to the beauty supply stores and directly interfacing with consumers in a retail environment. We’re definitely making strides, however, in all areas of the Black hair care industry.
MN: What obstacles did you deal with starting out?
GJ: This company was truly started out of necessity, as was its acceleration. I was laid off from my job just a month before my divorce was final. I had no money and suddenly no job. I had Naturalicious as a side hustle at the time. I figured I could either cry about my situation, or I could make something happen because there was absolutely no Plan B.
I had a two-year-old to feed, and all the same bills I had before I got divorced. Plus my mortgage was due in 15 days. The only income source I had as an option was to make Naturalicious work. I had heard there was a Whole Foods store opening near me. Although I was extremely scared they’d laugh me out of the building, I was in survival mode and figured the worst they could say was “no.” So I was able to set up a meeting with the powers that be and about 10 minutes into the meeting, they said they loved it and definitely wanted to bring it in. I was floored. I had no real sales at that time and my packaging was very basic back then. That was two years ago and we started in that one store. Now were are in several Whole Foods stores and we’re also distributed throughout Trinidad, Indonesia and South Africa. God is so good!
MN: What have been some challenges in growing your business?
GJ: Businesses need money to grow. I found I was making money but we were at a standstill as far as growth because we needed additional capital in order to keep up with demand for our products. I discovered that there are numerous business pitch competitions each year that provide capital and many don’t require you to give up any equity. I started entering and winning several of them. Now, a business partner and I teach other entrepreneurs how to do the same via our company Pitch Proof.
MN: Have you faced any obstacles being a Black women in the industry?
GJ: I’ve had no obstacles from the consumer side. We have the best customers on Earth, hands down.
On the business side, though, I’ve had a number of non-Black investors approach me seeking to invest in the business. But all money is not smart money. I find that oftentimes they don’t truly understand the pain points Black women have when it comes to our hair. They don’t always “get” the ingrained history of how our hair has affected us in both good and bad ways over the course of time. They don’t understand that for decades a lot of products that were marketed to us didn’t even include ingredients that were conducive to what our hair needs to actually thrive. (Some still don’t, if we’re being honest.) For that reason, many times, investors want to change up the formulas in order to drive down production costs, but that also means producing a sub-par product that’s not nearly as effective.
We have been profitable from day one, so swapping out our already excellent ingredients for lower quality ones is unnecessary and quite greedy in my opinion. I have no desire to lessen the quality of what we produce. One of the main reasons the Naturalicious line works so well is because we only use exceptionally high quality ingredients. It may cost us more on the backend, but our customers are totally worth it and it’s what they’ve grown to expect from us. I am my customer; if it’s not something I would use on my own head, I’m definitely not going to be selling it.
MN: What are your goals for the rest of the year?
GW: For the remainder of this year, we are continuously working on our plans to move into South Africa, and also getting into even more Whole Foods stores across the U.S. In three-five years, we’ll be in at least two other major big box retailers and we’ll add an additional three international markets to our lineup.
MN: What has been your biggest business lesson?
GW: “Waiting is not a wealth strategy.” I heard millionaire business coach Marshawn Evans say this once and I have adopted it as my mantra. There will rarely ever be a “right” time, or “right” circumstance, for you to pursue your dreams and live your best life. So just do it because none of us are getting any younger. The worst that can happen is that you fail, learn from your mistake and start over. The best that can happen is that you’re wildly successful. So take a chance on you. No one else will bet on you if you don’t bet on yourself.
MN: What do you like the most about what you do?
GJ: Each day I get to inspire someone to love themselves as they were created; as God made them. I hear women say all the time, “I hate my hair.” I don’t believe you hate your hair. I think you don’t know what to do with your hair, but if you had the tools, products and knowledge needed to make your hair look and perform the way it should, you would absolutely love it–and in turn love your beauty. Our hair is the most magical hair there is. We’re the only group of people who get to have short hair and long hair all in the same day with no haircut and no weave. It’s incredible! I believe that you’ve already got it, we just create the products that help you flaunt it.