Hunched over folding tables in their Baltimore basement, Pierre and Jamyla Bennu put the “hand” in Oyin Handmade, meticulously squeezing droplets of oil into amber-colored bottles of “Juices and Berries” hair tonic. They spend up to 18 hours a day concocting products aimed largely at Black women who’ve abandoned hair straighteners for their natural locks.
As Black women, frustrated with chemical damage, reconsider straightening their hair, Black-owned mini-companies like Oyin have emerged as go-to sources of organic products, capitalizing on their firsthand knowledge of ethnic hair to return the market to its roots. “There’s an empowerment aspect,” explains Jamyla Bennu, who started out making products for her own “natural,” or chemically untreated, hair.
Oyin’s products average $10 and rely on shea butter, honey and other cupboard ingredients. The Bennus ship more than 100 orders weekly, each averaging $40. “I used to go to the post office once or twice a week on my bicycle,” Bennu says. “(Now) three or four times a week, the post office picks up five or eight bins of packages from us.”
Krika Bradsher began her business, MyHoneyChild, after years of styling natural hair in her Clayton, N.C., salon. “I found out using a lot of commercial products that they weren’t really designed for our hair. We don’t have any say-so in designing them,” says Bradsher, who earns $3,000 a month selling products like soy moisturizers.
The brands are relatively small, marketed largely through Black-aimed Web sites, salons and festivals like Atlanta’s annual World Natural Hair, Health & Beauty Show, launched 11 years ago.
Last June, Chicago market research firm Mintel valued the Black hair-care products market at $1.8 billion. It named mainstream firms L’Oréal USA, Alberto Culver Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. the largest suppliers of hair products specifically made for Blacks. Blacks, meanwhile, have dominated the entrepreneurial side of the industry back to Madame C.J. Walker’s early 20th-century hair treatments, explains Lafayette Jones, founder of the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, a Chicago association of minority-owned hair-care companies. They’ve historically spotted street trends like the Jheri curl of the 1980s, he says, marketing them and selling out when business reached critical mass.
But Jones says modern Black entrepreneurs have more formalized business training than previous generations, a key to holding on to the reins. Black consumers, meanwhile, have more wealth and potential investment capital, as well as a growing interest in keeping Black dollars in the community. Black buying power is projected to top $1.1 trillion by 2012 from roughly $845 billion in 2007, according to a July report by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
This has benefited firms like Carol’s Daughter, founded by Black New Yorker Lisa Price. Steve Stoute, the company’s chairman, credits investments from Black entertainers and patronage from savvy Black consumers with helping grow the company to a $20-million business known for organic products that pamper ethnic hair.
Hair is a touchy subject for many Black women. “Natural hair historically has been related to as militant,” says Venus Opal Reese, assistant professor of aesthetics/cultural studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. “If you go further back, it’s been regarded as unclean and unkempt.”
Attitudes shifted in the late 1990s, as kinky-haired entertainers like Lauryn Hill challenged traditional Black beauty ideals, Reese says. Also influential is the damage Black women have seen from years of chemical straightening, says Sam Ennon, with the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, in San Mateo, Calif. “The new generation is beginning to go natural because they have lost their hair. You’re going to see more products for the natural type of hair style,” Ennon says.
The Mintel report predicts a 23-percent decline in sales of straighteners, or “relaxers,” through 2011, while conditioner sales are expected to increase.