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Entrepreneurs reclaiming black hair care market

Dionne Walker

BALTIMORE — 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 — fragile coils easily dried by many store products.

Blacks have long bristled at figures showing that white firms lead the billion-dollar black hair care products market.

But 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,” explained 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,” she said. “[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, My Honey Child, after years styling natural hair in her Raleigh, 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,” said 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 and Beauty Show.

Vendors ballooned from 25 at the outset of the 11-year-old show to 110 on average, said founder Taliah Waajid. About 10,000 consumers are expected in April, mostly women lured by the increased versatility of natural hair.

“You have a lot of younger stylists coming up, and they’re adding creativity and creating styles that can work in the workplace,” Waajid said, pointing to Sisterlocks, a popular version of slender, easily curled dreadlocks.

In June, Chicago market research firm Mintel valued the black hair care products market at $1.8 billion.

That report named mainstream firms L’Oréal USA, Alberto-Culver Co. and Procter and Gamble Co. the largest suppliers of hair products specifically made for blacks in the American food, drug and mass merchandising sector; brands include Just for Me, a line of products for children.

Blacks, meanwhile, have dominated the entrepreneurial side of the industry back to Madame C.J. Walker’s early 20th century hair treatments, explained 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 ’80s, he said, marketing them and selling out when business reached critical mass.

But Jones said 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, according to a July report by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. It placed black buying power at roughly $845 billion last year.

It has benefited firms like Carol’s Daughter. Chairman Steve Stoute, himself black, credits investments from black entertainers and patronage from savvy black consumers with helping grow the company, founded by a black New Yorker, into a $20 million business known for organic products that pamper ethnic hair.

“I like to support our black business owners, so if I see someone who is offering a particular product, I’ll give it a try,” said Angel Shabazz, a Richmond, Va., woman who uses Carol’s Daughter on her dreadlocks.

Hair can be a touchy subject for many black women.

Most straighten their hair for manageability and social acceptance, beginning the monthly ritual as early as age 5, explained Venus Opal Reese, assistant professor of aesthetics/cultural studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Natural hair historically has been [regarded] as militant,” Reese said. “If you go further back, it’s been regarded as unclean and unkempt.”

Attitudes shifted in the late ’90s, as kinky-haired entertainers like Lauryn Hill challenged traditional black beauty ideals, Reese said.

Also influential is the damage black women have seen from years of chemical straightening, said 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,” said Ennon, who predicted the resulting change in product demands would continue.

“You’re going to see more products for the natural type of hairstyle,” he said.

The Mintel report predicted a 23 percent decline in sales of straighteners, or “relaxers,” through 2011, while conditioner sales were expected to increase.

Some credit an awakening among black consumers.

Activist Duron Chavis said his annual Happily Natural Day, in Richmond, draws 1,000 consumers for an organic product expo and natural hair show — a modest turnout, but one Chavis said would have been scant years ago.

“People have become secure and affirming of who they are as African people,” Chavis said. “… They’re going natural to affirm their heritage.”

Qhemet Biologics has tapped the trend.

The Tampa, Fla., business markets Egyptian-themed mixtures of Indian gooseberry and other exotic ingredients under the slogan “ancestral hair care for modern naturals.”

“I see the renewed interest in natural hair and use of natural products as part of a larger process of rediscovery,” said owner F. Butler. “It’s a movement toward coming full circle.”

(Associated Press)