With glaring inclusivity problems in both the hair-care and tech industries, Black female entrepreneurs are stepping up to serve long-overlooked consumer demands. 

Hair care has been flooded with VC money in recent years with the proliferation of buzzy DTC startups, but gaps have remained in products and services related to hair care for people of color. These include ethically sourced extension products and salons qualified to work with all hair types. With a VC funding gap for Black entrepreneurs, significant market opportunities are being overlooked, say beauty founders. A 2019 report by Nielsen found that what it calls the “ethnic hair and beauty aids category” is worth $63.5 million in the United States, with African Americans comprising 86% of the spend in the segment.

Fashion influencer Freddie Harrel founded DTC hair startup RadSwan in the beginning of 2019, filling a gap she saw for high-quality, ethical and eco-friendly hair extensions offered through an upscale shopping experience. 

According to Harrel, the current beauty supply store shopping experience for hair extensions for women of color is lacking for style-conscious and ethically minded consumers. She said that she would previously shop for extensions directly through a wholesaler in China, and she noted that physical store shopping experience for extensions in the U.S. and Europe often involves “sticky shelves” and “cultural clashes” with staff. “It doesn’t match the fact that [Black women] spend six times more on beauty than white counterparts,” she said.

Harrel will be launching her RadSwan product line in the fall, which will be preceded by a connected content site called Black Like Me that goes lives next month. Geared toward the global African Diaspora, the brand has raised $2 million from an all-female group of VC funds including BBG and Female Founders Fund, making her one of the few Black female founders to raise over $1 million. In addition to stylish, millennial-friendly branding, the brand specifically provides synthetic hair extensions to avoid ethical problems in the human hair market. RadSwan is also launching a recycling program with Terracycle to keep the synthetic products out of landfills. 

According to 2018 Mintel data, one-third of Black consumers purchase hair-care products online and the percentage buying through online-only retailers has increased by 9% since 2016. 

Recognizing this, salon-booking app Swivel was founded to provide women of color with a curated directory of stylists qualified to work with their hair type. Stylists “can’t just add themselves” to be featured, said Thompson, who noted each one is vetted by the team before being listed. Once on the app, they can be reviewed by clients in a Yelp-style interface. 

“We can’t just walk into any salon and walk out thinking that we’re going to look our best,” said co-founder Jihan Thompson. “It’s so important that we find stylists that are skilled working and have been trained to work with textured hair.”

Thompson said that the app was founded in 2016 with co-founder Jennifer Lambert when “so much was happening in the beauty tech space,” but “so much of it just overlooked the unique hair care needs of Black women. I found that a lot of startups that were coming out at that time, whether they were booking apps or just tools or services, completely ignored us,” she said. The app allows users to search for stylists based on type of service offered, including braids and extension services.

“One of the key difficulties is that beauty schools don’t routinely teach stylists how to work with all textures of hair,” said Thompson. “I’ve definitely gotten my hair done and been in situations where, as soon as she started doing my hair, I was like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.’”

As the beauty industry has been focused in recent weeks on how to improve product diversity, with initiatives such as the 15% Pledge, Thompson hopes this will be turning point for the industry to value inclusion. 

“One of the things that I hope comes out of this — and I think we’re starting to see some of it, especially with products — is that we continue to highlight and promote the businesses that were created to fill the voids that weren’t being filled by major beauty companies before,” she said in reference to the service side of the beauty industry. “So many Black entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses launched in response to the fact that we were being ignored. It’s not like we sat here and were like, ‘Nobody’s helping us; we’re not going to do anything.’ What it has shown is that so many Black entrepreneurs are willing to solve their own problems.”