Gwen Jimmere was watching Chris Rock‘s documentary “Good Hair” one day in 2011 when she had an idea that would change her life. The documentary, which highlighted how harmful the ingredients found in most hair products marketed toward black people are, inspired her to go into her kitchen and come up with her own.
Initially, natural hair care was a hobby for Jimmere. But a few years later, in 2013, she found herself leaving an abusive marriage, with her then 2-year-old son. She decided to try to turn her hobby into a full-time job in order to support herself and her child. Jimmere says she launched her beauty company, Naturalicious, with only $32 to her name.
Two years later, after worrying that others would try to profit from her proprietary homemade recipes, Jimmere wrote her own patent and, in 2015, became the first African American woman to hold a patent for a natural hair care product. In less than five years, her line went from her kitchen counter to retailers around the world.
It was never supposed to be a business. It was really just something I created for myself. I had seen this movie that Chris Rock put out called “Good Hair,” and in the movie, he takes an aluminum soda can, puts it into a tub of hair relaxer — I had to use it on my hair to straighten it for like 20 years at that point — and the can disintegrated within a few minutes. It just really freaked me out … I thought to myself, ‘Well, if our skin is our largest organ, and it’s porous, and anything you put onto your skin has the ability to go into your body … what’s it going to do to my baby?’
“Two years later, in 2013, I found myself leaving an abusive marriage.”
I was now a single mom to an almost two-year-old at that point, and I got laid off from my job 30 days prior to my divorce being final. So I had no money, $32 in the bank, a single mother — that’s when I decided that this hobby had to turn into a business.
We [have] funding from [start-up accelerator] Backstage Capital, which owns 5% of the company. But we were self-funded up until last year … I took my little $32 and I bought some ingredients and some products, and I took it down to the local open-air market. [My son] was a baby then, and he was cute, and I would use him to drive traffic to my little table. And then I would sell people my products, and I would take the money that I made and I would pay my bills and also buy more raw material and more ingredients.
I kept doing that until it got to the point where Whole Foods was opening in Detroit, and I approached them. And I was able to get my product into that store.
“A lot of the ingredients in [other brands’] hair products are banned in other countries.”
Size is regulated [in the US]. I can’t tell you that my product is four ounces when it’s really eight. But I can tell you that my product is all-natural, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be true. We see an exorbitant amount of women of color, particularly African American women, who are suffering from uterine fibroid because of the hormone disruptors that are in the products [we] put on [our] hair.
It was a five-step product. It was a shampoo, conditioner, a deep conditioner, a detangler, and it does the work of a leave-in conditioner all at one time, in one product. It’s called the Moroccan Rhassoul 5-in-1 Clay treatment … [and] My mother kept pressing me. She kept saying, ‘You know what, one day you’re going to look on TV and some big brand is going to be selling your product and you won’t be able to do anything about it because you didn’t protect it.’
“I never actually thought I could get a patent for my product.”
I ended up researching, found out that it costs $18,000 to $20,000 [for patent attorneys to submit a patent for you] … And I said to myself, ‘I could either trade money for time or time for money.’ And I decided in that moment that I was going to try and figure out how to apply for the patent on my own, without an attorney.
I would spend time there and I would find out everything I could about patent law. After about eight to 10 months, I felt comfortable enough to write my own patent. And a little less than a year later, I got a call from the patent office and they said they were going to be approving the patent.
“A few weeks later, I got another call from the patent office. [They] said I was the first African American woman to have a patent on a natural hair care product.”
It was just shocking to me, and at that moment I was so proud. But then as time has gone on, it’s been really cool, because it’s inspired other people who have never thought about protecting their intellectual property or didn’t know where to start.
Of course, I would love for them to buy Naturalicious … But even if they don’t, my goal is to educate so that people can make smarter decisions with their money and their time and their health.
“I would love for [my 8-year-old son] to be an entrepreneur.”
I really hope that he learns to own his happiness. It’s really the ultimate thing. I mean, of course, I would love for him to be an entrepreneur. He is starting to give me examples and glimpses that that’s the path he wants to take. I hope he’s able to have an easier time than I had. I hope that what I’m doing is able to give him the head start he needs so that he can start his own company and use his company for good; provide jobs to the community that serves him, hopefully doing something that makes a difference in people’s lives. Whatever he does, I hope those principles remain with him.