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INNOVATORS Q&A

Curly, coily, or kinky hair? This Rhode Island startup has natural hair care products for you

Kerlyne Jean-Baptiste, founder and CEO of KerlyGirl, a natural hair care products company based in Providence, R.I.
Kerlyne Jean-Baptiste, founder and CEO of KerlyGirl, a natural hair care products company based in Providence, R.I.Courtesy of KerlyGirl

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Kerlyne Jean-Baptiste, founder and CEO of KerlyGirl, a company that offers a line of natural hair care products.

Question: What is KerlyGirl, where is it based, and when was it formed?

Answer: KerlyGirl is a natural hair care venture that caters to folks with curly, coily, and kinky hair with our 100 percent organic and plant-based products. We’re based in Providence. KerlyGirl launched our online platform in 2018. We recently introduced our full product line after the success of our one product offering.

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Q: What inspired you to create this business?

A: KerlyGirl was crafted out of my dorm bedroom at Brown University. While studying abroad in Senegal, I felt a newfound sense of empowerment and self. So I cut all my chemically relaxed hair off. I always remember that time fondly because it was one of my most carefree moments.

Living back on campus was difficult because there were no retailers close to me that offered products for my hair type, let alone healthy ones. So I started making hair products for myself the way I had seen the women in my Senegalese family had. That self-care practice evolved into sharing products with friends and family, and eventually, the KerlyGirl brand.

So my biggest inspiration in turning KerlyGirl from a side hustle/hobby into a business was definitely the need. Folks need healthier hair products, and our offering continues to serve that niche.

Q: What is the market that KerlyGirl caters to, and how has that market been underserved in the past?

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A: From hair shaving to Tignon Laws, there’s a long history of texturism in the United States. That history still lives on to this day. Forty-three states, including Rhode Island, have not passed the CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” So it is still legal to discriminate against natural hair for employment and for entry to schools and organizations. And there are countless modern-day stories that prove this.

When you are living with that level of institutional violence, it naturally reverberates in the consumer product industry and what companies believe that their consumers deserve. Historically, that has meant offering products that allowed Black women to assimilate, even if it came at the cost of their health (perms and chemical relaxing).

But even now, with the natural hair care movement being mainstream in popular Black culture, there still isn’t a push for healthier products. More than 75 percent of products marketed to Black women are potentially hazardous. Many of the perm companies have re-branded and now sell conditioners that contain harmful chemicals. We cater to a growing market of Black folks who wear their hair naturally but also prioritize their health before its performativity.

Q: What is the company’s vision?

A: For many, the natural hair care movement was a reclamation of not only our bodies, but also how we take up space in the world. For so many Black femmes, wearing our natural hair meant that we were not only proud of our bodies, but we weren’t afraid of that pride and what people had to say about it. Many pioneers of the natural hair movement were folks with coily hair.

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I remember vividly in high school how wearing your natural hair as a Black woman was stigmatized, especially if you were darker skinned. Even now, with the natural hair movement becoming “mainstream,” there’s popular social rhetoric that if your hair is “too nappy,” you shouldn’t wear your hair naturally. For too long, there’s been a high focus on folks with looser curls in the industry and throughout the media.

My whole life, I struggled to find healthy representation that looked like me in the mass media: dark-skin Black women. KerlyGirl’s vision is to center the hair needs of coilier textures. But more broadly, in our brand, we aim to highlight folks who live at the intersection of Blackness and at many times the center of social violence: dark-skin, non-binary, fat, queer femmes of color. Our efforts are to re-center the natural hair movement to its original roots of Black empowerment, for all.

Q: How does being an entrepreneur of color shape your work and where you plan to direct your career?

A: Being an entrepreneur has taught me how important it is to have a vision and see it through to fruition. I think all my fellow entrepreneurs can agree with that. As an entrepreneur of color, I’m able to create that impact within my own community.

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I envision my company being a vehicle for reimagining the Black beauty experience and, in large part, the beauty supply chain. In the future, it’d be great to own a farm and offer more clean beauty products and food to my community.

Q: As a 2016 Brown University graduate, what were the most relevant or valuable lessons you learned there that have helped you as an entrepreneur, and can you tell us about the impact Professor Patrick Sylvain had on your education?

A: At Brown, I had the opportunity to craft my educational journey out of my own interests, which I now realize was an incredible privilege. Here I was attaining a world-renowned Ivy League education and able to study critical race theory, Black history, and my mother’s maternal language, Haitian Creole. In many ways, I was entrepreneurial with my education. Much of the knowledge I learned in the classroom, I practiced through student activism and visibility projects for Black women.

Professor Sylvain is truly the best professor Brown has to offer. His classes had an incredible impact on affirming my identity as a scholar and Haitian-American. I took every class he taught at Brown. He still continues to mentor and guide me.

Q: KerlyGirl is a finalist for the Cox Business 2020 “Get Started Rhode Island” competition, which offers $50,000 in prizes. What would you do with that prize money, and what do you have planned for the company?

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A: Winning the Cox Business 2020 Get Started Rhode Island competition would be pivotal to KerlyGirl’s trajectory. As an independent beauty brand, we’ve thrived solely through sales and bootstrapped funds. Non-dilutive funding would be instrumental to freely executing our growth strategy as a Black-owned brand.

I also think it would be a symbolic win for many other women of color entrepreneurs. Last year, Black women-owned companies earned an average of $24,000 compared to $142,900 among all women-owned businesses. The revenue gap is the greatest of any minority. This prize would definitely be a push in bettering that statistic.

Q: What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs of color?

A: As a young person, my journey in entrepreneurship has involved trying to understand my worth and my community. My best advice to other young entrepreneurs of color is to really practice the art of asset mapping. Truly dig deep when asking what you have to offer to your market.

A lot of rhetoric around entrepreneurship is money-centered. As a recent graduate, I didn’t have a ton of money, but I had a great network of folks and a customer base willing to support me. This also leads me to stress for entrepreneurs of color to seek mentorship. It is so important to have one or two folks in your industry who are consistently advising you and committed to your company’s growth. That is worth more than any dollar amount.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.