Mary Imevbore bought her first wig online in 2017 when she was attending Williams College.
Like many Black women, she had decided to “go natural” years ago, forgoing damaging hair straightening treatments. But she had trouble finding a Black hair stylist in the rural Berkshires, and as a double major in political science and computer science, didn’t have much time to style her hair in a dorm room.
“I wanted something quick and easy, so I discovered wigs, but the shopping experience was terrible,” Imevbore said.
It struck Imevbore that a better buying option didn’t exist “because the consumer is a Black woman.” So she teamed up with two Williams classmates, Tiiso McGinty and Susana Hawken, to create the kind of brand they would patronize. After three years of work, the cofounders have officially launched beauty startup Waeve — pronounced “wave” — dropping a product line of six trendy, beginner-friendly wigs on a website designed with bold colors and a Gen Z aesthetic.
“We believe wigs are the next big thing in beauty and fashion,” Imevbore said. “We are building the ultimate destination.”
The 24-year old, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Connecticut, said wigs are popular among Black women because wigs allow them to reclaim the time they would have spent styling their natural hair. She called them an “extension of the natural hair movement,” since Black women who ditched chemical relaxers were looking for other ways to express themselves through their hair without ruining it.
“The perception is that a wig is a utility, like you have one umbrella,” she added, “but that is not how people are wearing wigs ... people are building wig collections.”
In college, she and her friends would spend hours vetting companies, comparing contradicting product reviews on YouTube, and grappling with varying delivery times and changing prices. That was in 2017, when companies such as eyewear retailer Warby Parker and beauty products seller Glossier were disrupting markets by reaching customers online instead of through stores.
Imevbore figured the same thing could happen with wigs, and although she never considered herself an entrepreneur, she began thinking like one.
“Wigs are an expensive product that is growing in demand; people are spending hundreds of dollars on them multiple times a year,” she said.
The market for wigs and hair extensions in North America is expected to reach $2 billion by 2026, according to French research firm Reportlinker, with Black consumers accounting for a big chunk of that spending.
The trio started with $30,000 after winning two business competitions in 2018 — one at Williams and the other at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — to launch a direct-to-consumer wig business. That same year Imevbore, McGinty, and Hawken were finishing up their senior year of college, and they all happened to be headed to Boston and moved in together. Imevbore worked as a software engineer at online pharmacy startup PillPack in Somerville — which was acquired by Amazon that year — while McGinty pursued a program at Boston University, and Hawken started on a PhD at MIT.
The momentum started building in 2020 when the company raised $2 million in a funding round led by Boston venture capital firm Pillar VC, with participation from Maveron, an investor in consumer companies such as Allbirds, eBay, and Everlane. Waeve also garnered high-profile support from three current and former executives of Glossier. And TJ Parker and Elliot Cohen, cofounders of Pillpack, also participated in the round. (Imevbore worked at Pillpack through the Amazon acquisition until last year, when she decided to pursue Waeve full time).
Waeve exists in a world that hasn’t always welcomed, understood, or catered to Black hair. While that allowed the startup to fill a gap, it also led to challenges behind the scenes. Imevbore said there was a learning curve with potential investors, who didn’t immediately understand why consumers would buy more than one wig.
The numbers were not in Waeve’s favor, either: Crunchbase found that in 2020, less than 1 percent of all venture capital funding went to Black founders, and a similarly small slice of money went to startups founded by women.
“As a team, I remember us griping,” Imevbore said. “If we were selling lipstick or shoes, we wouldn’t have to explain why someone wants those things. People are buying [wigs] like handbags and sneakers, but [that] is something I had to convey to investors.”
The Waeve team began interviewing Black women about their hair experiences, gathering testimonials and videos to show investors they were tapping a segment that had long been overlooked. It worked and also became the foundation for Waeve World, a grass-roots effort to build a community around the brand through shared experiences and hair advice.
Sarah Hodges, a partner at Pillar, said it was eye-opening to “hear the same thing over and over again” about how challenging it was for Black women to shop for hair.
“This is a huge market, but it is really fragmented,” said Hodges. She said consumer surveys showed there wasn’t an established place or brand that Black women trusted for buying wigs.
“It has become so clear that the world needs what Waeve is building. I really do believe this is going to become a movement,” Hodges said.
She added that having current and former Glossier executives involved in the startup at such an early stage was a powerful endorsement of Waeve’s potential. Glossier was founded in 2012, and the first investment money it received was also $2 million. Today, it’s valued at more than $1 billion, according to Crunchbase.
Waeve’s first collection, “Days of the Week,” is inspired by the idea that wigs are an accessory that can constantly change. The company worked with a manufacturer in China to design six initial styles — which range from a curly, middle-part wig to a platinum blonde, straight cut — and it will drop a new line every quarter. Ranging in price from $72 to $398, the wigs are delivered to the company’s distribution center and office in Boston, where employees package them into “starter kits” filled with additional supplies.
Imevbore said she wants to build the type of cult-like brand loyalty for Waeve that other online brands enjoy, and it’s starting with Boston. Waeve has nine full-time employees and more than 5,000 followers on Instagram, and is already hosting community events, such as a recent picnic in the Public Garden.
“You would think Boston would be the last place to have this Black girl-centered beauty company ... but I don’t think Waeve would be what it is if not for us being in Boston,” she said. “We [have] a stronger opportunity in Boston to build a community where it wasn’t so apparent before.”