Welcome to She Leads, a series digging into the good, the bad, and the ugly of being a woman in business. In each piece, we chat with a different founder about her experiences, the issues women face in business, and how they’re powering through in the face of adversity.
Miko Branch didn’t just have to build a business in order to get her products for curly and textured hair in the hands of women everywhere. She had to expand a category. She had to break down stereotypes. And she had to educate consumers not just about her product, but also about their own hair and the lies they’d been told about it.
When Branch, along with her sister Titi, launched Miss Jessie’s at their kitchen table 15 years ago, the beauty industry was a long way from inclusive. There were products for women of color to relax their hair, but not embrace its natural beauty. Miss Jessie’s helped changed this with fresh solutions that celebrate women of color for who they really are, bringing diversity and inclusivity to a category that was failing to serve everyone.
We chatted with Branch to learn more about Miss Jessie’s, as well as educating your customers and making space for women of color.
You started Miss Jessie’s because the market didn’t have the product you needed. This is a founding story I hear a lot from women and especially women of color. Why do you think it didn't exist already? Why did you need to fill that gap?
Media and the beauty ideals weren’t accepting of texture and embracing what God gave you naturally. It was about straight hair and the European ideas of what beauty was. But I had started to embrace my natural texture, and when my salon clients started to take notice, it didn't take me long to see the opportunity. I was always good at hair and quickly became an expert at styling curly hair, but there were no products like Miss Jessie's on the market. So my sister Titi and I took to our kitchen table and literally whipped up our first product, which was Curly Pudding. We created the niche and supplied the market we built by using the internet to show the possibilities. We showed before and after photos that were really, really key. Now, more than a decade later, you can't look at a magazine, turn on your TV, or walk down the street without seeing textured hair. We saw an opportunity, we jumped on it, and we helped to build that niche brick by brick.
I'm sure the women who use your products were quick to embrace them, but with such an emphasis on European beauty standards, did you find resistance anywhere else?
The resistance actually came from the people we were marketing to. They didn't believe that these outcomes and possibilities were real. We got a lot of backlash and people thought that we were tying weaves into the hair.
Why do you think your potential customers didn't believe it worked?
For generations, women of color were told that their hair was bad, both from people who loved them and disliked them. Could you imagine? Your grandmother might have told you your hair was not great in the same way your enemy did. That really had an effect on what we all believed beauty looks like.
But we showed you could wear a middle part or a side part. We showed you could define your curls. Once they were able to see that it was a desirable look and could be styled beautifully, I think that's when the interest started. We showed the possibilities beyond afros, braids, or dreadlocks, which were the only categories of natural hair at the time. Many women, primarily women with the tighter coiled curl, didn't even know that they had curly hair because for many years, they'd straightened it to emulate a European beauty standard.
It sounds like as much as you are in the hair-product business, you were also in the business of breaking down stereotypes and negative ideas about textured hair. Would you say you had to do some education?
Yes, I definitely see it that way now. Although at the time, we were 360 degrees in the development, production, distribution, and marketing. We didn't realize that we were also helping restore esteem that may have been destroyed over the years. We found ourselves reinforcing and reminding women how beautiful they are and how unique and beautiful their hair is.
Miss Jessie's is available in nearly every big-box and beauty-supply store across the country. How did you get that distribution?
Sales had been down around 30% in the sections of big-box retailers where they marketed to women with a tighter coil texture and [stocked] the relaxers. I imagine many of these retailers wanted to know why, and it was actually Target that made the first move by reaching out via a third party. When they called, we didn't think that it was really them. We blew it off, but they were persistent and they wanted us to be at this meeting. We got our plane tickets, went, and they ordered everything on our list. With the handshake and signing a lot of our contracts without a lawyer, we became multimillionaires. Then we started getting calls from everyone.
Why were sales down 30% with those products?
We think women stopped using relaxers and became more interested in natural hair. And at the time, that section of the store that was marketed to primarily women of color was very dimly lit, dusty, and not a lot of attention was paid to it. But in the other sections, it was brightly lit with big, bold pictures, and it looked like the retailer cared about that customer.
Now, when you go into the section where Miss Jessie's is sold, we have lights, we have multiple images, we have variety. What Miss Jessie’s proved is that this customer is willing to try new products and spend a bit more for products that work. Now when you go into that aisle, it’s extremely crowded. Not only did we give women beauty options and solutions, but we changed the beauty industry. We showed other minority women that they can do it too.
Miss Jessie’s has always been a bit of a family affair, having been inspired and named after your grandmother and co-founded with your sister, who has since passed. How did that family support help you build Miss Jessie’s as a woman in business, and how did it help you to succeed now that you’re the driving force behind the company?
Titi and I didn't go to business school. We didn't have any mentors or special skills. We had to tap what we learned, whether it be at the kitchen table or an old saying that my grandmother passed on to us. The work ethic that my dad, Jimmy Branch, put in us was also really key. There would be no Miss Jessie’s without the support of Titi. We had a big sister-little sister dynamic, and she often made a lot of the decisions and handled business while I worked on the creative side. We weren't just business partners, but also roommates, best friends, and sisters. We were co-parenting. Could you imagine when we got into a fight and didn't agree on what color Curly Pudding should be? We would have to get in the same car and drive all the way home and then walk into the same house and then come back to work and do it again. We had the good fortune of being able to support one another in business. I know love was the key with Titi and I. And I think love really was the key ingredient to the success of Miss Jessie's.
What advice would you give to other women founders?
It's really important that you're confident in your womanhood, meaning knowing that your voice does count. Women are strong and women can be leaders. When a woman says no, her no is equally as solid and forceful as a man’s. I found that as a woman, just being taken seriously is important. You need the confidence to be able to sit at a table as the only woman and not second-guess yourself. We also tend to be hard on ourselves. So if we do make a mistake, which many of us do, I really encourage women to forgive themselves and try again. Next time you'll do much better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read about an earlier hair-care pioneer here.
Sage Lazzaro is a New York City-based journalist covering tech, business, culture, women and diversity & inclusion. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, VICE, Medium, the New York Observer, and more. Follow her on Twitter here.