Natural Style: Leadership Lessons From Kitchen Table to Big Brand Success
The moment that changed everything for the Branch sisters arrived at 3 a.m. in 2000. Titi Branch was experimenting mixing together natural ingredients for homemade hair care products in the kitchen of the Brooklyn four-story brownstone she shared with sister, Miko Branch.
The result was what would become Curly Pudding, part of the multi-million dollar Miss Jessie’s hair care product line now sold in thousands of stores and salons nationwide.
“That Curly Pudding was groundbreaking,” says Miko Branch, co-founder and CEO of Miss Jessie’s LLC. “It was bananas how many orders we had.”
The company is named after her paternal grandmother, Jessie Mae Branch, whom she says was fiercely independent. Growing up, the sisters spent summers in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. with their grandmother, “who did everything from scratch,” Branch says.
“At my grandmother’s kitchen table, the cake batter had to have the right weight, smell, texture. All of that quality control is applied to what we do,” says Branch, who runs the company alone since her sister passed in 2014.
With a popular product line of hair care products for black women sold in 1,700 Target stores, 8,000 CVS stores, 5,000 Walgreen’s Stores and 3,000 Walmart stores, as well as salons and smaller retailers around the country, Branch says it all began from that eureka moment in their shared kitchen 17 years ago. That was after they opened a Miss Jessie’s salon in Brooklyn in 1997 in their brownstone.
From the beginnings of homemade products sold in their salon, the popularity grew quickly. Branch says they started making the natural hair care products in their kitchen with “Hobart pizza dough mixers,” then moved production to the garden floor, then moved to the basement of the brownstone they owned. In 2005, they moved production to a warehouse, and now outsource the products domestically.
Without angel investors, loans or outside funding, the sisters kept reinvesting any profits from the company and were frugal about their living and business spending.
“For any aspiring entrepreneurs, there are hard times and failures inevitably, but it is important to do something you love, and that is the feeling and the energy that keep pushing us forward,” says Branch, who has been featured on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily and Beauty Inc., and in Ebony as one of the Power 100 Innovators and Influencers.
“Titi and I went into business to be our own bosses,” says Branch, author of Miss Jessie’s: Creating A Successful Business From Scratch.
Having funders would mean being accountable to them. And they preferred to succeed alone.
In the beginning, the sisters struggled to work, reinvest and make smart decisions. “Our idea of success was not having to get on the subway, paying our mortgage, being able to send my son to a wonderful school, and every now and then take a vacation. That’s winning,” Branch says.
The success of the brand is beyond anything she could have imagined, but she says it still goes back to a foundation of independence.
“Our father taught us to be independent. Not being beholden to anyone is part of our DNA,” says Branch, who after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, worked in a family cleaning business with her father.
“Now for women and women of color, there are more resources, but no money is free money,” Branch says.
The 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses report shows the number of businesses owned by black women in this country increased by 112 percent between 2007 and 2016. That is compared to a 45 percent increase for all women-owned firms.
An example of black women’s entrepreneurship, Miss Jessie’s was instrumental in the revolution of black women’s natural hair products at the start of this century.
According to Mintel, “As U.S. Black consumers continue to embrace the natural hair movement, its impact is greatly shaping the U.S. Black hair care market. New research from Mintel reveals that sales of styling products have increased 26.8 percent from 2013 to estimated 2015, reaching $946 million, now comprising 35 percent of Black hair-care sales, a significant increase from the 16 percent it represents in the total hair care market.”
Mintel reports: “The Black hair care industry has undergone quite a transformation over the past five years and that should continue heading into the next decade. As more and more Black consumers are embracing their natural self and walking away from relaxers, it is presenting opportunities for natural brands to enter the market. Our research indicates that wearing their natural hair makes Black women feel liberated, confident and different from others, giving them a tremendous sense of pride in being Black while displaying their natural beauty,” said Tonya Roberts, Multicultural Analyst at Mintel.
Branch agrees that Miss Jessie’s was a pioneer, at the right place, the right time with the right product for black women when ideals of beauty, convenience and professionalism were shifting,
“We were able to show women what the possibilities were. The before and after photos became an important piece of our business,” Branch says. “Wearing your hair curly is a happy medium. You can still be polished and look professional and feel comfortable.”
The market for Miss Jessie’s and other natural hair care products is growing.
“According to Nielsen, African-Americans currently hold a buying power of $1 trillion, a number that’s estimated to reach $1.3 trillion by 2017. And they’re blowing a lot of those bills on cosmetics, spending nine times more on ethnic-targeted beauty and grooming products than the general market. Black women, in particular, spend an estimated $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, shelling out 80% more on cosmetics and twice as much on skin care as their non-Black counterparts. Yet, they’ve been grossly underserved by the cosmetics industry throughout history,” writes Taylor Bryant in Refinery29.
“Highly inspired by my grandmother’s recipes and approach to life,” Branch says she has learned that doing what she loves and doing what she knows matters. And of course, sticking to the fundamentals of your own beginnings.
“Money makes people stupid sometimes,” Branch says. Though she says she has far exceeded even her wildest dreams in terms of her and her company’s success, she returns to her early practices in the business.
“We are diligent in our vetting process and we are trying to think things out as if I didn’t have any money.”
And that may be her best recipe yet.