Naturalicious founder Gwen Jimmere tells SEEN why she came up with an all-natural hair care product for African-American women and how she applied for a patent by herself. She also shares why son is the Chief Candy Officer.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Title: Founder and CEO of Naturalicious
Current City: Detroit
1. Our women’s issue is focused on women innovators, and Naturalicious is a pretty innovative natural hair care product. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea and why?
I was pregnant with my son who is now 8 years old. At the time, natural hair wasn’t what it is now. But people were starting the buzz about considering not relaxing their hair anymore or using chemicals on their hair for health purposes and also just appreciating who you are.
Chris Rock produced this documentary called “Good Hair” around this time, and in true Chris Rock fashion, it’s funny, but it was really a documentary about women of color accepting who they are, loving themselves, the political nature of our hair, the self-esteem aspects of everything. There was a section of the movie that he’s with a chemist, and he takes this soda can and they submerge it into this beaker of hair relaxer. Within a few hours the can had completely disintegrated. They had one Coke can that was for two hours, and all the color of the can was gone.The whole Coke logo — all that stuff had disappeared because of what is used in this relaxer that most of us had been using almost all of our lives. Another aluminum can had been in there for three hours, and another for four hours and they had completely disintegrated.
So here I am pregnant looking at this aluminum can and thinking, “OK, our skin is our largest organ. If this enters my body, which it will because I’m putting it on my scalp, what am I doing to my baby? Is my baby going to disintegrate? (laughs) Like, what’s going to happen? What kind of damage could be done to the flesh of a child with this crazy chemical?”
In that moment I decided I was going to stop relaxing my hair. It was never meant for me to do it forever. It was just really for the health of my son. Luckily, I saw this movie early on in my pregnancy. So I had nine months to experiment and figure out my hair situation. During that time, I’m starting to feel my hair for the first time. It’s curly; I can feel the waviness of it. I’m like, I’ve never experienced this. I’ve been relaxing my hair since I was 9. By this time in my late 20s, I didn’t really know what my hair looked like or felt like. So I was like, this is really cool. Maybe I’ll keep this going forever.
So I go to the store. I have to find something I can use for this new hair of mine. So I hit up a local health foods store, and I buy what’s considered organic and natural products. I get it home, and I use it on my hair, and I look like a basketball player from the ‘70s. I’ve got this huge afro, and it’s not what I want. I’m looking for curl definition, and it’s just completely not giving me what I want. I’m like, this isn’t going to work.
I found that it was very easy to find products that were natural and organic, but they didn’t really work that well on my texture of hair. I could also find chemically-laden products that worked great. So I was like, “Where am I going to find the product that’s going to marry the two?” So I said, “OK, I’m going to go in my kitchen and figure this out on my own.” You know you always hear about people who use eggs and avocados and stuff, so I’m Googling what I could use.
And I come up with this recipe for myself. It’s OK, but it’s not perfect. So I call up my mom who is a master herbalist, and I say, “Mom, what can I combine with these eggs, avocados, olive oil and all this other stuff that I have in my pantry to really give my hair the healthy nature that I want, but also a lot of curls to define themselves and look great?”
She gives me a couple recommendations and one of those led me to an ingredient called Rhassoul clay. You can’t find Rhassoul clay anywhere. It comes from Morocco so you have to order it from Morocco. So I send off for this Rhassoul clay. It comes in, and I mix it in with what I already have. I change some formulations around and perfect it, and it was like the gates of heaven just opened for me. And for the first time in my life, I actually liked my hair. I had never liked my hair before. Even when it was relaxed and straight, I had never got it to really hold a curl well. It never really was full and voluminous, and I like big hair. It never did what I wanted it to do. I made that formula and I was like, this is such an awesome feeling. So it was designed to be my little secret. It was never supposed to be for anybody else. I didn’t even tell anybody else.
2. So how did the “secret” get out?
My mom would come by and visit. My sister would come by, and they wanted to know what I was using on my hair. So I was like, “I’ll tell you guys, but I won’t tell anybody else.” I would package it up for them and give it to them. My sister would use it on her hair, and she would go to work, and people would say, “Your hair is looking so good. What are you doing?” She’d say, “My sister makes this stuff.” And I’m like, “No this is for me! Don’t tell anybody!”
It turned into this situation where her co-workers were asking where they could buy it. And then my friends would wear it, and their friends would want to know where can I buy this? So now all the sudden I have to set up this makeshift website. I was working at the time as the global communications director for Ford. So I’ve got this big cushy job, and I’m not thinking about turning this into a business. Everything is seeming to go pretty well with the hobby and my job. This was 2010. I’m married, but I find myself not being able to stay in that marriage. It was an abusive marriage, and it just wasn’t an environment I wanted to raise my son in. So I left as quickly as much for me as I did for him because I didn’t want him to think that sort of thing was normal.
So I divorced him. I get laid off 30 days before my divorce is final. Now I’m not making any money because I’m the breadwinner in the family. So I’m paying for my divorce. I’m paying for his divorce. And I’ve got $32 in the bank. I’m a single mother, and I’ve got no job, no second income, all my family lives in Ohio. So I’m like, “Well, what am I going to do here? I guess I gotta turn this little hobby into an actual business.” But it had to happen by divine intervention, because luckily for me, I had already perfected the formula. I already had a concept. I already had a little website. It wasn’t a perfect website, but it was a website where I could take orders, and I had packaging. So I had the things in place for a startup. I just hadn’t actually started up.
I got laid off on March 4, 2013, and March 4, 2013 is when my business became an official business.
3. How is Naturalicious different from other hair care products?
What was unique about the product I created was not just that it made my hair look amazing, and everyone else who used it, but it was the fact that it evolved into a system of three products, and those three products I named the Hello Gorgeous System.
Those three products actually deliver the results of 12 products. It was so unique and innovative because I found that, as a mother, I just didn’t have the time to spend on myself like I did before. Before I could spend all day just pampering myself and doing my hair, and as a new mom, my son was a cat napper. He wasn’t one of those babies who slept forever, so I had to figure out how to get my hair done in 30 minutes as opposed to the four hours I would spend. That’s what a lot of us naturals experience. We loathe what we call “wash day.” It’s the day you take out of your week to literally spend washing your hair. A lot of people who don’t have those same sort of challenges, they don’t get it or even know how to relate to that. Four hours is not uncommon, but even two hours, you’ve got too many things to do in your life that you could be doing enjoying your life with your loved ones, living however you want, than to be stuck in the bathroom doing your hair.
So those three products delivered the results of 12. The first product is the Moroccan Rhassoul Clay Treatment. That’s our flagship product. It’s the one everyone knows us for. That product is a shampoo, conditioner, deconditioner, detangler and it does the work of a leave-in conditioner all at one time. So that’s how we’re able to combine several steps into just a few because every one of those three products does the work of at least three other products you have to use.
Step 2 in the line is our Moisture Infusion Styling cream. It’s the moisturizer, especially for people who have naturally dry hair. It’s also a heat protectant. Typically you have to buy heat protectant for the blow drying of your hair. You have to use another moisturizer and then something else to style your hair. All that is in one product.
The third product is called the Divine Shine Moisture Lock and Frizz Fighter. That product fights frizz. It’s also a nice shine; it doesn’t get your hair greasy. So these three products give you the results of 12.
4. What was one of your biggest challenges in getting started and bringing the product to market?
So here I am divorced. No money. I’ve got to turn this into a business, and I’ve got this system. I know there was a Whole Foods store opening in Detroit. So I said, “If I could get my products into Whole Foods that would be amazing.” I knew that Whole Foods was very big on supporting local businesses. But at the time, the store was not even open. It was ground zero. No building, and it was the first time a Whole Foods was opening in Detroit. This was national news.
I remember calling around all the different Whole Foods just to try to figure out who was in charge of that building. Finally I got in touch with the right person. He tells me to come down for a meeting. I go in there. He’s middle-aged, really nice, but a balding white guy. So he’s not getting why people are spending so much time on their hair. He doesn’t have that problem, you know? He’s like, “I don’t understand what the need is for this.” So I feel like I’m losing him.
In walks this Latina woman with this big head of curly, amazing hair and she’s like, “Can I join this meeting?” And this look of relief goes over his face. He’s like, “Yes, please join the meeting!” I start the pitch all over. I’m about 10 minutes in, and she’s like, “I need this in my life. See all this hair? I’ve got two little girls with the same hair. I have to get up three hours early every day just to do hair. I would love to get up at 8 instead of 5 to deal with hair every day. If I can get all of our hair done in less than an hour, that would be amazing for me. It would change my life so much.”
She gave me my first purchase order.
That was just one store, but I milked it like it was every store. Now I’m in Whole Foods and can validate it to the consumer. You know automatically what the price point should be; you know what the level of quality should be. That really set us up for a lot of really great things being in that one store. That was 2013, and now we are in 1,200 Sally Beauty stores, and we’re still in Whole Foods, by the way.
5. You’re the first African-American woman to patent a natural hair care product. Was that process challenging?
It was because it’s easy to find an attorney who will be your patent lawyer, but what a lot of people don’t understand is when you apply for a patent, you don’t get the money back if you’re not granted the patent. Patents are very hard to be granted because you have to prove that you have something that no one else has ever done, ever thought of, ever put to market. It has to be a very unique invention, and we’re in 2019 right now. How many things are really unique?
My mother was really the one who coerced me into getting the patent. I didn’t think you could get a patent on a hair care product, and she kept telling me, “Gwen, you need to patent this.” My mom is not one of those moms who will say, “My kid did this, so it’s great.” My mom is very quick to let you know if what you’ve done sucks, so I knew she was the person who was going to be the most real with me.
She was like, “You have to patent this.”
I’m like, “Mom, you can’t patent a hair product.” She’s like, “You haven’t even tried.”
I said, “I’m a single mom. I don’t have time to patent stuff.”
She’s like, “Imagine this. One day, you’re going to be sitting on your couch. You’re going to be watching TV, and you’re going to see a commercial from L’Oreal or somebody, and it’s going to be your product. And there’s nothing you can do about it because you didn’t protect yourself.”
I had this vision of how angry I would have been had that happened, and so I was like, “I still don’t think I can patent a hair care product, but I’m going to go research it just to prove to you that you can’t patent a hair care product.”
So I go onto Google, and I start researching and realize that you can. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, now I gotta tell her that she’s right. Damn!” (laughs)
Once I found out she was correct, I started researching patent attorneys. They’re $18,000, and I’m like, “I’ve got like 50 bucks. I don’t have money for this!” But I did find out that you don’t have to have an attorney. You can do it on your own if you do it correctly. So I took the route of trading time instead of money to get it done. I would go to the local library. They had a whole section on intellectual property. So I was there like I was in college again. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 12 to 3 I would be there like clockwork. My son would go to day care, and I was there learning about patent law, the history of it, what was on the books, what might change with the new administration. All these sorts of things.
Luckily in Detroit we were the first city to get a USPTO satellite office so I utilized that a lot. I was there so often that if I wasn’t there one day, they would see me the next time and be like, “Are you OK? I thought you were sick.” I did that for about eight months. Literally immersing myself into patent law like I was in law school for intellectual property.
I taught myself how to do a drawing — it’s more like a diagram of what it does, which is difficult to show in a formula for a hair product. Nonetheless, I taught myself how to write the patent, how to defend it if I had to defend it to the USPTO office, and I did that in about eight months. In about a little less than a year after that, I got the call that I was going to be granted the patent. It was all thanks to mom.
6. That must have been one of the best feelings?
It was an amazing feeling. At the time I didn’t know I was going to be the first to do this. It never even crossed my mind that that was even a possibility. At the time it was 2015. That’s when I found out I was the first African-American woman to have one, and it was such an honor.
Black History Month comes around each year, and I get asked to speak at places, and it’s really cool, but what’s so fun about it for me is the fact that I’m the first inspires others to realize they can do it too. And I think it’s also because they know the story of that I don’t come from money, I don’t have a rich uncle, I did this with my time. I didn’t have $20,000 to pay. I was a single mom so if I could do it, anybody could really do it. There’s really no excuse.
Although I am the first, I don’t aspire to be the only. I definitely hope that my achievement blazed the trail for other people to realize that they can do it too and protect themselves because it’s definitely a great way to build generational wealth for you, your family and your community.
7. Naturalicious is in over 1,200 Sally Beauty Supply locations and other retailers around the globe. Do you have any advice for women who have a product they want to get in stores or expand to more places?
I would say start where you are and work with what you’ve got. A lot of times people want their product to be just right. They want to compete with the big boys at Sephora, and and they feel like they’re not there yet so they wait around, and I always say “waiting is not a wealth strategy.” You’re waiting for the right time, and usually when that one thing that you’re waiting on gets to the point that you’re ready, there’s some other challenge that happens. And you’re just waiting, waiting and waiting. So don’t wait around. Work with what you have right now.
You know when you go to a conference and they hand you a lunch, and it’s a sandwich and it comes in a box? When I approached Whole Foods, I kid you not, that’s what my system came in at the time. And that was actually on the shelves at Whole Foods. I had white bottles that had white labels so they were very nondescript, very boring, not standing out on the shelf at all. It had a white lunch box I had literally got from a restaurant depot place, and that’s what my package came in. And they accepted me, because I think they saw something in the value of what I was bringing.
I say all that to say, start where you are and work with what you’ve got because if you start, more than likely you will eventually be given an opportunity that will help you level up. Our packaging now looks nothing like that. It looked like it had been created in my bedroom because it had, and it was what I had to work with.
8. You were featured on Harry Connick Jr.’s show “Harry.” We have to ask, what was that experience like?
Oh my gosh. Harry is so dreamy. He is everything you would expect him to be, and he’s so nice. There was this part in the filming I tell him I got laid off March 4, and I always call that my emancipation day. I actually celebrate that day. And he said, “Well, you know ‘March fourth’ literally means ‘to go forward.’ So it was almost serendipitous that you got laid off on March 4.”
I was like, “I never thought about that before.” After we finished filming, he came over to me. It was just me and him, and he’s like, “I am so inspired by you.” I was like, “Really?” Because my mom was in heaven when she found out I was going on “Harry” because she has been a Harry Connick Jr. fan since I can remember. She always thought he was the bee’s knees. He’s like, “There’s a special place for people in heaven like you.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? He’s so sweet!”
I hire special needs workers, and he’s like, “There’s a special place for people who are making a profit but don’t just give money back. They actually find ways to not just give someone a fish, but train them to fish.” He’s like, “I’m really happy you came on the show.” He gave me a hug, and he smelled amazing. And it was great. I’m sad the show got canceled, but I’m really glad I had a chance to be on it.
8. You call your 8-year-old son your Chief Candy Curator. What does that title involve?
He came up with this job for himself. When he was about 2, he said he wanted to work for Naturalicious. I’m like, “Doing what? What can you contribute at 2?”
He’s like, “Everybody needs candy. We should give candy to everybody who buys from us.”
I’m thinking, how are we going to do that for people who buy at Whole Foods and these other stores? But then I realized we could do it for people who buy online.
So he decided that we were going to go to Sam’s Club or someplace that sold big bags of candy. He would pick out the candy, and he would include it and a note. They were like little scribble scrabbles because he was 2. And he would literally pick the candy, put it in the bags, fold it up and we would ship it out. This is when I was working in my basement.
As we leveled up and got into a dedicated space, by that time he was going to kindergarten and in school during the day while we were shipping, so he could no longer pick the candy and put it in the bags, but he still does select the candy. So he’s still in charge of what candy goes in the bags and he takes requests from Facebook live. We go to the store and buy a ton at once, usually once a quarter. We’ll tell our tribe, “Hey, we’re going to be buying candy on Saturday. Would you guys join and put your requests in?” And he will take requests. Someone will say, “I really want Snickers or Gobstoppers.” And he’ll go and try to find it and say, “I’ve got your Gobstoppers!” It’s a big deal, and it’s really fun.
It’s funny because he’s getting older, and he’s been doing it since he was 2. He’s 8 now, and so the customers are always like, “Caiden is going to be like 35 and still picking out candy!”
He’s starting to take on more responsibility now like in the summers, and when he’s at home from breaks he helps with fulfillment. He puts boxes together. He’ll help with production sometimes. So I’m grooming him to do things other than the candy thing, although the customers love it.
He’s so popular with the customers. His birthday on Jan. 4 comes around. I kid you not, we get cards in the mail. We get toys in the mail for him. We get “Happy Birthday Caiden!” in emails, letters, Facebook comments. My birthday comes around? Crickets! Nothing. I’m like, “He’s only giving you candy. I’m changing your life with a hair care product!” (laughs)
9. Your manufacturing facility is here in Detroit. What makes Detroit a great place to start a business?
Oh my gosh. There’s so many resources here for startups! First of all, the cost of living is very reasonable in comparison to Silicon Valley or even New York. There’s a lot of programs and resources for funding, which every business needs in order to run. We have Motor City Match, the Hatch Detroit competition and the Build Institute which is great for people who are at the very beginning and they need some training and help to level up and start up their startup.
Detroit has a wealth of resources. You just have to be tapped into it.
For me, Detroit is a perfect place to start a business. People underestimate Detroit, and they don’t expect a lot out of you. So when you perform extremely well at certain levels, they’re like, “Woah, that came from Detroit?” It’s kinda cool. I’m not originally from here, but I jokingly call myself “the Detroit defender” because when I tell people I live in Detroit, they always think about the bailout and auto industry and all the negative things. They think about that one section of Detroit that CNN always shows that’s abandoned where nobody lives.
So when I tell them, “There’s no place I’d rather be in the summer than in Detroit — it’s so lively and bustling. The ecosystem for entrepreneurship is incredible in Detroit.” They’re just like, “Really?” They can’t even fathom that because it’s not something they’ve even heard of before. So I love Detroit for those reasons.
10. What do you love most about what you do?
Seeing the faces of my customers light up when they finally find the products that work amazingly well for their hair. It can be a huge chore searching around for exactly the right products for your hair, and once you find them, you hold onto them forever, because from that point on, you know there are nothing but great hair days ahead.
11. Who’s been a mentor in your career and why?
Alfred Edmond Jr., editor of Black Enterprise magazine. He has interviewed and profiled some of the wealthiest and most accomplished people on earth. He’s a wealth of knowledge himself, and he is always eager to share his learnings from years in his career.
Jacki Kelley, deputy COO of Bloomberg. The first time I met her, I was just in awe of how smart, savvy and collected she was, despite how much responsibility she has. She’s also a wife and mom, and obviously has a super demanding career. She seems to always have the right answers about everything in business. I just adore her. I’m really honored to be a mentee of hers.
12. What’s something you learned along the way that you wish you knew before you started Naturalicious?
That at every level there’s a huge shift in how you must operate to be an effective and inspiring leader. You start your business as a doer, doing everything yourself. Then you hire some staff, but you’re still working ‘in” the business, so you become a “coworker,” essentially, as you work alongside your staff. Over time, you stop working so much “in” the business and start working “on” it. At that point you become a manager of people and the business. And then you eventually hire managers, as you shift into the role of a leader. You’re leading the entire time at every stage, but there’s a definite change in how you have to lead. I’ve recently made that shift from manager to leader, and it’s been quite different. It’s a total mindset change. I’m enjoying the process.
13. Favorite Instagram accounts to follow and why? @SaraBlakely — we met once so technically she’s not a formal mentor of mine, but I really feel like she and I are practically the same person in different bodies. Our personalities are pretty much exactly the same. I follow her and am always impressed by her grit, determination and willingness to put herself into any situation, whether it’s uncomfortable or not. She never takes herself too seriously, and I just love that about her. We have so much in common that it’s uncanny. Except for the billionaire part. But I’ll get there soon.
14. A book that everyone must read? “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin
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15. Go-tos for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Breakfast: Anna’s House. Lunch: Brooklyn Street Local. Dinner: Ottava Via.
16. Favorite coffee shop? I don’t drink coffee, but I do love tea; and for that I like Just Delicious Scones & The Royal Treat Tea Room.
17. Your go-to clothing shops? The Peacock Room and Busted Bra Shop.
18. On the weekends, where can we find you hanging out? With my family, likely at a kid friendly outing that my little 8-year-old superhero son will enjoy.
19. Favorite quote or words to live by? A friend told me that a teacher of his used to always say, “Excuses are tools of incompetence that build a bridge to nowhere. And those that specialize in them rarely specialize in anything else.” I love this quote and, while it sounds harsh, it inspires me to go for it, to get things done and always do it with excellence.
20. What’s next for you? Taking over the world, of course. LOL. Making Naturalicious’ timesaving beauty solutions even more accessible to our customers all around the globe. And traveling internationally…always. I can never have enough stamps on my passport.
Bonus: What’s something people don’t know about you? I have a third-degree black belt in karate.