As CEO and founder of Naturalicious, Gwen Jimmere has cemented her place in history as the first African-American woman to hold a patent for a natural hair care product.
As told to Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Jenna Belevender
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 not relaxing their hair anymore and appreciating who you are. So in that moment I decided I was going to stop relaxing my hair.
I hit up a local health foods store, and I buy 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 said, “OK, I’m going to go in my kitchen and figure this out on my own.” So I’m Googling what I could use. I come up with this recipe. 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 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?”
She gives me a couple recommendations, and one led me to an ingredient called Rhassoul clay that comes from Morocco. So I send off for this Rhassoul clay. I mix it in, change some formulations and perfect it. And it was like the gates of heaven just opened for me. For the first time in my life, I actually liked my hair. Even when it was relaxed and straight, I had never got it to really hold a curl well. It never was full and voluminous, and I like big hair. I made that formula, and I was like, this is such an awesome feeling. So it was designed to be my little secret.
Except the secret got out to family and friends, and Jimmere started a website to take small orders. Then, she lost her job at Ford.
Here I am divorced. No money. I’ve got to turn this into a business. I know there was a Whole Foods store opening in Detroit. If I could get my products into Whole Foods that would be amazing.
I remember calling around all the Whole Foods 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. 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. 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?” This look of relief goes over his face. 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. If I can get all of our hair done in less than an hour, that would be amazing.”
She gave me my first purchase order. That was 2013, and now we are in 1,200 Sally Beauty stores, and we’re still in Whole Foods, by the way.
Jimmere became the first African-American woman to patent a natural hair care product. But it wasn’t easy.
My mother was the one who coerced me into getting the patent. She’s like, “Imagine this. One day, you’re going to be sitting on your couch 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. 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 you don’t have to have an attorney. You can do it on your own if you do it correctly. 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 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 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.
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.