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Oyin Handmade: Natural Hair And Body Products for the Underserved

A slow and steady business plan will finally pay off for Jamyla Bennu's growing Baltimore beauty company.

[Hair Salon: Zulufoto via Shutterstock]

When Jamyla Bennu decided to cut chemicals and other harsh ingredients out of her beauty regimen in the early 1990s, it meant scrounging through a limited number of alternatives at natural food stores or going into the kitchen to experiment with her own blends of coconut oil, honey, shea butter, jojoba oil, and aloe vera gel.

She chose the latter, and in 2001, Oyin Handmade was conceived. Bennu moved slowly and carefully—first selling her natural line of hair and body products at craft fairs. And then in 2003, she set up a website and began racking up online sales.

Jamyla Bennu

Six years later, she was invited to present her line to Target executives, who (like a number of other retailers and big-name beauty brands) were beginning to notice that a largely ignored section of the hair-care market had gone untapped. People, many of them black women who had chosen to stop chemically straightening their hair, wanted products with ingredients they could pronounce. She decided to decline the invitation, believing at the time that Oyin was too small to produce at the scale needed for a big-box retailer.

But Bennu methodically built up her production facilities, output, and staff. Eventually, she was able to give Target what it needed, and in the spring of 2014, Oyin will become Target's newest natural beauty line. Here's how she did it.

"We had had a baby a few months before the [original Target] presentation and still had no employees," says Bennu, who was continuing to create new products in her kitchen. Her husband and cofounder, Pierre, worked alongside her in the early days—helping with shipping and receiving, shooting photographs of the products for the site, and helping her develop new products. "We had to train and hire new people, find new equipment, and build some of it," she recalls. "We had been working in a commercial kitchen space, and we had to figure out how to source products for bigger-scale production."

The company has grown into successively bigger manufacturing spaces, has accumulated a staff of nine employees, and has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in custom pieces of equipment to handle a growing line of products. It's been an incremental, sustainable growth that has enabled Bennu to guide the company through expansions at a rate that has kept it out of debt.

And yet her business acumen wasn't an obvious outgrowth of her background. Before starting Oyin (which means "honey" in the west African language of Yoruba), she built websites, designed books, and wrote grants for nonprofits. And she's had lots of time to hone her skills as a kitchen chemist.

"Nineteen years to be exact," Bennu says. "So it's a thing for me that very much predates the current trend. I hate to call it that, but in terms of marketing, it is." She has watched an entire community multiply and develop a lexicon for their beauty choices (washing your hair and wearing it down? That's now called a wash-and-go. Just sheared off your processed hair and growing it out? The resulting short curls are called a teenie weenie afro or TWA). She didn't plan it this way, but she says the momentum behind natural hair has been great for Oyin, which has grown 143% from 2009 to 2012 and last year averaged 1,200 unique orders a month.

Recipes for homemade products have always been available on Internet forums and blogs, but many customers prefer to leave the mixing and packaging to the professionals. "The first thing that gave me an inkling this could be a successful product was that, even though there were recipes out there, people still wanted to buy the products through me," she says. "Not everyone wanted to be so DIY."

But she knows most of her customers have to plan their purchases carefully around shipping schedules because they can't find Oyin at every corner store. "We want to be that," she says. "We want to be available, and we want folks to stumble across us and give us a try."

Next spring, Bennu will get her wish. The same company that used to warn its customers they'd have to wait two weeks between placing an order and shipment will become the newest natural beauty line in Target stores across the country.

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