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Gameplans for Black Hair Brands: How Mielle Organics Crushes the Old ‘Rules’

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Beauty Babes & Bosses

Monique Rodriguez, the founder of Mielle Organics, started the now multi-million dollar hair and cosmetics company in her basement.

These days, beauty and fashion editors meet with the founder and CEO of the hair care and beauty company in Midtown Manhattan to discuss a variety of topics, including the business' most recent launch, the Mango & Tulsi Botanical Blend Collection.

It's a situation Rodriguez finds herself in more frequently now that she's transformed what started as a series of Instagram hair care tutorials, where she dreamed up hair-restoring concoctions using ingredients from her kitchen like honey and avocado, into one of the most well-known multicultural hair care brands.

More than 100,000 locations, including Ulta, Target, and Sally Beauty, carry Mielle.

When Rodriguez received a reported $100 million investment from Berkshire Partners last year, she joined the select group of less than 100 Black women founders who had received at least $1 million in funding for their businesses. Berkshire Partners has previously invested in jewelry designer Kendra Scott and beauty brands Bare Escentuals and Coty.

The non-controlling investment brings Rodriguez one step closer to her personal objective of creating "a worldwide beauty brand" because it will enable her to expand her team from a few dozen to 100 personnel and provide operations and logistical help for areas like international distribution.

It also puts her in a good position to overcome another challenge: taking over a Black hair care label without giving up control to a corporation managed by white executives.

She is, however, fully aware of the uniqueness of her position as well as the delicate balance she must strike to do this correctly.

Building the Empire

As she transitioned from having "heat-damaged" hair and sought to give her curls their natural, undisturbed pattern, Rodriguez founded Mielle in 2014.

As it turned out, the modern natural hair care movement has been going strong for more than ten years, with Black women rising up to swear off hair-altering chemical treatments like perms and relaxers.

Many women (and men) with textured, curly, and kinky hair were searching social media and the aisles of pharmacies for fresh and improved healthy-hair cures.

The natural hair movement of the early 2000s was less about the defiant rejection of relaxers and more about the discovery of natural ingredients and minimally processed products that grow, restore, and preserve the integrity of Black women's hair. These products were frequently developed by Black founders.

Rodriguez, a certified nurse from Chicago who raised $10,000 on her own, worked with a local chemist to create Mielle's first product, a concoction of scalp-stimulating peppermint and amino-acid-rich almond oil.

Eventually, the company's expansion included a few skin care products, like its pomegranate and honey face mask and serum, and shelf space in major retailers like CVS, Walgreens, JCPenney, and Walmart. Rodriguez and her husband-turned-business-partner Melvin Rodriguez then managed to secure a $250,000 loan from "a friend of the family" to fund the company's growth.

The chief executive and chief operating officer of Mielle Organics, Monique and Melvin Rodriguez, respectively, intend to increase the brand's distribution in the UK, South Africa, and Dubai.

Unique vitamin formulas and specialty additives like sea moss and tulsi have established the brand and made Rodriquez a household name among thousands of Black consumers, including the server at the Capital Grille who credited Mielle's "rice water" treatment with reviving his afro.

Black-Owned Beauty Brand

In 2014, Rodriguez joined hundreds of other Black women who had "gone natural" and wanted to share their most recent hacks on social media. She wasn't the only one to take to Instagram and YouTube to provide hair care advice.

Black consumers are expected to spend $1.9 billion on hair products yearly by 2025, according to market research firm Mintel, as a result of the decade-long desire for cutting-edge and efficient Black hair care products.

Before being acquired by CPG and cosmetics conglomerates Unilever and L'Oréal in 2017 and 2014, respectively, black-owned and fronted labels like SheaMoisture and Carol's Daughter snagged substantial portions of the pie.

Sundial Brands, which comprised SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage, Madam C.J. Walker, and nyakio, was acquired by Unilever.

These brands continue to be well-known and significant revenue generators for their parent companies, but their purchases by white-run businesses have resulted in a loss of credibility among Black customers who have a tumultuous history with white businesses policing and even harming their follicles.

When you include in the post-George Floyd racial equity awakening throughout businesses, particularly in the fashion and beauty sectors, investors are also becoming more inclined to rewrite some of their playbook strategies with an eye toward a more socially conscious consumer landscape.

“Our investment in Monique and Melvin was based on their potential, their vision, and their talent,” according to Marni Payne, managing director and member of Berkshire Partners' consumer team.

Rodriguez hopes that "five to eight years" from now, "when people say my 'Mielle,' they understand that this is a beauty brand of choice... period,'" she added. Rodriguez has her sights set on expanding to new international markets, including the UK, South Africa, Nigeria, and Dubai.

She is aware that she must continue to interact with the largely Black and multicultural women who contributed to the growth of her brand's sales by 160 percent in 2020. However, Rodriguez believes that flipping the term “inclusivity” on its head is one solid approach to actually advancing it.

“When you think about it, a lot of individuals have curly hair, whether they are Black or white,” she said, “so I'm not pigeonholing myself to Latinos or African Americans. The majority of people will have textured hair by 2040, according to the census, thus that is my goal in serving that population.”

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