By Kelsey Husnick
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Tasha Branham couldn’t find hair products she liked that were designed for African-American women like herself with natural, textured hair.
So she decided to make her own.
That led the Blacklick resident to create a business, Naturally Smitten, to sell her creations.
Branham transitioned from chemically straightened to natural hair in 2007. She quickly learned that her hair would need a lot more moisture and more specialized products.
“My hair was so unhealthy. It was damaged, it was shedding, it was just a mess,” she said. And the products she found in the store weren’t helping.
She started making her own hair creams, using shea butter, coconut oil, vitamins and other natural products. Her friends took notice.
“They were asking me, ‘Your hair looks so healthy, what are you using?’ and I began to give out these jars,” she said.
Branham formulated the products in her own kitchen.
Like making culinary creations, using mixers and other tools found in a normal kitchen, she began working with various ingredients, combining them carefully to make sure the components kept their consistency and fragrance. Oils have to be heated to specific temperatures and natural ingredients, such as marshmallow root, have to be handled carefully so they don’t ferment too quickly, she said.
The line includes products that sound like they were made in a kitchen, too: moisturizing hair butter, hydrating hair custard and tangle-free pudding. They range in price from $12 to almost $16.
She launched an Etsy page in 2010 to broaden her sales and created her own website for Naturally Smitten. In addition, her products earned shelf space in July of last year at certain Wal-Mart stores. While most of the Wal-Marts carrying her products are located in Southern states, two local stores, on Morse Road at Easton and Main Street in Whitehall, carry the line.
Products will also appear in 524 Sally Beauty Supply stores across the country next month.
Branham, 36, is a self-taught businesswoman. She earned a nursing degree, but quickly learned the sight of blood made her queasy. Instead, she delved into entrepreneurship, attempting multiple startups before Naturally Smitten, including an in-home day-care center and being a private investigator.
An observer of the market sees a future for companies of this type.
“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,” said Tonya Roberts, a multicultural analyst at Mintel, a Chicago market-research firm, in a 2015 industry report.
Naturally Smitten’s operation moved out of Branham’s personal kitchen to a fulfillment center in Cincinnati in February 2015, although she said she stills makes test batches and experiments with recipes for new products at home.
A shampoo and conditioner now are in the works.
Branham said the demand for such hair products is greater in the South and along the East Coast, but that might be changing as more women like her seek to manage their natural hair.
“There are lots of women who want to go natural but don’t know how to take care of it. It’s a totally foreign thing to take care of hair that’s coily and coarse and resistant to moisture,” she said.
That view is confirmed by another in the local hair-care scene.
Amy Bush said she was prompted to open Ambushed Salon in 2010 after years of working in the hair industry because so many women were embracing the natural look. The salon is specifically for women with textured, curly hair.
“It’s not a fad. It’s not a trend … They want to do a lot more embracing of their natural beauty,” Bush said, adding there is still a need for more products to serve this growing number of women.
As a whole, the African-American hair-care market has been growing. Its estimated worth was $2.7 billion in August of last year and is expected to grow to almost $4 billion by 2020, according to analysts at Mintel.
Branham not only devotes herself to her business but shares her experience with other women who own small businesses. She’s spoken at conferences and taught business classes at the Economic and Community Development Institute.
“I’ve learned so much along the way, and if I can help somebody else not make the same dumb mistakes that I did, and not suffer the way that I did, it’s become a passion for me.”