Even when working a day job, Gwen Jimmere was plotting ways to go into business for herself.
“I always had a side thing going on that was entrepreneurial,” says Jimmere, who has worked in top marketing roles at Ford and Uniworld.
She wrote a book and started to market it while in grad school at Kent State University, then tried to open a clothing store in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
But her best idea came after seeing a documentary called “Good Hair” starring comedian Chris Rock. In the movie, a chemist takes three cans of soda and submerges them into three beakers of hair relaxer, Jimmere says, and the can that had been submerged for four hours had disintegrated.
“Seeing that freaked me out,” says Jimmere, who was pregnant at the time. If that hair product, which she had been using since she was young to straighten her hair, could do that to a metal can, what would it to do her baby?
She decided she needed to come up with something that would work well on her hair but was also organic and natural. And the hair care regimen had to be fast because as a new mom, she didn’t have the luxury of spending several hours a day on her hair.
So combining products she found in her kitchen, she created the foundation of what would become Naturalicious, an all-natural hair care system that does the work of 13 products in just four steps and takes users from wash to style in less than an hour.
At first, the product was essentially just for her, but then friends and family started asking for it. At that point, Jimmere knew she was on to something.
About a year and a half later, she found herself going through a divorce and was getting laid off. She had $32 to her name and needed to figure out how to make money. By that time she had the bare bones basics of a business together: packaging, proof of concept, a website.
“Once I lost the job I got to really go for it and make this something,” she says.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. She fell behind on her mortgage payments, but she was determined to be strong for her son, now 7, and stay in the house.
“I was grinding so hard to make sure I didn’t completely fail,” she says.
Eventually, Jimmere secured a patent on her formula, becoming the first African-American woman to receive a patent on a natural hair care product.
“My business has been completely self-funded,” she says. “There’s no debt on my business, and I’m very proud of that. We had 204 percent increase in revenue just last year.”
The line is now sold in 1,500 retail outlets, including Whole Foods, not just in the U.S. but abroad. In March her products were slated to be in Sally Beauty Supply Stores.
Critical to Jimmere’s success has been the support she has received from Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. She has been counseled by Endeavor, a global nonprofit that selects, mentors and accelerates the best high- impact companies around the world to catalyze long-term economic growth, and received a 2017 NEIdeas grant, which will allow her to grow to keep up with demand. She was also participated in inForum’s inGAGE master class program that is geared toward high-growth women entrepreneurs.
Jimmere has moved from making her product in her basement to Ponyride, a community of makers and artists in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. The company now has six employees, several of whom have special needs and were hired through a partnership with Detroit nonprofit Services to Enhance Potential.
Social impact is an important piece of the business for Jimmere.
“The biggest thing for me is that we get to serve so many women,” she says. “The more we grow, the more people we can serve.”