Rochelle Graham-Campbell saw her mother cut off all her hair — to get rid of the chemically straightened parts — and got inspired.
The then-University of South Florida business student thought, Why shouldn’t I wear my natural hair?
So, she cut hers off too.
Five years later, her tresses are longer than shoulder length, styled in controlled ringlets or stylish Afros. As developer and owner of Alikay Naturals, a line of natural hair care and beauty products for black women, she’ll tell you the road to the hair she has now was expensive and time consuming.
“Consumers are more informed now than they were then,” she said. “They read the ingredients on the bottles and visit online forums to know what’s going to be good for them.”
She hopes that information will make more people choose her products, which will expand from online and local beauty supply retailers to the big leagues on March 1.
Alikay Naturals will be available in select Target stores and at target.com, said Lindsay Karn, a spokesperson for Target Beauty.
Ms. Graham-Campbell, 27, who now lives in Fort Myers, said becoming available alongside more prominent brands Mixed Chicks, Kinky-Curly and Miss Jessie’s will be a great launching pad for her family-operated startup.
With any luck, she may be mentioned alongside other black women entrepreneurs who used social networking to make their fortunes in black hair care.
Sarah Breedlove, or Madame C.J. Walker as she is better known, paved the way for small business owners like Ms. Graham-Campbell to dream big. Certified by Guinness World Records as the first woman to become a millionaire through her own efforts, Ms. Breedlove started a business of selling pressing combs, pomade and shampoos specifically for black hair at the turn of the 20th century. She built her business through strong advertising, door-to-door sales, and word of mouth — the social networking of her day.
Alikay Naturals grew out of a YouTube channel, BlackOnyx77, that Ms. Graham-Campbell created as a video diary of her hair journey.
After the first time she cut off all her hair, Ms. Graham-Campbell estimates she spent about $500 trying to find the right combination of products to keep it healthy.
“I started with the products that were cheaper because that fell into my budget,” Ms. Graham-Campbell said. “Then I tried the more expensive ones. I saw the prices and thought, ‘It’s $50 a bottle. It must work.’ “
She was wrong.
Between not knowing how to care for her hair, and using products she wasn’t familiar with, Ms. Graham-Campbell managed to damage her hair so much she had to cut it all off again and start over.
That’s when she turned to her family. Her grandmother, a Jamaican herbalist, had been teaching her things that were healthy for her her whole life. She decided to play around with the natural ingredients in the kitchen sink and document her experiences in videos.
“It was just something I did because there weren’t a lot of resources at the time,” Ms. Graham-Campbell explained.
Slowly, her following grew.
“When people started seeing my hair change and grow at a ridiculously fast rate and looking better, they asked, ‘What are you using?’ “ she said. “I started to introduce our products in a little, tiny Etsy shop. Our biggest seller was our Caribbean Growth Oil.”
Ms. Graham-Campbell was a full-time business student at USF and her husband was studying to become an airplane mechanic when they started taking online orders.
“I would be rushing from class to the post office to send off packages and then heading to my part-time job,” she said. “It became a full-time commitment very quickly.”
Today, Ms. Graham-Campbell’s YouTube channel has more than 88,000 subscribers and some of her videos have more than 100,000 views. She graduated with a marketing degree, moved to Fort Myers and brought in her family to help run her burgeoning business. As sales increased, she opened a 10-person factory and salon in Fort Myers in 2013.
Ms. Graham-Campbell jumped headfirst into the $684-million-a-year black hair care industry populated with titan-sized corporations such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson.
Retailers like Target haven’t missed their chance at the market either, offering shelf space to dozens of smaller natural hair care product companies in a response to a changing demographic.
“I think that in the beginning, when I first went natural, the younger demographic — college students and high school students — were the ones leading the way,” Ms. Graham-Campbell said. “What I have seen now is women of all ages embracing it. It’s been absolutely amazing. One of my grandmothers, she recently went natural. That’s the shift that I’ve seen.”
Since 2010, sales of relaxer products have dropped more than 30 percent, according to a 2012 report by market research firm Mintel Group.
“Styling products are showing healthy growth as consumers are turning away from pricier salon treatments and exploring the option of at-home treatments,” the report said. “The styling product segment also includes products to help with the transition from chemically straightened hair to more natural hairstyles.
Wearing your hair the way it grows out of your head doesn’t seem like a big deal when you say it that way.
But for black women and women with tightly curled hair textures, it’s a notion that’s been discouraged since the early 1900s, because the American standard of beauty promotes long, flowing straight locks.
For a period in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a pride movement that had women sporting large Afros and other natural braided styles, but it went out of vogue like so many fads of that day.
It wasn’t until the past 10 years that natural black hair styles began to return to mainstream culture. Now, stars like Oprah Winfrey and Oscar-nominated actress Lupita Nyong’o sport their natural curls on the red carpet with ease.
Graham-Campbell said she will continue to advocate for women to wear their hair in its healthiest state and hopes that having products and information more widely available will be what’s needed to overturn older notions of beauty.
“This isn’t something like a fad or trend,” she explained. “It’s more so a lifestyle change.”