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Fast forward 20 years, and Branch now presides over a family-owned empire: Miss Jessie's, a line that's won multiple awards and is stocked in shops and department stores across the country. Her autobiography, out this week, details Miss Jessie's rise. In Miss Jessie's: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch—Naturally, she shares motivational stories on how she and her sister, who passed away late last year, built their company.
Racked caught up with Branch to talk about the rise of natural hair on television, increased competition on store shelves, and acquisition offers.
What's your background in hair care?
I'm a stylist. Before I started my own business, I worked in the industry at a few salons, apprenticing and learning my skills. One day I decided I wanted to work for myself, so I partnered up with my sister Titi, starting with a one-chair salon in our house in 1997. We focused on curly, kinky, and wavy hair. We used our own products because there weren't products that really performed the way we needed them to.
"In the nineties, there was hardly anything available for women who had curls, kinks, or waves."
What were natural hair care products like when you started?
In the nineties, there was hardly anything available for women who had curls, kinks, or waves. Not a lot of women were wearing their hair in its natural state. There were some products on the market, but they focused on a looser curl, nothing for a tighter or kinkier curl, a highly coiled curl. The default styling products for curly hair were gel or mousse. There are limitations to gel—sometimes it's too heavy or too crunchy— and there are limitations to mousse too, in that it doesn't have enough hold or it might make hair look stringy. We mixed and matched until we came out with Curly Pudding in 2004. It addressed a lot of the hair issues women had, and allowed them to embrace their hair in its naturally curly state.
What inspired the name and labeling?
Our grandmother, Miss Jessie, was our strongest inspiration. She passed in 2001, and we grew up seeing her mix fresh batters and icing for her cakes, doing it all by scratch. That inspired us, and so our products have food references. The packaging was also inspired by her. It has that old world charm and looks was prescriptive, like something you might find in a store back in the day.
When did you turn the products into a full line?
We were using Curly Pudding as something that would help us to perfect our salon business; we wanted something reliable. Our customers kept asking to take it home. It wasn't anything packaged, it was just our little secret weapon. Finally, my sister and I decided we had to package it, put it in jars, give it a name, and make it available. We started selling Curly Pudding in 2004 on the floor in our salon and on PayPal. But the PayPal orders were just out of control. We had no idea that that kind of interest was there. We had to graduate our mixers from small KitchenAids to big, industrial pizza dough mixers.
How did you get the word out?
You know, we came out at a time when the Internet was really picking up speed. We used our website to show before and after [photos] that really got girls with curls, kinks, and waves excited because we showed what the possibilities were. We also had customers sharing experiences on websites and chat boards.
How did you product make its way to stores like Target?
We had gotten an overwhelming response from our customers, so very early on we hired PR. They put put Miss Jessie's on the minds and brains of editors from magazines like Lucky, Elle, Oprah, and eventually Target. Target found us from magazines.
Do you think that your customer has changed over the years?
When we first started out in curls, there was no race or ethnicity connected to wanting to really master curly hair. And as you know, not only African American women have curls. Latina women have curls and so do Jewish women.
"I'm confident that curly hair is not a trend. It's here to stay."
One thing that I love about Miss Jessie's is we aim to make a product that addresses just about every hair scenario possible. We have products specifically for wavy hair, for curly hair, for a tighter coiled hair, for kinky curls. With that in mind, that range of products really addresses a little bit of everyone. So at the end of the day we're hoping everyone can be happy and they'll stay really focused on their hair and texture. It's less about excluding or alienating anyone, it's more of an inclusive statement. Texture is the focus.
Have you fielded many acquisition offers?
My sister and I have been approached by many different people and partners who wanted either to join ranks with Miss Jessie's or wanted to buy it outright. But we were not willing to give up control in exchange for what the potential partner was offering. We didn't understand the value and the proposition. Why we would need to partner with an investor to get us in front of other retailers if we were already in Target? We also weren't sure what that reality would be like, so we decided to keep it private and grow organically.
Miss Jessie's is not just a product company for my sister and myself, it has a heartbeat and it cares about people. If we were to ever do a sale, we would like to feel that we sold to someone who shares the same values.
What were some of the early challenges?
We didn't have a lot of money...we actually didn't have any money! It took us longer than others to create money to build our business from scratch. That slow build was challenging. My sister and I [have lived together] for most of our lives, but we lived together then to save money.
How do you feel about the natural hair market in general?
The market has definitely grown, but there has been a lot of change. At one point it was new, it was different, and then it got a little crowded. Now there are so many [natural hair care brands], and shelf space is limited. After my sister and I decided to bring our specialty business to the masses, it opened up the doors for other brands to make their products. So there's going to have to be a bit of a shake out. Not everyone can be on the shelf. I imagine that it's going to go through a few more phases, but I'm confident that curly hair is not a trend. It's here to stay.
How do you feel about natural hair in popular culture—TV, film, magazines? Have things changed?
Oh absolutely. Back in the early 2000s, we didn't really see women of color sporting their natural curls. There were a lot of relaxers. [But now,] I'm seeing fewer weaves and more texture and it's a good sign. For example, on TV, there's Tracy Ellis Ross and Yara Shahidi. Also, we're seeing professionals like musician Jill Scott and BET CEO Deborah Lee embracing natural curls.
"Miss Jessie's is not just a product company. It has a heartbeat and it cares about people."
What's the most common question you get?
Anything about moisture. Moisture is key for anyone who has curly, kinky, or wavy hair. How do I retain moisture, how do I lock in moisture? It's all about deep conditioning.
What has the business been like since your sister's passing?
She was such a wonderful woman. She was amazing and her contribution to this beauty industry and hair care industry has been tremendous. We miss her. We're experiencing a huge loss. But we are able to carry on Miss Jessie's. One wonderful thing about Titi was that she had solid principles she left the business with so it's easy for me to pick up where she left off.
What inspired you to write a book?
Titi and I had been working on the book for a good two years. Because what we did was huge: to be able to start a business with no money, and contribute to building the self-esteem of women. We wanted our store to inspire other people and we want to send a message that anyone can do it too.
What do you hope readers learn from the book?
Trust your gut. Trust your gut and don't be afraid to make mistakes. There are valuable lessons and wisdom in your mistakes, so don't be discouraged. Your mistakes are your building blocks, they're going to be your stepping-stone for your successful business and that's right there waiting for you.