Mahisha Dellinger: Risk to Niche

A corporate scare turns an employee into an entrepreneur

By Sheon Wilson

It wasn’t easy finding a natural hair section in stores when Mahisha Dellinger started CURLS in 2002. National retailers weren’t offering much shelf space to products for customers with curly, wavy, and kinky hair who wear their natural texture, rather than straightening it.

“The choices in the ethnic aisle were mostly flat irons, Jheri curl juice [moisturizer for chemically straightened hair], and oils that were too heavy,” says Dellinger, who lives near her company headquarters in Frisco, Texas. Elsewhere in the hair section were gels, hairsprays, and mousses that were too light to work with her CURLS’s texture.

Seeing an unmet demand, Dellinger decided to perfect the homemade recipes she had been creating with organic ingredients in her kitchen. She tried her hair tonics on friends and family and hired a chemist.
Her company made $86,000 in its first year, initially selling online and at hair salons. Five years later, when it took its first big leap and partnered with Target, CURLS had reached the $1 million in revenue threshold. CURLS has recorded double-digit growth in most years since then, the company says.

In launching in 2002, Dellinger was in the vanguard of female entrepreneurs who created natural products for women who favored natural, textured hairstyles, as an alternative to relaxers, perms, and flat-ironed hair.

CURLS’s competition includes Carol’s Daughter (bought by L’Oréal in 2014), Jane Carter Solution, and Miss Jessie’s, companies that, like Dellinger’s, were started by African American female entrepreneurs who couldn’t find the right products for their textured hair and decided to create their own. They helped define a new category of beauty products with a loyal following.

Seeing CURLS’s products on retail shelves gives Dellinger the thrill of ownership and the satisfaction of being a pioneer. Dozens of products from dozens of companies court the curly-hair audience now. Pantene, Dove, and other major brands are recognizing the potential of the natural hair market. “These brands were not in this market space before they saw these small black girls’ brands were coming in to make money that they didn’t realize was out there,” Dellinger says.

Diversity Woman talked with Dellinger about how she started CURLS and what drives her success.

Diversity Woman: When was that moment you decided to strike out on your own?
Mahisha Dellinger: After college I got a job at Intel and I thought that was going to be my path. I was working hard to move up the corporate ladder. Everyone seemed to be looking out for me to make sure I was on the fast track. Then I experienced a supervisor who was just my worst enemy. No matter what I did, he was not happy. I felt trapped. He put me on a corrective action plan, and I was afraid. Was he committed to using that plan to get rid of me? I was a single mother, and I had rent to pay, along with private school tuition. He had my destiny in his hands, and I didn’t like that feeling of not being in control. That was what sparked my entrepreneurial pursuit. Then no one could tell me how far I could go or how much money I could make. He wound up being reassigned overseas. That was my opportunity to leave the department. I got another position with a good manager, and because of my performance, I got a raise and stock options. But I started thinking, “It’s going to happen again, and just as before, I will have that level of uncertainty.” It was an awakening, an extreme wake-up call.

MD: I have curly hair, and the brand I liked didn’t have a curly line, and other products didn’t work. I had mixed different organic ingredients in my kitchen sink trying to figure out the best hair solution for me. I knew a lot of women were in the same boat, so I saw that as an opportunity. I kept my corporate job, and I invested $30,000 of my savings in my company. I hired a chemist to work on the formula. Every dollar I made at CURLS went back into the business. I took a full-time job in pharmaceutical sales to get a more flexible schedule, and I would come home in the afternoon and work on my business.

DW: Did that feel risky?
MD: Yes! The biggest risk was leaving that steady paycheck. By then, I had a four-year track record of CURLS’s sales increasing every year, but what if that stopped after I left my job? It felt risky, but when you put all your eggs in one basket, you work hard to make sure it is cared for.

DW: What made CURLS take off?
MD: We got started before social media. We didn’t have Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to advertise our brand. It was about guerrilla marketing. We gave out a lot of product to get the word out. Now CURLS has 10 full-time employees. I moved my headquarters from near Sacramento, California, to Frisco, Texas [a move that reduced taxes and put the company closer to its manufacturer and major clients]. I still have an office in California, as well as contractors. And we still use some of those guerilla-marketing tactics to stay close to our customers. We have young women on our street teams, in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, LA, San Francisco, Toronto, Paris, and London. They go to events and into schools and interact with the customers. They give out samples big enough that the women can use a product for a few days and really see how well it works. These girls are foot soldiers, educating the public.

DW: What were some milestones?
MD: The highlight of my career was the day I met with the Target buyer, who was looking to revamp the ethnic category. Her products in that category, the legacy brand products, were down year over year, and she was looking for some fresh brands to relaunch and bring life back to that category. So she brought us in, and three minutes into the presentation she said, “I love it, I’ll take it all.” I have never made a sale so easy in my life. That really did kick off the success. All the other vendors that didn’t want my products before came crawling.

DW: So now you can breathe easier?
MD: Not at all. The competition is so fierce on the shelf. If you have a good brand and decent sales, but you’re not selling well against your peers, you could lose your shelf space. Then you’d get a very hefty bill and all your products back. It’s not a guaranteed place there for life. Every year you’re reviewed. You have to keep it fresh or you will go away.

DW: What is your leadership style?
MD: I know that I can’t be as aggressive with one person as I can be with another, so I communicate with a type A personality employee one way, and then with the younger girls that I manage, I soften up.

DW: What do you look for in an employee?
MD: As the company grew, I figured out I needed look at a personality, beyond skills they put on paper. I look for people who give their all. If someone is the kind of person who says, “This is not my job,” you won’t work out. It’s really about the attitude, the personality, and the ability to go above and beyond. It’s about their ability to want to do the job well.

DW: What’s your next challenge?
MD: When Target first picked us up, we heard mumblings about its big plans for bringing on [rival] national brands, like Pantene, that were moving into the natural hair market. I was a little worried. These competitors have deep pockets and wide shelf space, which we didn’t have. But I realized that our consumer was going to stay with us because we’re authentic. This brand was created for the consumer by a consumer. The products are organic. The fact that we’re still growing and expanding says that it takes more than a big brand coming in and doing copycat brands. It really does need to be authentic. DW

Sheon Wilson is a writer and editor in Durham, North Carolina.

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