There are times in one’s life where you feel like the stars just align in your favor and everything falls into its place. For Ngozi Opara, 25, that “perfect time” came last December when, after over a year of research and preparation, she launched the Heat-Free Hair Movement.
Over the last few years, women of color have been embracing their natural beauty and natural hair textures en masse. And Ngozi, who owns a natural hair studio in Washington, D.C. called NZO Hair Studios that specializes in hair weaves, extensions and other protective styles, has been working alongside her clients to help them with the challenges they’ve faced as they made the transition from relaxed to natural hair.
One of the things that kept coming up was the question of protective styling and the options that existed for women in transition. This is when Ngozi’s wheels started turning and she began to envision a product that more closely matched her client’s multi-textured hair without using any heat. Thus, the concept for Heat-Free Hair was born.
Now with eight months of business operations under her belt, Ngozi opens up about how she launched the Heat-Free Hair movement.
Hashtags + Stilettos (H+S): Can you describe Heat-Free Hair to someone who is hearing about the business for the first time?
Ngozi Opara (NGO): Heat-Free Hair is a movement that encourages women to embrace protective styling in the form of weaves and extensions because of the benefits it provides.
H+S: What was the inspiration behind Heat-Free Hair?
NGO: As a natural hair stylist, I’ve seen the benefits of weaving from working with all of my clients. So the inspiration came from me wanting my clients and other women to embrace hair that matches their texture. This way you can go heat-free and have a protective style with hair that looks like yours which allows you to transition the way you want to transition.
H+S: You launched Heat-Free Hair at a time when women of color were all starting to embrace and celebrate their natural hair textures en masse. Had you been thinking about this idea for a long time? Or did you see what was going on and say, “I need to do this?”
NGO: Both. I believe God’s time is the best time because I came up with the concept for Heat-Free Hair well over a year before we launched. But there were some days that I woke up thinking, “Oh my gosh, there has to be a way for women to go heat free. That could be so cool.” But when I kept trying to make things happen, nothing did. For instance, we were supposed to launch Heat-Free Hair six or seven months before we actually launched. But I’m so happy that we launched when we did because it did seem like perfect timing and it’s been amazing watching something that began with a vision come into fruition.
H+S: How did you finance the business?
NGO: Personal funds. [As I mentioned above,] I own a hair studio but I also have a background in finance and accounting, so I was working as a financial analyst for the government. While I was at that job, I was like, “You know what I hate this. So I’m going to just stack [my money] up.”
I literally saved every single paycheck. I never spent a penny when I worked there. In my mind, I was thinking that this [money] is going to go toward something great. And as soon as Heat-Free took off and started to do well, I quit that job.
H+S: So NZO Hair Studio was your side gig?
NGO: No, the hair studio was actually a full-time situation and I picked up the [finance] job to supplement that, plus I had other people working in my hair studio while I was away. During that time, I was literally not sleeping because I was working at least one of those jobs every day.
H+S: What were some of the biggest obstacles/challenges you encountered while trying to launch this business?
NGO: Well first and foremost when you’re coming out with something that’s somewhat of a new concept you’re going to go under a lot of scrutiny and criticism. And then on top of that there was a high price tag attached to the [Heat-Free Hair] product.
H+S: Have you experienced any push back from the natural hair community?
NGO: At first, I think there were a lot of people who didn’t understand it. The natural hair community is a great community, but sometimes we can be narrow-minded.
As someone who’s been natural for over 10 years, I had to let them know that I didn’t join the natural hair movement just to launch Heat-Free Hair. I’ve been a part of the community. And even though I saw a need for this type of product, I received a lot of criticism about it because people were saying, “You can’t be natural and wear weaves.” They didn’t see the positive side.
H+S: What about from other beauty veterans or brands?
NGO: Yes, a lot of people were saying all sorts of craziness. One of the most supportive beauty brands was curlBOX. Myleik [Teele] loved the idea and she supported me. But there were a lot of people who hated it. There were some natural hair bloggers who weren’t in support of it.
But my thing is this, if you don’t like the vision or if you don’t like the product, you should hate from the sideline. You don’t have to come out and express that you thought that I was cheating people because it’s called the Heat-Free Hair movement and we’re using synthetic hair that you’re not supposed to put heat on anyway. Or, that it shouldn’t cost what it does because the hair is synthetic. I think they totally missed the point. And what’s sad about it is that the people who missed it are people who have a huge following. And I’m just like them. I’m a black woman with a business and instead of using their platform to uplift they use it to tear down and try to destroy others.
H+S: Do you wish that the people who didn’t get it would have reached out to you?
NGO: Right. I felt like they could have reached out to me and I would have happily had a conversation with them about it. But instead of doing that, they went and told thousands of people not to buy from the brand because it was synthetic hair that they’ve never seen or touched.
H+S: How did you deal with that backlash?
NGO: [W]hat I’m learning…rather, one thing that God has kinda shown me is that people are people and you should never let what someone thinks about you or what you’re doing affect how you think about what you’re doing. In the beginning when I received criticism from customers, bloggers or other companies, I would cry about it. Then after awhile I just stopped and decided to just do my thing.
H+S: When you were first discussing your business idea with people (potential investors, manufacturers) was the response positive? Or, did you have to do a lot of convincing?
NGO: From a manufacturing standpoint I deal with international factories and vendors and it was hard to find factories that were willing to work with these hair textures. But I knew I needed to find those hair textures. So I had to cut out some of my sister’s hair, my client’s hair and I was like “I’m going to take this around the world until I find these textures.” But even then, a lot of factories were still like “We’re not about that life.”
H+S: Heat-Free Hair is about eight months old now. Is the business profitable?
NGO: With any business, when you make money you have to put it back into the business. But in terms of sales, we have a lot of sales. So if you look at sales-only, Heat-Free Hair has done very well. But if you look at net revenue we still have room to improve.
H+S: What advice would you have for others who are interested in starting their own business?
NGO: I believe that positive thinking is the most important thing you can have. There’s so much that happens in business that can make you think negatively or take a negative spin on things but you have to remain positive to keep the business going.
You should also have a little bit of money saved up too. A lot of people say you don’t really need it, but it helps to have a little bit of a cushion before you get started. And only share your ideas with people who are going to support them because people are really quick to knock you down.
H+S: I ask everyone this: Do you have a favorite book that inspires you?
NGO: Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill. It’s a great book because it’s all about outwitting that negative voice in your head that tells you that you can’t.
To keep up with Ngozi Opara as she takes Heat-Free Hair on a journey toward world domination, follow @HeatFreeHair on twitter.
A version of this story first appeared on MadameNoire.com.