LaTaya: I became an entrepreneur in order to take more control of my time and have the ability to determine how and with whom I spend it. For nine years, I worked in the advertising industry and managed award winning campaigns. My experience during that time was invaluable and laid an excellent foundation upon which I currently stand. Due to my professional career, I know how to take a concept from idea to launch. I know how to manage teams, timelines and budgets. I understand the dynamics of leveraging the strengths of others to successfully move towards a common goal. And now, I am able to channel everything I’ve learned and experienced into launching a company with my two sisters.
As the CEO of my life, one of the most important things to me is to leverage my creativity to create solutions that directly address the needs of the marketplace. Invention is often born out of a personal need, and that is precisely how we started KAZMALEJE. We were tired of struggling with excessive breakage and finding massive hairballs in our hair tools after detangling. We were over feeling inadequate or like something was wrong with our hair, because we knew our hair care habits and diet were not the root cause. Therefore, we decided to redesign the comb to work with our hair and not against it. So often, we (especially women of color) have to conform and change our needs and/or behavior to fit within the constraints of the dominant society. We work with what is given to us because we feel that that is all there is. Not true. We have the ability, power and creativity to design products and solutions that address our needs. Our purses are powerful and we should have options available to us that are made for us.
What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business?
How did the idea for your business come about?
My sisters and I started KAZMALEJE in an effort to solve our own problem. To give a bit of background, like many black women in America, our hair was permed for most of our lives and we were very well versed in how to take care of and maintain chemically straightened hair. However, in 2008, we each started “going natural.” I (LaToya) went first, then LaTasha and then LaTrice. But going natural isn’t like getting a new haircut. No, we are talking about reacquainting oneself with a hair texture you have not seen, touched, combed since you were little. And back then, you weren’t even the one doing your hair. Most likely, your mom was your hairstylist. It is for this very reason that “going natural” is often referred to as a journey, because each day presents you with something new, especially in the beginning. As naturalistas who underwent the journey of embracing our natural texture at a time when "natural hair care products" were not so widely available, we had to trial and error our way to find what worked and what didn't when it comes to hair products, styling techniques, etc. Fast forward a bit into the journey, we have somewhat of a regimen down. However, the detangling process was always a pain (both literally and figuratively). There would be hair in the comb, on the floor, on the couch or wherever. So, we purchased all kinds of combs and brushes to see if we would get a better result when detangling our tresses. Some would work better than others, but we never found that one. That’s when an idea came and we decided to try designing a comb that was created specifically for curly, kinky, coily hair. Enter KAZMALEJE.
What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?
Our biggest initial hurdle was the cost of product design and development. Yes, we used options like 3D printing to create rapid prototypes, which allowed us to quickly design, test and refine our ideas. However, once we moved out of the prototype phase and into manufacturing, the cost to develop custom molds is still pretty expensive. Luckily, the cost to develop a mold is a one-time fee and the cost to actually produce a single unit is nominal (and can be further reduced based on the quantity of the order). To date, we have been self-funding and used pre-orders to cover costs. During the manufacturing process, we received funding from an angel investor to help cover the costs.
What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read?
Currently, I'm taking a break from business books to indulge in some good fiction. I am currently reading An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. As for books that are great for entrepreneurs, #GirlBoss by Sophia Amoruso is a great look into how she created her brand and e-commerce success. If you are planning to do a crowdfunding campaign, The Crowdsourceress by Alex Daly is a must read.
Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits?
How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?
Not really. Those around me are really supportive and if they are not, I don't know it.
What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?
Being a constant student of life. I am never too experienced or knowledgeable to turn away from advice.
Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, genders and ages. Always be open to learn, especially from your own mistakes.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
That trial and error is a natural part of the process. Where you start, is not a reflection of where you will end up. You will have to go through things to sharpen your tools and equip you with the necessary information to make better decisions in the future. Everything is always laddering up to the next phase. Just be patient with yourself as you go through the process and know that grace is always there to sooth those rough patches.
What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?
If I could give other entrepreneurs three tips, they would be to do your research. I can’t even tell you the number of pitch competitions I’ve been to where the same idea is being pitched by multiple people and/or reflects something that is currently on the market. My second tip would be to not be afraid to share your idea and ask for help. Oftentimes people try to navigate these waters alone. There are too many resources available to see your dream fail because you were not properly equipped to make it a success. You have to understand what you are good at and build a team that can fill in the gaps. My third piece of advice would be to never stop learning. New advancements are coming out everyday. The moment you disconnect is the moment you become outdated.