Black Wealth and Beauty Have Been Closely Linked For Decades

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This story is a part of The Melanin Edit, a platform in which Allure will explore every facet of a melanin-rich life — from the most innovative treatments for hyperpigmentation to the social and emotional realities — all while spreading Black pride.

When Daryce Willis left Howard University in 2012 to pursue cosmetology with only a few months left until graduation, people were concerned, but she knew the career in education she’d originally been seeking wasn’t for her. “I sat in college staring out the window. I had no business being a teacher if I could not sit in the class and be taught,” she says. To others, it seemed risky to abandon the safety net of a Bachelor’s degree for entrepreneurship, despite the fact that hairstyling has been a safe, sure way for Black women to make money for decades. Today, Willis is the owner of A Curl Can Dream, a salon that focuses on healthy hair where many of her clients are Black women, and has become an authority in the hair care space. She is just one example of a centuries-old strategy where Black women offer beauty services as a way to grow wealth for themselves and enrich the community as a whole.

To grow up in a Black community is to know someone who does hair, whether it be in a salon, at the kitchen table, or in the back room of a house. “If you didn’t have the money to go to the salon, there was always going to be somebody’s mom, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s auntie that knew how to do hair,” says Yaba Blay, a scholar-activist and producer whose work focuses on Black identity and beauty politics, recounting her own experience as a child growing up in New Orleans. “My mom always found someone to do hair at home,” she recalls, many of her hair memories involving kitchen sinks and pillows stacked high on the floor while she waited patiently for her Jheri curls to set. Her experience isn’t unusual; many women rely on word-of-mouth recommendations to find their stylist and favorite hair products, creating an industry within an industry. Women built businesses and empires this way, launching from their kitchens into the community, and then, the world.

The Early Entrepreneurs

One of the earliest examples of this is Annie Turnbo Malone, a beauty entrepreneur and philanthropist from St. Louis, Missouri, who created a beauty empire in the early 20th century by selling directly to Black women in her area. Her line of hair products, The Poro System, focused on hair and scalp health and featured “The Great And Wonderful Hair Grower,” a straightening solution that didn’t damage the hair like the heavy oils and animal fats Black women were using at the time.

Malone sold her products door-to-door with employees she called Poro Agents, who offered free product demonstrations and set up in churches and community centers where Black people frequented. At the height of Malone’s business, Poro Agents numbered in the hundreds and were spread throughout the United States. One of her agents, Madam C.J. Walker, would go on to create a hair-care line of her own, which would garner national acclaim and make Walker one of the wealthiest women of her time.

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