The significance of hair to black women has been well documented, both in statistics about the haircare industry and in the media through projects such as comedian Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair.” But how critical is one hair accessory?
Very, if you ask Ceata Lash. The Romeoville, Ill. native recently landed a major distribution deal with Sally Beauty Supply through its President’s Innovation Award. The deal will place her product, a patent-protected hair clamp called the PuffCuff, in Sally Beauty stores across the country by the end of 2018.
The PuffCuff promises a secure ponytail or updo hairstyle without the worry of hair breakage or physical headaches for women with curly hair. It’s exactly what Lash began looking for when she stopped chemically straightening her hair in 2006. But no matter how hard she looked — or where — she couldn’t find it.
And yet, for five years she searched and was unable to bring herself to believe no one was producing the accessory she needed. Her denial nearly shrouded the start of her entrepreneurial career. The PuffCuff may have never come to fruition if not for her 99-year-old grandmother Viola Smith.
Smith did two things for Lash. The first came in the form of a hand-me-down hair clamp Lash later discovered to be several decades old. By 2011, when Lash became her ailing grandmother’s primary caretaker, her hair was too thick to use the tool, but it got her thinking.
The second, her grandmother’s mere presence, inspired Lash to live her life with no regrets. As Smith’s health deteriorated, she relayed to Lash there was nothing she felt she’d missed, nothing she would’ve changed in her 99 years.
Lash called it the catalyst.
“That for me was like ‘OK you’ve got this idea that you’ve sat on it for five years. You see no one else has figured out that there’s a need for this. If the Lord gives you 99 years, are you going to feel like I wish I would’ve?’” she said.
She began with a sketch, then a wooden prototype. Next, Lash, who had freelanced as a graphic designer at a college in Palatine, Ill., began reaching out to any adjunct professor who could offer their help. She even used the school’s business development center to craft her first business plan and secure her first loan.
PuffCuff was established in 2013. With Sally Beauty as a new partner, Lash took the time to reflect on some takeaways from her experience on the production end of the haircare industry. She said one thing stood out, especially as a black woman.
“With having this product I’ve dug down deep into the beauty industry and how’s there’s racial bias, ethnic bias in the beauty industry,” Lash said. ”At the same time people of color support the industry.”
The latest data shows black people spend approximately $2.5 billion on haircare products, according to market analysis firm Mintel. By Lash’s account, some business owners acknowledge the potential to profit but then exploit her customers. Take, for example, local independent beauty supply stores.
“The products that they offer a lot of times are not regulated, not made in the United States and are basically helping people of color poison themselves,” Lash said.
It’s one reason she said she’s happy to work with Sally Beauty, the world’s largest beauty retailer, one she believes is committed to selling quality products.
In turn, Sally’s vice president of digital and innovation, JC Johnson, called the PuffCuff a perfect addition to its shelves.
“We are constantly looking for new brands that are innovative, high quality and solve our customer’s needs, which makes PuffCuff such a great fit for Sally Beauty,” Johnson said, also noting Sally Beauty’s “long history of working with fantastic women founders.”
Another benefit of working with the beauty supply giant? Access to customers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Lash said the vision for her company evolved when she encountered women who were searching for the perfect accessory for their curly hair as she once had.
“When I first started my company, all I could see was it fulfilling a need for black women because I felt we needed to be able to love what God was giving us, what was coming out of our head,” Lash said. “If this is a tool that black woman can use to not put so many chemicals in and on their body and help them embrace what was given to them, it’s got to be a win-win.”
Now, her mantra is that the PuffCuff is a “curly-hair product,” not restricted to use by black people or even just women. That clicked for her at the International Beauty Show. She said women of non-African descent approached the PuffCuff booth with huge interest.
“They were like ‘I need that.’ ‘I get that,’” Lash said.
Those women encountered pressures to straighten their curly hair and challenges styling it, just as Lash had when wearing her natural hair.
“They speak a different language in terms of what their issues are, like we’ll say the ‘dent in our hair.’ They call it the ‘crimp.’ I had to learn their language, but they have the same issues,” Lash said.
Through the mentorship of Sally Beauty’s President’s Innovation Award, Lash now has a new goal for the PuffCuff: confidence for all.
“We need to get over all that residue no matter what color you are and just rock what you got,” she said. “And this is a tool to do that.”