Historically left out of mainstream consumer markets, black women who have built businesses based on their unique needs are in many ways some of America's original entrepreneurs. This is especially true for the hair-care industry, which was revolutionized in the early 1900s by Madam C.J. Walker, widely recognized as the first woman self-made millionaire in the United States. As one of the pioneers of modern hair care, Walker not only inspired generations of black women to go into business, but she also was an early and passionate advocate for women's economic independence: "Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!"
Following this credo, and carrying Walker's legacy into the digital space, are two women who recently launched Swivel Beauty, a beauty-review and booking app that caters exclusively and authentically to the hair needs of black women. After they came up with the concept and began to build their business, co-founders Jennifer Lambert and Jihan Thompson became the quintessential part-time entrepreneurs so many of us with a day job and a side passion can relate to, spending countless hours before and after work and over weekends trying to turn a good idea into something real. What follows is a conversation with the two about the need for a platform like Swivel, the challenges of the side hustle, and what it's like to start a business with your best friend.
Meena Harris: How did you come up with the idea for Swivel?
Jenny Lambert: About a year and a half ago, Jihan came up with the brilliant idea to start a blow-dry bar for black women, so that they could fit into the new trend of express hair services, which women who have our unique hair needs haven't really been able to take advantage of.
MH: Does that mean Dry Bar isn't good for black women?
Jihan Thompson: It can be good. The issue is that you don't always know if the stylist you're seeing can do kinkier, curlier curl patterns. While there are some great stylists out there who are able to, you can't just walk in and see anybody and expect the same result each time. We wanted an experience where you could drop in and go to any stylist and know that your hair would turn out awesome.
JL: When you book an appointment with Dry Bar, you can make a specific request by noting that you have kinky, curly hair, or that you're black and would like a stylist having experience with your hair type. But they can't guarantee that's what you'll actually get when you go in for your appointment. I've gone a few times, and I've actually been pretty lucky, in that even when I had someone who wasn't black, she could handle my hair. My hair may have turned out great, but there have been times when a white stylist said things like, "Wow, your hair blows out really straight!," because she's surprised. Uncomfortable experiences like that happen.
MH: Here's what Dry Bar had to say: "Our 3,000-plus stylists ... go through extensive training on all hair types and textures. Even so, when a client lets us know about her particular type of hair when making an appointment, we do our very best to pair them with the right stylist."
JT: We found that, for express hair services, black women still end up doing their own research. Because they're not able to just walk in, beforehand they look for recommendations to go to a specific person who's known to do a great job on black hair. There isn't a single place where all of that information is categorized and where you can read reviews with essential details.
Dry Bar has a lot of great people, so we don't want to say that the whole experience is bad, but we thought about how we could build on the concept to make it more inclusive of different hair types and textures. That was our initial idea at least, basically to start a Dry Bar for black women.
JL: But after looking at the numbers and evaluating our respective skill sets, we realized that we weren't the best team to start a brick-and-mortar establishment, especially given some of the financial requirements, like paying rent.
JT: We didn't have a lot of up-front capital to rent a place for five or ten years. Then we began getting into the weeds of, how do we find these stylists? How do we train them and create a program for quality control? With all of those considerations, we knew we needed to choose a different direction, especially because there are a ton of great stylists already here in New York City and across the country; they just need an easier way for clients to find out about them.
MH: Why can't black women reliably use Yelp for hairstylist reviews?
JL: Yelp probably is the best alternative to Swivel, but we want to focus more on the information that we know women are looking for when they are reading Yelp reviews. Such as: How talented is the stylist? How long am I going to be waiting there? What's the general salon experience? We want that condensed in a way that's useful and uniform so that customers can more quickly glean the information they're looking for. Yelp now has too much information, so you can search for "black hair salon" and get results for salons where they'll dye your hair black. Having a platform that's exclusively about black hair salons filters the subsets.
MH: There seems to be less information available to black women looking for stylists who serve natural-hair needs. Given that natural hair is a well-established trend, is it just a lack of information, or is the community still pretty small, but growing?
JT: In the natural community, there's been a lot of emphasis on DIY. We believe that's a consequence of women just not knowing where the stylists are, because there definitely are a lot of them. Also, a lot of natural-haired women tell us they are protective of their curls and that they can't risk getting a bad haircut or a bad blowout. Because women with natural hair don't have time for the trial and error that comes along with doing the typical research we discussed earlier, they would rather not go at all than go and have a bad experience. They don't want to risk damaging their hair that has taken two years to finally grow out!
MH: You are childhood friends. How did you become business partners?
JL: We're always surprised when we meet people who say they dream of being an entrepreneur but that they need to think of an idea first. For us it was seeing a problem that existed and wanting to build something to fix it.
JT: I don't know if I can honestly say I always had the entrepreneurial bug. But as an editor and a writer, I've spent years interviewing people — and in particular female founders — who followed their passions and started their own businesses. Many of them would say, "I just decided one day I was going to do this." When you're around that so much, you stop thinking, I can't do this, and you start asking, Why not? Why couldn't I be the one to start this? Especially because if someone else created Swivel, I'd definitely use the service.
I had no background for this, but I wanted it to exist in the world, so I made it happen. I still really loved what I was doing full-time, though, so I decided to try it out first as a side business and see where it went. If it didn't work out, I was fine with that. I've talked to so many women who had "side hustles" that turned into real things, and so many whose part-time ventures turned into nothing. It's a matter of whether you're willing to put the effort in, to wake up early before work, do it all weekend long.
MH: Swivel launched just this summer. What's been the state of the business until now?
JT: For the last year, we worked on the concept, thinking about where we wanted to see it grow. We built a website last summer on WordPress, which kind of looked like the first version of what we wanted it to be. It allowed us to make it feel real, but it didn't do everything we wanted. It also gave us a chance to start meeting with salons and stylists, to hear what they needed and also to share our vision. That time period was a lot of weekend hours, before work, talking to people on the phone, and catching them on a Saturday morning.
But it was really after we attended the Rent the Runway Project Entrepreneur one-day conference last year in New York when we got motivated. We left asking ourselves what the real next step would be and how we would stop talking about the business and really build it. We hadn't yet found an engineer, which everyone knows is super-hard to do, so first we found a developer team, and we decided that we were going to move forward. We were ready to bootstrap it, to self-fund, and build the first version of our app that would allow women of color to find and book appointments with stylists and salons that cater to their hair texture.
We've been working with coders whom we found on Facebook, and the team is based in Vietnam, so the time is completely flipped. When we got home from work, we started talking to them during their morning, when they were getting into work. I was waking up at 4 a.m. to answer emails, as they were nearing the end of their day, because I wanted to respond to them before they went to sleep. While they slept, I was at my "day job." In one way it was sort of crazy, and in another, it was kind of perfect.
MH: For most of the time that you've worked on Swivel, both of you have been the classic "nights and weekends" entrepreneurs. I suppose I am, too, and from personal experience I know that it's exhausting to do it well. What has that experience looked like for you? What advice do you have for women starting off with a side venture?
JT: It's very hard to give it your all on nights and weekends. It's not impossible, but we were giving over 100 percent to our day jobs, because we don't have traditional nine-to-five jobs. There would be weeks that would go by and we would do nothing on Swivel, because I was closing a magazine issue, or Jenny was dealing with something really intense at work that was time-consuming.
We had to get comfortable with the fact that this was probably going to take us longer to do while we had full-time jobs. You have to have that sort of patience. You can get easily frustrated, and I see why people give up, because it's not moving as quickly as we hoped. We knew that we were in it for the long haul and that eventually we would get to a point where we could work on it more fully.
JL: Something that I'm still working on is finding the discipline to set aside time that's exclusively focused on Swivel. As you know with law-firm jobs, no day is the same, so even finding the energy and staying the course is hard. But one amazing thing about working with your best friend is that it's great to work together. Not only do you not want to quit on the business, but you also don't want to quit on each other.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Meena Harris is a former lawyer and now manages tech policy at Slack. She is also the creator of I'm an entrepreneur, bitch, a brand that supports and promotes women's economic empowerment.