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.