Entrepreneurs Consciously Doing Business

by | March 10, 2009

After years of searching for hair products to tame her naturally curly locks, Jessica McGuinty cooked up her own concoction on the kitchen stove. At 25, she left her career as a personal fitness trainer and started Jessicurl, a hair care and beauty products business now based in Arcata, California. She talks about getting started, lessons learned and her drive to be a socially responsible entrepreneur.

How did Jessicurl get started?

When I was 14, my fairly straight hair grew more and more coarse and eventually started to curl. I was mortified. Everything I tried just made it bigger and more fuzzy. I didn't know what to do. My peers called me names like "crusty" and "helmet head" because I'd wet my hair down in between classes to keep it from getting bigger.

I hated my hair, and that didn't stop when I grew up. Finally, I figured there's gotta be a better way. I did an Internet search for "curly hair." I was amazed to find an entire online community of curly haired people who had the same struggles. Who knew?

I immersed myself in the message board. We traded hair tips and horror stories and talked about products. I tried any product that someone raved about, but I didn't like my hair any better. Most of them made it worse. Then I found a recipe for hair gel made from flax seeds, and I tried it.

The result wasn't great, but now inspiration had grabbed me. I knew which natural ingredients were good for curly hair, so I added them to that recipe. For this long-suffering curly head, the results were a miracle. My hair finally looked like I wanted, and I had made the product in my own kitchen!

I had no thoughts about starting a business. I just wanted a product that made my hair look great. But after I shared my recipe on the message board, the e-mails flooded in. People wanted to buy some from me. In September of 2002, Rockin' Ringlets Styling Potion was born.

How did you prepare to start your business?

The honest truth is that I was not prepared in the least! It's been the most wonderfully exciting thing I've ever done. But it all happened so quickly that there really was no formal preparation. I got a business license right away, took one SBA [small business association] class about two months in and have pretty much just been figuring it out as I go along ever since. In 2003, my husband got involved, and we were able to start planning ahead more. That helped us keep up with the pace of the growth. We also connected with a business-networking group. That exposed us to some people with powerful ideas and some important books too.

Anything that you now wish you'd done differently?

In the interest of stress maintenance, it's best to have help sooner rather than later. Figure out what you do best and get some help with the rest. For the first eight months of the business, it was all me. I wish my husband could have jumped in sooner. There's no way the business would have made it this far if we weren't in it together.

What have you learned from starting your own business?

I've really learned that I am an excellent creative thinker. We didn't have a handbook for "How to Start and Grow a Curly Hair Business." All our marketing ideas had to be original and creative. I've learned that being in business can be for more than just financial gain, which I think we've demonstrated well with our public service program. Small businesses can set a good example for larger businesses in terms of the impact we all have on the environment and our society. Business can and should be about more than the bottom line, and I'm thrilled that we're using that as our paradigm for how to run our business.

By "public service," you mean your Women Around the World Program. Where did that idea come from?

Once I realized that this business was actually going to work, I knew that I wanted it to be a socially responsible business that contributes to charities. But I thought that had to wait until we were making a certain amount of profit. Two things happened that made me change my mind about the timeline.

First, I saw Dr. Katherine Hamlin on Oprah. She has dedicated her life to curing women in Ethiopia of fistulas, a horrible condition that can happen during obstructed childbirth. She opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974 and has treated 25,000 women. I cried while I watched that interview and decided that, when we were able to start donating money, I wanted that hospital to be the first recipient.

Soon after that, I saw an interview with Michael Franti, lead singer of the band, Spearhead. Spearhead is known for their socially conscious lyrics and for speaking out about injustice in the world. Franti referred to the band as a "human rights organization." He caused a major shift in my thinking. I thought, "If a band can be a human rights organization, can't my business?" All of a sudden, my business became about a lot more than hair! I wanted to start donating money to the Fistula Hospital right now.

We settled on 5 percent of our May gross revenue, and then came up with an idea to take it even further. We built a feature into the shopping cart so customers can make direct contributions in exchange for credit in our online store. We'll be featuring a different charity each month.

And you're inviting other businesses to join you in this?

We're encouraging other Internet businesses to adopt the model. We've started getting the word out and want to put out a book highlighting some of the businesses that participate. It'll be a wonderful demonstration of the good works women in business can achieve when they strive for more than just the bottom line.

Any advice for people who want to include some kind of "giving back" in their business model?

Not to sound like a bad 1990s clichi, but just do it! Figure out what matters to you and give. When you start thinking of creative ways to give back, the ideas are never ending.

Jessicurl is going to sponsor a Clean Up the Park Day. In exchange for a bag full of trash from our local Sequoia Park, we'll give a coupon for a free bottle of shampoo redeemable at local stores that carry our products. This is a win/win for everyone. It brings business into the stores and turns new people on to our shampoo. Not to mention everybody's park ends up clean!

What's next for Jessicurl?

We'll continue to grow in our town and will not outsource our production. We want to employ as many people in our community as possible and provide a work environment conducive to a happy life. Basically, we want to be the bosses we wish we had had.

Jessicurl's website is www.jessicurl.com.

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