Beginning her career at Intel, Mahisha Dellinger decided to take her savings and a leap of faith to begin what would become a household natural hair brand, CURLS.
BB: Why did you begin CURLS?
Mahisha: Towards the end of college when I had my daughter, I couldn’t perm my hair because I was pregnant. I didn’t have this come-to-Jesus moment where I was like, “Oh, it’s so beautiful,” and, “I need to embrace my natural texture.” It was more of a, “I have a baby and I don’t want to put these chemicals into my body.”
I ended up looking for products all the time and was mixing things and not really liking what I had. Sometimes they were too greased, sometimes they were too frizzy. I just never had the right combination. This was back in 2002 before all the national brands launched and before it was the thing to become natural.
BB: And of course, this forced you to think of a solution.
Mahisha: I didn’t see a lot of options in the market. I was sure that there were other women like myself who wanted to embrace their natural hair. So I decided to see if this was a viable business. I did my due diligence. It was a lot of research seeing what the trends were going to be in the African-American community regarding hair care. I wanted to see if there was really a need for natural hair brands, and it was. That’s when I decided to take the leap.
BB: You left your job at Intel?
Mahisha: I did not leave corporate America initially. That’s one thing that I always tell people. Even if it does work for you, it’s better to have that income coming in to sustain your life. When people say, “I don’t have the money to start a business,” I tell them to start small and grow it that way. One of the benefits of starting small is the fact that you’ve got a chance to scale small initially, learn the business, learn the industry, improve before it gets big, and then grow organically.
BB: Were you doing CURLS by yourself?
Mahisha: I had my fiancé at the time, who’s now my husband, in the garage with me packing orders, but I didn’t have any hired help. He had his day job; I had a day job. I actually wound up going into pharmaceutical sales, which gave me the flexibility I needed to be able to run the business.
BB: Who developed the product?
Mahisha: I actually found a cosmetic chemist. I knew what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I hired someone who created the initial four formulas that we started with. We had four products for adults and four for kids.
BB: Was the journey lonely?
Mahisha: It was a mix of everything. When you’re new, you doubt what you’re doing because you don’t have experience. Then, you make a home run and you go, “Oh, this is going to sustain and be okay.” Then you maybe hit a row of roadblocks and you doubt yourself again. Then you get through it and it makes you stronger. I think it’s a journey and it’s one that is not for the weak at heart.
BB: There’s a lot of talk of work hard, play harder, but is that real? Is it really just like work hard, work hard sometimes?
Mahisha: Well, I don’t know, work hard; play somewhat hard, I guess. My husband will attest that it used to be horrific before, so I’ve gotten better. I mess up almost every day. Almost every single day I have to reel myself in and ask, “What’s really important? Okay, remember your priorities: God first, family second, business third. Remember that.” Sometimes it gets out of whack.
BB: There’s a big conversation still going on about the separation between what is considered “good curls, bad curls, good hair, and bad hair.” What do you think about that?
Mahisha: It’s that same issue with our mentality in our community that’s now proliferated over to advertising. For the white-owned products that sell to Black women; they’re going to pick the lady because, she looks closer to them and they feel more comfortable and they think she’s the ideal of beauty.
BB: What does it feel like to step back and look at your successful brand?
Mahisha: It’s so great, but then guess what? If most entrepreneurs are like me, which I’m sure they are, you never really stop to smell the roses. You’re on to the next big thing.
BB: Any last words?
Mahisha: For a very long time I was embarrassed of where I came from and everything I’ve been through. I realized over time, after I achieved success, that there are so many young Black women who experienced things I experienced. I want to now use that as an inspiration to show them no matter where you come from, you can shuffle that hard-handed card you were dealt and change your destiny.
I reversed the cycle of generational poverty. I had to figure out how to get past the things like my first sexual experience at fifteen at gunpoint. I had to get past seeing my mom beaten by every man she’s loved. There are so many pieces of my life that people look at me today and would never believe.
Read Mahisha’s story in her new book, Against All Odds: From the Projects to the Penthouse, and try the new fabulous Blueberry Bliss CURL collection.