Miko Branch recently released Miss Jessie's, a refreshingly accessible memoir and business guide. Here, exclusively for ESSENCE, the cofounder of the natural hair behemoth remembers Titi, her older sibling and guiding light, who lost a battle with depression last year.
No matter where we went, my sister and I were always known as Titi & Miko. For forty-plus years, she was always by my side. From latchkey kids to the founders of a curly hair empire, we literally raised each other. Although she was only 15 months older than me, Titi took her role as big sister seriously. We learned many lessons by each other's side, and as a team we navigated the new territory of the natural hair movement and the global hair product business.
Miss Jessie's: Creating a Successful Business From Scratch—Naturally (Amistad, $24.99) is as much about how we built our business as it is about how anyone can build her own business and brand without having an M.B.A., investors or extensive personal contacts and connections. We made something out of nothing, and we want to share our story and encourage others to do the same. Miss Jessie's is more than a product. We are a living soul, a heartbeat that has changed the lives of many in a positive way. When I consider my sister's life and death, I believe that what people saw on the outside was very different from what she felt internally. My sister was an amazing woman who possessed beauty, talent, generosity, innovation, a strong business acumen, courage, love, kindness and compassion. She was a family-oriented protector, best friend and so much more to me and others. While Titi was widely recognized for revolutionizing the hair care industry through Miss Jessie's and her huge contributions to the natural hair movement, her true greatness lay in her ability to accomplish so much and master all her God-given talents in the face of the very significant, but not often discussed, challenges of depression.
Her untimely death provides an opportunity to focus on the causes of and find possible solutions for managing depression and mental illness.
Titi was a little girl who became a dynamic, high-achieving Black female entrepreneur. Her conflict may have been trying to understand how she could also be a sad and lonely girl who couldn't connect the dots in the way that others seemed to do so easily. Titi was proud of our business and our shared success. I also think this very success made it harder for her to reveal that she was unhappy and depressed, and battling a mental illness that was not getting better. I think at a certain point she concluded it would never get better—the battle would be lifelong.
I don't think she believed that our family could help. I remember her expressing how she felt our community may not have understood mental illness. Depression can kill your spirit, your passion and your will to carry on. I think Titi would very much like 2015 to be the year that we shine a light on mental health and depression by opening the doors for valid, sacred, safe communication and therapy. I'm certain she wouldn't want others to think that taking care of their health, which could mean everything from using medication to seeking counseling, makes them crazy or lazy, or makes them sad or think that something is horribly wrong with them. All of us have pains and aches and body parts that don't work properly. My sister's aches and pains happened to affect her brain and mind. There are a lot of Titis in the world. Some of them are well-known and some are not, but we all must be able to have public dialogues (and intimate dialogues with loved ones) about mental illness and feel good about seeking help consistently, free from guilt and shame.
Because I stand on the shoulders of my grandmother, Jessie Mae Branch, my father and mother, and because I've been under Titi's tutelage for more than four decades, I am prepared to carry on the legacy of Miss Jessie's, which includes being helpful to others by offering solutions in hair care, while understanding we are more than just a hair care company. We will continue to share our experience and inspire others through our story.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.