His name is Diishan Imira, and Black salon owners and hairstylists, especially weaveologists, need to know his name.
Why? Because in an unprecedented move of innovation and market penetration, he has taken one our favorite pastimes—getting our hair did—and combined it with distribution channels to change how business is done in the multibillion dollar African-American hair products game.
Imira is the CEO and co-founder of Mayvenn, an Oakland, California-based, hair extension company that partners with stylists who serve as the salesforce for the hair extensions their clients buy. For every bundle of hair sold through a stylists’ Website, they receive a 20%-25% commission.
He started the business thinking he was simply helping out his sister. “My older sister is a stylist in LA now, and she wanted to be in the business of selling the hair extensions that she used every day,” says Imira, 35, who will be sharing more of his story at the ESSENCE Festival Money & Power Expo on Friday, July 1.
Only five percent of hair salons and stylists that cater to Black women in the U.S. carry or sell the extensions they use on clients. That means that 95% of us are trotting down to our local beauty supply store for our Remy and Brazilian bundle.
“It’s not because we didn’t want to become owners,” says Imira, who says the products sold on Mayvenn are human hair sourced from Asia that come in five different textures. “We often lacked the network, the access to the products and the capital for inventory to be able to hold and manage these products in our store,” he says.
That call from his sister was fortuitous. “It was 2012, I had just finished my MBA and I was working in East Africa doing an internship at Ernst & Young. I knew I wanted to start an online company, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
An avid traveler who had been importing products—including sneakers, furniture and art—from all over the world, he decided to help his sister out by finding some suppliers, getting different hair samples and bringing them back to Oakland. “My first stop was other hair salons to see if it was good quality. They all asked, “Can you get more?”
“I was selling hair extensions out of the back of my car and I started to understand the bigger picture of distribution of these products,” he says. This was bigger than hair extensions. “What we’re actually talking about is a $9 billion African American hair products market that hasn’t been touched by technology,” he says.
With a background in supply chain management (the management of the flow of goods and services) and foreign direct investment, and an MBA in International Studies from Georgia State University, he knew that he could create a company so that our stylists could benefit as entrepreneurs.
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The upside for stylists? Mayvenn is free to join, the company builds the stylist’s Website, marketing materials are provided, customer service support is built-in, and all products come with a 30-day money-back guarantee. Customers can wear it, wash it, wear it, cut it, dye it and curl it and if they don’t like it, they can return it.
“All stylists have to do is have your clients buy through your site and then we deposit your commission of up to 25% in your bank account,” Imiri explains. “You get 15% cash off the top, plus for every $600 of products you sell, you receive $100 worth of free hair credits to buy hair.”
For the naysayers who don’t believe the hype or want to know when Mayvenn is going to start charging them for selling the hair extensions, Imiri says: “I don’t make money unless you as a stylist makes money.”
To grow the minority-owned company with his partner, Taylor Wang, COO of Mayvenn, they needed to raise funds. The first round of start-up capital was $48,000 from family and friends, including $30,000 that came from three African American women who were making boss moves of their own. During that time, he cobbled together a Website, asked a few stylists to try his products, attended every single tech event in Silicon Valley, built a pitch deck and started pitching.
No one was interested until he received a $50,000 investment through 500 startups, a technology start-up accelerator, in the spring of 2013. “The real value of 500 startups is that they plug you into a network,” says Imiri. “Over the next four months, I received introductions and met 50-100 investors.”
They came in completely unknown. “While everyone else was building social gaming apps and video conferencing technology, we were sitting on a box of hair,” he says.
“Initially, the Silicon Valley community had zero interest or experience in working with us. But we were able to push it up above the fold and put it in front of everyone’s face until they swallowed the pill and said, ‘Yeah, maybe there is something here,” says Imiri.
By the end of the program, Mayvenn was one of the top three companies in the group, raising close to $800,000 that summer. The company also had two or three smaller rounds of funding from venture capitalists, raising about $2.5 million, including an investment from tennis pro Serena Williams.
Today, the Mayvenn network of stylists is now more than 50,000 people strong, up from 25,000 a year ago. The company boasted revenues of $1.6 million a month as of March 2015.
Most recently, the company raised $10 million in new funding with led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. In addition, Steve Stoute, Jimmy Iovine, Cross Culture Ventures, Trinity Ventures and Anjula Acharia-Bath are also participating in this round.
While the company’s growth has been nothing short of amazing, Imiri puts it all into perspective: “Hairstylists and beauticians are the most important part of the entire beauty ecosystem,” he says. Putting the power of ownership back into the growing hands of African American stylists is just good business sense.
Tanisha A. Sykes is a seasoned writer and editor who writes about money, business and careers. Follow her on Twitter @tanishastips.