Founded by Leona Dondi, UZIMA– meaning “full of life” in Swahili– is the latest hair and scalp treatment brand on the market for textured hair. With the tagline “hair is life”– and products like the scalp serum, Ukuaji, and a nourishing oil, Nishati– Dondi is setting out to help Black people feel more confident. “Our vision is twofold: to have her love and embrace her hair, find joy in her self-care routine, and to feel a sense of pride and well-being when using our products.”
In 2018, Dondi suffered from scalp irritation and hair loss, due to stress and poor water quality during a work trip to South Korea. There, she noticed a gap that needed to be filled in the hair care market. “There were no targeted scalp care solutions for textured hair, especially for Black women with type four hair.” Since then, through both self-taught and professional experience, she was able to create these much-needed hair care solutions. “Our approach is rooted in Design Thinking, targeting those most affected, to create solutions that work for a broader audience,” she says. “We leverage biotechnology for its sustainable potential and incorporate rare oils from Africa, South America, and India to modernize ancient haircare rituals.”
Most recently, the brand landed a partnership with luxury retailer Moda Operandi. This is one of many ways that Dondi plans to disrupt the industry and pave the way for other Black businesses to join high-end retailers. As for what’s next? Expect new Holiday gift sets to launch soon– just in time for the quickly approaching season. And, with everything Dondi puts out, she’s keeping the brand’s ethos in mind, of course. “Black women and those with textured hair are not just seeking quality and results, but also a feel-good experience with their products,” she says. “Luxury hair care traditionally promises superior results, premium ingredients, and enhanced experiences. It’s high time that we, too, enjoy all those benefits.”
Below, Dondi talks about her career journey, the Moda Operandi partnership, tips for healthy scalps, and more below.
ESSENCE: Tell us about your career journey leading up to UZIMA
Leona Dondi: I’ve built a diverse career in tech-focused product innovation, blending expertise in both research and business strategy. My journey began in academia where I delved into neuroscience and implicit anti-Black bias. Pivoting to industry research, I explored sectors ranging from transportation to healthcare. My career highlights include contributing to Google X Moonshot lab and leading research efforts at Dropbox. I’m currently working in Product Innovation at Netflix.
Outside my formal roles, I’ve cultivated a passion for cosmetic formulation– initially self-taught through cosmetic chemistry textbooks and patents. I honed my skills and also discovered I had an allergy to castor oil, prevalent in products for textured hair. This led me to create specialized hair care solutions. This unconventional yet resonant journey exemplifies the experiences of many founders of color. It’s where academia meets industry, personal passion meets professional expertise, and problem-solving meets market need.
How did you choose these specific products to launch?
Dondi: One of my long-standing personal favorites has been shampoo and conditioner bars. However, market research showed that our target audience is unfamiliar and skeptical about this format, partly due to confusing marketing and past negative experiences with soap bars labeled as shampoos. Recognizing the immense task of re-education required, I opted for a different launch strategy.
We debuted with treatment and post-wash care products that could seamlessly integrate into existing routines, aiming to provide immediate solutions and build trust. For instance, most women with textured hair use a water-glycerin-oil mist. We elevated this basic formula into an essence, enriched with scalp-calming actives, hydrating humectants, and a botanical-vitamin blend for hair strength.
Do you have a favorite from the line and if so, why?
Dondi: My personal favorite, the UKUAJI Blooming Serum, stands out for multiple reasons. Initially formulated to address my own scalp issues, this award-winning serum multitasks effectively. Designed as a barrier serum for the scalp, it sets the optimal stage for hair growth by hydrating, fortifying the microbiome, balancing oil, and offering antioxidant protection.
What are your best tips for long-lasting scalp and strand health?
Dondi: Maintain a clean scalp by shampooing regularly and using a clarifying shampoo 1-2 times a month, especially if you have coily or kinky hair and use multiple products. The “Curly Girl” method of using only conditioner to cleanse is not advisable; scalp health starts with cleanliness.
Exfoliate your scalp to remove dead skin cells and oil buildup. Chemical exfoliants like fruit acids and enzymes are my go-to for gentle, effective exfoliation. When opting for protective styles, avoid pulling too tightly and don’t leave them in for extended periods. Make sure to cleanse your scalp even when styled. Finally, a holistic approach to well-being—eating well, staying active, managing stress, and staying hydrated—benefits not just your hair and scalp, but your overall health.
How does your Microbiome study impact how you develop your hair and scalp collections?
Dondi: I’m deeply intrigued by microbiome health, especially the largely unexplored territory of the scalp microbiome. This gap in understanding offers a unique opportunity to innovate and provide value through educational insights and superior products. We aim to use data from our ongoing study to refine our scalp-friendly product line. Our research has already identified common scalp health challenges that women face. Now we aim to correlate these issues with the actual scalp environment and assess how our serum impacts it over time. Eventually, we plan to extend this research across our entire product line to quantify improvements and empower consumers with a better understanding of their scalp health.
What are you looking forward to with your new Moda Operandi partnership?
Dondi: Creating inclusive spaces is a priority for me – this started with my work in graduate school on trying to figure out how to create pleasant interactions in the context of anti-Black bias. The realms of wellness, clean beauty, and luxury have often excluded us, offering products that don’t meet our unique needs. I aim to transform that landscape and extend a warm invitation to our community. Through my collaboration with MODA, I plan to elevate and celebrate the beauty and cultural value that Black women bring to the table.
What advice would you give to Black businesses interested in breaking into the industry?
Dondi: Don’t hesitate to reach out to fellow founders. Ask for their advice on roadblocks you’re encountering. I’ve personally gained a lot from such interactions. Many business owners, despite being time-constrained, are willing to lend a helping hand. Spotting a market gap, building a robust network (still working on this!), and seeking guidance from established entrepreneurs have been key elements of my business journey.