The women of Remane are out to untangle a convoluted industry.
By Jenny Hoff, Photos courtesy of Remane
When D’azhane Cook and Ariel Lee first met at the University of Texas, they weren’t exactly friends at first sight. The two women have distinctly different personalities. Lee is an artist with an extroverted streak, and Cook is a more data-driven maven. However, as the only two Black women in their course at UT Austin’s Product Prodigy Institute in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, they were drawn to each other when it came time to partner up on a project. As luck would have it, they discovered at least one thing they had in common: a lifelong, somewhat tangled relationship with their natural hair.
It was this commonality that gave birth to their business Remane, a data-based subscription site that aims to educate Black women and men on how to take care of and embrace their natural locks with high-quality product recommendations, professional advice and a supportive community.
But before they could start that journey, the co-founders had to smooth out their own differences. “I think in the beginning, more than becoming a business, we had to become friends,” recalls Cook. “You need that psychological safety of working together as a team so you can do anything.”
Lee is in full agreement. “When you go into business together, it’s like you’re getting married to that person!” she exclaims. “You’re signing a contract together.”
The Product Prodigy Institute
Lee and Cook now have the kind of dynamic that allows them to build on each other’s thoughts without having to finish each other’s sentences. Instead of one trying to take charge of the conversation, they grant space so the other can also share her ideas. However, like most partnerships, it’s an ease that came only after a lot of hard work. In this case, it was their actual homework.
“We spend the first month and a half on leadership and trust,” explains Rubén Cantú, the executive director of the office of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the creator of the Product Prodigy Institute. “I’m not teaching them about accounting and balance sheets. I’m teaching them how to work through conflict. Everything is built on trust.”
The Product Prodigy Institute is a competitive program that discards methods of traditional business classes—which often train students how to work for someone else in a corporation. Instead it throws them feet first into the waters of entrepreneurship. To get in the program, students need to show the ability to think quickly, pivot when needed. To embrace failure and be comfortable with discomfort. Skills that have proved especially crucial in the middle of a pandemic.
When Lee and Cook first paired up in class, their business idea was a curated subscription box full of natural hair-care products and styling tools, made especially for Black women in their same situation. They knew it would not only fill a gap in the market but tap into a highly profitable industry. According to a 2018 Nielsen data report, Black consumers spend 9 times more than non-Black consumers on ethnic hair and beauty products. They spend $473 million per year on all hair-care products, not counting expenses at a salon.
Lee and Cook’s idea took off.
They won their first pitch competition at UT Austin and were accepted into the highly competitive Target Accelerators program. They found the products they wanted and the customers willing to buy. But just as they were about to place their first order with a factory in China, the world economy came to a standstill. COVID-19 caused a massive rupture in the supply chain and left Lee and Cook at a crossroads. Give up or get creative.
As they modified their presentations for mentors and investors in a secret room at the Capital Factory in downtown Austin, Lee and Cook knew the future of beauty would be data-driven and decided that would also have to be the future of Remane. The co-founders didn’t know much about leveraging data yet. But they knew by learning how to gather it and use its power, they could provide a unique service to their customers. Giving them highly individualized recommendations, regimens and product tips for their specific hair needs at a fraction of what it would cost consumers to get those services from a hair- care professional. “During the process we were like, ‘Okay, I think this is what we’re going to do. This is the logical next step,’” says Cook. “But there was a lot of panic, imposter syndrome, especially when we didn’t have a product yet.”
They got right to work.
Learning how to gather data and harness artificial intelligence into a system that could grow with the company. Cook, in her element with numbers and spreadsheets, built the site, as Lee got to work on design and marketing. They joined a women in AI group to learn how to “game-ify” tools on the site to better engage consumers. While also building a roster of hair-care professionals and dermatologists who could step in as an added resource for customers who require more in-depth consultations for specific issues. Instead of buying or creating their own products, the duo decided one income stream could come from earning revenue through their recommendations of products that met their standards for health and performance. Meanwhile another could come from premier subscriptions with more elevated services.
“We are incorporating habit tracking as well as stylist and hair professionals into the platform,” says Lee. “Our goal is to be able to get you a 30-minute meeting once a month [with a professional]who can help you with your regimen. Dermatologists, trichologists—I think these are professionals people wish they had access to, but they feel too intimidated.”
However, unlike selling a tangible product and getting paid upon delivery, Lee and Cook have had to develop patience as they put all their time into creating a system they hope one day many people will be willing to pay to use. It’s been a lengthy and challenging process. Learning new technical skills. Applying for grants to help fund their company’s development and modifying their product based on consumer feedback. All of this while also holding down full-time jobs.
“Whenever you’re doing something new, it’s going to be painful and it’s going to suck,” admits Lee. “But you’ve got to embrace the suck. You’ve got to believe in yourself more than others doubt you.”
Wise Beyond Their Years
The recent university graduates are wise beyond their years, having experienced the difference between ideas and reality. The huge leap it takes to go from one to the other. Caught up in the momentum of media attention, incubator programs and mentors flush with advice, both Lee and Cook have come to realize one of the most important skills for business and life is setting personal boundaries. “Once we understood that the rat race other people are running doesn’t have to be our own and we don’t always have to take the advice we get, we started being a lot happier and more content with our journey.”
Neither woman set out to become an entrepreneur. Cook studied business and technology with the aim to have job security within a good corporation. Lee studied art, wanting to showcase her creativity to the world. When they both made it into the Product Prodigy Institute program, they didn’t imagine it would change the course of their lives. But after experiencing small wins and seeing enthusiasm around their ideas, they both started to see themselves as more than just good employees. They saw themselves as business leaders who could grow a corporation of their own while also performing a social good. Helping women like themselves embrace their natural hair with healthy products and regimens. By doing that, they believe societal standards will change to be more inclusive for all.
Remane on a Budget
It’s the dream outcome Rubén Cantú envisioned when he created his program. “Our real purpose is to cultivate the next generation of leaders in our community that are of diverse backgrounds,” he says. “We don’t just want them to take a seat at the table; we want them to make a new table.”
In order to keep the Product Prodigy Institute funded, Cantú has to continuously fundraise. Sharing success stories like Lee and Cook’s to pique potential donors’ interest. To keep building Remane, the women have to do their own fundraising. Reaching out to grant programs and incubators to get capital without having to give up equity so early in the game.
Working with a shoestring budget, they are in the process of building a strong relationship with their current customers through hosting webinars, connecting them with hair-care specialists and dermatologists nationwide and building an open database of resources that evaluates and scores beauty product ingredients so consumers are more educated about what they’re using.
Reframing the Convo
“There is a lack of data out there for Black hair-care products,” says Cook. “We have to create that data and bring awareness to how unregulated the hair-care industry is. There are reports about some of the chemicals in our hair-care products that can even cause breast cancer.”
Other vital data they’re collecting at the moment is from their own customers. They discover what people need and want rather than trying to guess what will succeed. It’s meant putting their own assumptions aside and listening to the consumers they’re trying to serve. Just as they learned how to listen to each other.
“I would love to see us as a hub for hair,” says Cook. “Hair isn’t just hair. It’s a part of your identity. There is a cultural element, a scientific element and a health element. We want to do multiple things. And that includes reframing the conversation about Black and Afro hair in our society through an engaged community.”