It’s no secret that the amount of Black women entrepreneurs is steadily growing. Women like Mahisha Dellinger, founder and CEO of Curls are proof that you can start a business from the ground up and with time, patience and dedication, your business will flourish. After creating her own line of natural hair care products in an era when social media wasn’t around, Mahisha did everything necessary to build brand awareness. Today, Curls is now a multi-million natural hair care company.
Here we caught up Mahisha to discuss her journey as a entrepreneur and why she’s excited to help other women succeed in their business.
MADE: You started out in corporate America and transitioned into entrepreneurship. Was entrepreneurship something you always intended for yourself?
Mahisha: Actually I did not always intend. I didn’t have that plan in my mind to be an entrepreneur when I graduated from college, when I went to my employment at Intel Corporation which was right after college. It was my experience in corporate America with corporate racism that pushed me out of that environment and I decided to take control of my destiny and do something instead of having someone control my financial legacy. But I knew before I created Curls that I was going to retire from Intel Corporation. But my horrific experience changed that and I have to thank the man who was a racist jerk because he landed me in this position because of that experience.
MADE: How much time did you have to plan your transition into entrepreneurship or was it abrupt?
Mahisha: Well it was not an abrupt leave because the gentleman put me on a corrective action plan because he said that my performance wasn’t where it needed to be. So during that six-month process, I started to create my business plan and everything that I was working on for the business and the structure of it. And I ended up staying longer, but I got the process going during that process of him trying to get rid of me. And I was working on that and I knew at some point either he’s going to go or I’m going to go because that was the direction he was going. So I was getting my plan ready to get on the ground running as soon as I had that pink slip given to me. But what actually ended up happening is the gentlemen actually ended up getting moved out of that department and then I was able to move on and I actually got promoted inside Intel but I still left. Everything I knew to be true was truth and it came out that I was an exceptional employee but that was a wake up call enough for me to say Im never going to do this again despite the fact that he moved. It was scary enough. He moved on, I moved up and I kept working on my plan and working on my business and I stayed there and then I went and shifted industries. I went into pharmaceutical sales and I went into pharmaceutical sales because I couldn’t work in an 8 to 5 office environment and really launch a business—I needed to have flexibility around my schedule. I started working for Pfizer in pharmaceutical sales selling legal drugs and did a great job there. I had a very flexible schedule so I was able to do both for the first four years of the business.
MADE: How did you come up with the concept for your business?
Mahisha: Well I had a lot of ideas. My then fiancé and now husband took me to Santa Barbara on a trip for my birthday and we were at dinner overlooking the ocean and we were talking about my business ideas and I had a lot of ideas and one of them sucked. He said, You know, Mahisha, you have all these hair products underneath the shelf, your bathroom counter and sink, you should really consider doing something in that space because you haven’t found the right products you’re always looking for. I said that’s idea so we started coming up with ideas for the brand , the products, and the product name on a napkin, so we birthed the name of the first original product, the line itself and the brand and when we got back that Monday morning, I started doing the work. I started doing the research and I got a cosmetic chemist, a web designer, logo designer and I started working on it on my lunch at Intel.
MADE: When Curls first launched, how were you able to distinguish yourself from competitors?
Mahisha: When we launched, there weren’t many in the space. At all. There was literally just a handful of us. And there wasn’t social media so it was an interesting situation. There was a lot of grinding and a lot of guerilla marketing. It was definitely not as easy to launch in that space when you have a limited budget. It took a lot more work and a lot more creativity. So the easiest part is that there weren’t many options. The hardest part was getting the word out there without having the ability we have now and not spend half a million launching a brand because you can do it on social media. So I had to be creative there.
MADE: With you launching your business before social media was around, how has that helped you now as far as marketing and building brand awareness?
Mahisha: That’s a good question because when you have limited opportunities and resources, you become very creative to make it, so I think it gave me a level of determination, persistence, aggressiveness and it really did force me to think out the box a a lot. And that still rings true. So That really built that out the box muscle. I had to work that muscle quite a bit.
MADE: How did you push through those times of uncertainty when you weren’t sure your product was going to do well?
Mahisha: Well when your back is against the wall and you can potentially lose everything you have right now in front of you and you’re only option is to succeed, you just push through. The concern of failing and the concern of will it stick was there—any person who launches a business will tell you that but one thing I did because I did not have the luxury of someone loaning me $100,000 nor did I have the luxury of not having a job, I kept that day job with Pfizer and that job feed my family and my lifestyle and I didn’t take a penny out of Curls for four years. Every dime I made was put back into the company. That reason gave me the comfort level of knowing that if something doesn’t work here, I have this back up plan. I didn’t expect it to be a real back up plan but I was a mother. I couldn’t not have a back up plan, but in my mind, this had to work. But I still had to feed some kids so that was my way of making sure that I doubled up. Either way, we’re going to be good, but I’m going to make this Curls business work. In the meantime, I’m going to do everything I need to do to get this off the ground. I had one child, then two babies, then I had Pfizer, Curls and a husband. So I had a lot going on and I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore.
MADE: You mentioned that during the first four years of Curls, you didn’t touch any of the money you made. What was the most important thing for you to invest your money in when Curls first begin to make a profit?
Mahisha: Year one was really profitable, even though we didn’t make a lot. I think we made $86,000. And I was like “Woo-hoo” because usually you’re in the red year one through five. So I turned a profit year one. Year two, I made about $180,000. Year three was about $400,000 and so it started to pick up but Curls was making a profit, It was just on a smaller scale but what I did was everything I invested in was really involved around the brand. So additional products, marketing, website, branding—anything that could grow exposure for the brand.
MADE: With the success of Curls and everything you’ve accomplished, what do you struggle with now?
Mahisha: I would say the one struggle is work-life balance. That’s always been a struggle and I have a level of respect for what the structure should be—God first, family second, business third. That’s my goal. Do I always get it right? No, but that is the structure from which I have created my life and sometimes it’s out of whack. Like with taping this show, that’s 8 episodes so that’s 8 weeks I had to lean on my husband and was away from the family a lot. So that’s where I was out of whack. So that’s the goal but it’s always the struggle. Every single women entrepreneur that has a family has that same struggle and its not of those things where the balance will always shift day to day.
MADE: Could you tell me about your upcoming show on OWN?
Mahisha: It’s called Mind Your Business With Mahisha and OWN wanted to create a show that was all about helping Black female business owners succeed. We have an increase in business ownership—up to 300%. But only 4% of us make it to the million dollar mark or higher. So OWN wanted to do something about it, so this a bridge the gap kind of show where it’s a mixture of the Shark Tank mixed with The Profit with a dash of Iyanla Fix My Life. Because Wherever there’s a business problem, you can definitely find a personal problem in here as well. So it’s a great show. There’s 8 episode Every single business owner is a black woman and its been a dynamic show. It was great seeing the evolution of the ladies.
MADE: What are three tips you would giving to women entrepreneurs?
Mahisha: What I say to each women entrepreneur, do your due diligence. Know your business industry in and out. Backwards and forward. You need to know what you’re jumping into before you leap. I always say that because we get really excited about these businesses but sometimes we don’t know everything it takes to make it be successful. So do your due diligence
I always say don’t quit your day job. There are conflicting opinions about this, but if you do not have the luxury of sustaining yourself, you need to grow without dipping into your business. So if have family that can support you, a support system, money or extra savings—that’s awesome. But if not, keep your day job. You have to be able to invest on your business without pulling out of your company.
Live below your means. That’s one thing we need to learn more because just because you can afford, doesn’t mean you should get it. I’m a big advocate of that. More money into my bank account than in my house. I don’t need three cars—I have a family so we have two cars. It’s just about being really diligent about keeping that cycle of generational wealth propelling forward. Live below your means every step of the way.