Rachael Corson and Joycelyn Mate agree that they couldn’t be in business with someone who wasn’t a friend. “It’s such an intimate relationship,” Mate explains. “I probably talk to Rachael more than my husband.”
They met at the University of Birmingham in the late noughties. “Rachael was the other black girl at university,” jokes Mate. Their idea for their natural haircare brand Afrocenchix, now in its 11th year, was sparked by an act of friendship: Mate shared a bottle of homemade hair oil with Corson, who realised the all-natural product could fill what was then a gaping chasm in the market, and the pair got to work. “We had a hair oil, a skin oil and we made 50 of each,” says Corson. “We put in £50, which paid for about 100 bottles of oil. And that’s where we started.”
Afro hair is as much a fact of life as the blueness of the sky, yet hair discrimination is rife. Some black children are punished at school for their natural hair. Research suggests that black women with natural hair are less likely to get jobs. And centuries of Eurocentric beauty standards have told black people that their hair is to be shorn back, controlled, covered, or chemically altered. The natural hair movement enjoyed a resurgence in the late 2010s thanks to social media, which enabled black people to call out hair discrimination as a united voice and find brands that truly understand black hair. The impact is undeniable: research by Mintel shows that between 2012 and 2017, sales of hair relaxer fell by 26%.
Founded in 2010, Afrocenchix emerged at the dawn of this new chapter for black hair. By 2015, it was stocked in shops including Whole Foods, and today its customer base stretches from the UK to Ghana, India and Canada. “I know that a lot of people have gone natural because of us,” Mate says, and the products are only part of the brand. Afrocenchix’s “newly natural” set, for example, comes with a how-to guide “to help you start your healthy hair journey without all the overwhelm”, says Mate. “It’s not just about grooming and, you know, making sure your hair doesn’t fall off your head. It’s about being proud of your heritage.”
Like many black entrepreneurs, they faced barriers, which were compounded by being female. “Everyone talks about the ‘glass ceiling’ that women face, but I think that’s a white woman’s buzzword because, for us, the blockade has never been glass,” Corson says. “It’s concrete. You can see it, you know? I find it rare to meet black people who’ve had the majority of adults in their life really believe in their potential, whereas my white friends, they’ve got countless people who believed in them. So I understand why my white female friends see a glass ceiling. They’re like: ‘Oh, everyone believes in my potential.’ For us, it’s not really expected. We have to work 10 times as hard to get half as far.”
What’s the best advice for the next generation of black entrepreneurs? To develop self-belief, because, says Mate: “You don’t necessarily receive the encouragement that you need on the way.” As for tangible strategies, she says, try working with university enterprise initiatives, applying for award funds and committing to development, both in terms of products and self-improvement.
Naturally, the friends have had to know their own worth to survive, and it shows. “When we negotiated with Whole Foods, everyone said there’s a number [in terms of retail margins] that they do not go below,” says Corson. “So we were like, let’s go way below just to see how it goes. And they just said yes. We were shocked! Everything is negotiable.”
Ballsiness goes a long way, but the fact remains that black-owned startups face marginalisation. According to a new report by the Federation of Small Businesses, “ethnic minority businesses are often detached from mainstream business support, and struggle disproportionately when it comes to accessing finance”, while playing a “vital role … in contributing to the social value of communities, by creating jobs and wealth, but also enhancing the social fabric in our society”.
Black business owners tend to have a strong social purpose, says Corson. “Most black entrepreneurs either directly give to charity or have a social element. I don’t know any black founders who don’t do mentoring, or don’t genuinely care about issues that are going on.” This is evident in Afrocenchix’s values – all its products are sustainably sourced, vegan and cruelty free, while it manufactures in Britain and supports British suppliers.
In 2020, a number of larger brands pledged support to the black business community. PayPal, for example, has ringfenced $530m (£408m) in the US and beyond. “It’s very exciting,” Mate says, before Corson explains how PayPal has already impacted their business. “We find that once people see the PayPal logo, there’s that element of trust straight away. It just makes it more straightforward and quick.”
The transformation that Mate and Corson have seen in themselves since embracing natural hair is the real gift they want to share. “I was scared of my head,” Corson says, recalling her school days. “And it’s not until you step away that you realise: ‘Oh, I’m really not comfortable with myself.’ But who gets to decide that my hair is unprofessional or unmanageable or unattractive? This is how it grows out of my head. I’m OK with my natural self – it helps me bring my full self to whatever situation I’m in.”
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