From an idea on a napkin, Mahisha Dellinger has established a multi-million dollar haircare brand

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 8, 2024 7:58 AM EDT
Mahisha Dellinger
Mahisha Dellinger. Photo Credit: Color Vision

Mahisha Dellinger, formerly a marketing manager at a renowned Fortune 500 Company, has made a remarkable transition to become the founder and CEO of CURLS, a highly successful haircare brand that was launched in 2022 to fill a significant void in the hair and beauty industry.

Driven by her discontent with the limited availability of hair products derived from natural ingredients that offer top-notch quality and dependability, Dellinger sought to establish a brand that would deeply resonate with women who shared similar feelings. Her ultimate objective was to introduce an outstanding range of natural hair care products that would specifically cater to a demographic that had often been overlooked. Through unwavering dedication, self-assurance, and perseverance, Dellinger developed an award-winning collection of organic hair care products and singlehandedly cultivated a strong demand for the CURLS brand.

Over the past ten years, CURLS has become one of the leading brands in the natural hair care industry. This achievement can be largely attributed to her continuous innovation in developing new product collections that cater to the ever-changing needs of the natural hair community. In the past, women simply sought products to control their unruly hair. However, their expectations have evolved, and they now seek high-quality products that not only manage their curls but also celebrate and highlight their beautifully imperfect hairstyles.

Thanks to CURLS’ expansion into mass retailers, natural hair customers can now easily find top-notch hair care products in various locations. Nevertheless, the journey to where she is today isn’t without challenges.

Dellinger recounts a challenging upbringing, describing her childhood as difficult. She was raised in poverty in the Meadowview neighborhood of Sacramento, which some refer to as Danger Island. This area was notorious for the presence of the Bloods and Crips gangs. The community was plagued with high crime rates, including drug-related incidents, home invasions, and drive-by shootings, and growing up in such an environment, a young individual could easily be influenced negatively. However, Dellinger managed to develop self-reliance from a young age, learning how to navigate and protect herself.

“I grew up in California, in an area called Meadowview, which was dubbed Danger Island. There was a lot of crime: drug activity, gang activity, home invasions, drive-by shootings.”

In that kind of neighborhood and environment, you can go either way. You can either become a leader and control your destiny because you’re forced to, or you can go in the opposite direction.

“I had to become a leader of my life, and it started there, at a young age. My mother worked a lot, and she was often gone. So from the age of 7 on, I got myself breakfast, made my lunch, went to school, came back home, did my homework, and then she would come home after 7. I was my mother’s star child because I never gave her any trouble.”

She acknowledges that the environment she grew up in contributed immensely to her success in life.

“There’s a level of survival that you learn when you are born on the wrong side of the tracks,” she says. “You learn how to adapt quickly and you are a survivor. That’s the best way to describe it. There’s also a level of grit that comes from the struggle. Those two things – survival and grit have helped me be a successful business owner.”

Dellinger, a business administration and marketing graduate had never envisioned herself as an entrepreneur. She began her career with enthusiasm as a marketing manager at Intel Corporation. However, everything took a turn when she experienced racism within the company, as stated by Dellinger.

“That was my moment of reckoning,” she says. “I got through that and I said I never want to experience that again. I was a young, single mother with a child to take care of. It was extremely stressful to know at any moment I could have been let go. That was my lightbulb moment.”

“I reached a point where I decided I’m never going to work for anyone else again. I’m going to own my destiny, and I’m going to determine how far I can go.”

Dellinger started developing her strategy to depart from corporate America. While celebrating her birthday with her then-fiancé, the topic of Dellinger’s ceaseless quest for the ideal hair products arose, and he asked the pivotal question that altered her life’s course. “Why not establish your own hair care line?”

Dellinger found the notion appealing and promptly jotted her business concepts on a napkin. She outlined the products she envisioned creating, with her preferences and exclusions regarding their ingredients. Additionally, she determined the brand name and began her research.

“In 2002, the options for black hair weren’t as plentiful as they are now,” she says. “I saw that there was a need. There was a sustainable business opportunity because of the shift back to natural hair. It’s what happens when you have a business that is born from an untapped need. That’s how CURLS was born.”

“When I turned on the switch on the website on April 26, 2002, I got eight orders that first day, and I was so excited,” Dellinger says. “Still, I kept my day job because I wanted to be able to invest every penny made from the brand back into the brand. My salary from my corporate career went back to my family. I did that for about four years.”

“My transition from being a full-time corporate employee to a full-time business owner was methodical and strategic,” she explains. “I did not have the luxury of falling back on rich parents. Despite having great credit and a strong business plan, I didn’t have any business loans or funding, so I had to be intentional about what I did.”

Dellinger began mixing the formulation of the inaugural CURLS product within the confines of her kitchen. Although she was filled with enthusiasm to start her entrepreneurial journey, she encountered numerous challenges during the company’s launch. Securing financial support proved arduous, even with her commendable personal credit. Lacking affluent acquaintances or family members, she resorted to utilizing her private savings to finance the business. Dellinger regards this circumstance as an unexpected stroke of luck.

“You can go into a lot of debt opening a business,” she says. “If you misappropriate the funds, you can go out of business quickly and spend it fast. Before you know it, it’s gone and you owe somebody a lot of money. Although I am very disciplined with money and always have been, I prefer not having debt and not having to owe anyone anything. I realized that growing small and organically was the smartest way.”

Dellinger asserts that the gradual expansion aided her in comprehending her brand and the business landscape. She affirms that commencing on a smaller scale allowed her to make errors on a reduced level before gaining visibility.

“That’s part of the background of coming from survival and struggle,” she says. “You make things happen and you just find a way. Every challenge was met with some sort of issue I had to figure out. It was my ability to be agile, my ability to be flexible, and my ability to be fearless and strong. You just have to take the punches as they come.”

The successful outcome was a result of her cautious financial approach and her additional work during the night. CURLS, being one of the pioneering Black hair brands, established a strong presence in the mainstream market. The increased online sales provided the necessary funds to expand their product range, catering to a broader and more diverse customer demographic. Initially, Dellinger faced opposition when presenting her ideas to major retailers. However, a decrease in sales of relaxers and other harsh products traditionally targeted toward Black women prompted Target to explore the emerging “underground” haircare market driven by a few small Black-owned businesses like CURLS.

“I got a call from Target. They wanted to know where their sales were going, so they brought a group of (haircare business owners) in for a meeting, myself included. I presented my products, and within 10 minutes of meeting me, they said, ‘We’ll take all of it.” It was the easiest sale of my life.”

Target’s investment proved to be a strategic and pivotal move for CURLS. The haircare brand experienced a significant expansion, going from 100 Target stores to 300 and eventually reaching 1,800 locations nationwide. The success of this partnership did not go unnoticed by other major retailers, who quickly followed in Target’s footsteps. Despite CURLS’ remarkable growth in the market, Dellinger maintained a prudent approach when it came to fully committing to business ownership on a full-time basis.

“It was important for me to experience the lows and highs of the business so it was progressing in an upward trajectory. I could not leave a solid company paycheck without knowing for sure that CURLS was sustainable.”

The determination to leave her role at a multinational corporation came in an unexpected manner she elucidated.

“I remember writing out a note to myself saying, ‘I’m going to leave this job in December.’ Then, in September, we got word that layoffs were coming. I was, like, ‘Please!’ And they did, and I put that severance package back into CURLS. That was my last month in corporate America.”

With firm signs of profitability, CURLS attracted the attention of banks, who eagerly presented credit line offers. Dellinger, being astute, cleverly utilized these lines of credit to her benefit. Instead of succumbing to the pitfalls of debt, she strategically allocated the funds towards expenses that yielded immediate returns.

“I would pay down the amount as I got paid, which increased my creditworthiness with lenders while I grew my business.”

Today, CURLS has transitioned from a home-based micro business to a company that distributes its products in over 200,000 stores. CURLS collections are available at major retailers in the United States, including Target, Walmart, Sally’s Beauty Supply, Rite Aid, CVS, Duane Reed, and on the brand’s official website. Additionally, salons and boutiques cater to their local markets by offering CURLS’ professional and styling collections to their niche clientele. The brand has also had the privilege of collaborating with renowned celebrities such as Halle Berry, Alicia Keys, Nia Long, Tia Mowry, Chili from the Grammy award-winning R&B group TLC, Blair Underwood, Ashanti, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Echo Kellum.

Looking to the Future – Generational Wealth

Over the past twenty years, Dellinger has transitioned from the corporate world and a steady paycheck, relying instead on her financial acumen and the lessons she learned through firsthand experience to sustain and expand her business. Dellinger and CURLS have achieved significant levels of success, enabling them to contemplate and strategize for the future.

Presently, her primary focus lies in becoming a “generational wealth builder,” which involves investing in many assets and ventures, including real estate, that can be transferred to her children. Dellinger works with a dependable team of financial professionals and advisors to fulfill this responsibility and effectively manage her business.

“It’s important to build your support as you grow,” she says. “I didn’t start with a tax attorney. I didn’t start with a full 16 financial team. I didn’t start with a CPA; I started with the bookkeeper. As your portfolio grows, as your money grows, you add to your team to help protect your income and navigate a higher tax bracket. You need good advice and guidance to help create an estate plan to provide for your family and ensure that generational wealth is passed on.”

 Beyond Profit-taking

 Dellinger’s mission extends beyond CURLS. The CEO, who transformed an idea on a napkin into a multi-million dollar enterprise, has established the Black Girls Making Millions Academy with the objective of empowering black girls to become millionaires, one at a time.

Using her program on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network), “Mind Your Business with Mahisha Dellinger,” and her conferences on business coaching, “Black Women Making Millions,” Dellinger aids fellow women entrepreneurs in navigating the business world through mentorship and her extensive network.

“Meeting the business owner where she is. Find out where she is weak and give her the resources to grow and become strong,” Dellinger says. “It’s so important to me because I am giving back to people that are like me. People that want to change their environment, their legacy, their destiny. They just need a hand up. They need access to the information and the resources needed to be successful.”

Dellinger remains a prominent figure in the natural hair movement, encouraging women to embrace and showcase their stunning tresses. She tirelessly promotes the beauty of natural hair through her active participation in conferences, shows, and interviews.

“My goal is to leave behind a legacy for my family and children and a legacy roadmap. Only some people want to be an entrepreneur, so for my children I want to make sure I leave the legacy behind that “my mom did it against all odds.” For the brand itself and my consumers, what I want to leave behind is almost similar to that of other Black young women or girls; if I can do it, so can you. Nothing in this world will hold you back if you don’t allow it to. Reach deep into who you are and to yourself, to your strength, pull it out, and make it happen. Only you can stop yourself.”