With under $200 worth of ingredients, these two Black women have built a haircare product sold in 50 countries

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 2, 2024 8:50 AM EDT
Joycelyn Mate and Rachel Corson. Photo credit: Brown Beauty Talk

There is a widely held consensus that US and European fashion products and marketing can be forgetful of Black women. For instance, at times, Black women’s natural hair can come across as unmanageable. Many over-the-counter products targeted toward Black hair are made with toxic chemicals, with some containing known carcinogens. When Rachael Corson and Joycelyn Mate met in college, they realized that they both felt let down by the haircare options available to them. With £100, or about $160 at the times, they purchased ingredients that would become the haircare product now sold in more than 50 countries.

Afrocenchix, the haircare company they set up, is now off the ground and flying.

The daughter of first-generation immigrants, Corson’s parents moved from Ghana to London a month before she was born. She had a dysfunctional home life and she recollects a lot of violence and chaos in her childhood. Corson often went hungry, wore her older brothers’ hand-me-downs, and was nicknamed “reptile” at school due to her eczema. Her mother also used chemical straighteners on her hair from a young age which caused bald patches. She suffered burns on her neck from the harsh treatments and one time had to go to school with a bloodied shirt.

“My mum started chemically straightening my hair when I was three or four, so it was all I knew. In the nineties and noughties, it was quite normal for Black British people to use really dangerous chemical straighteners on our hair. The main ingredient, sodium hydroxide, is the same active ingredient you get in drain unblocker or oven cleaner — it’s really dangerous,” Corson reminisced.

At the University of Birmingham, Corson met Mate who also had afro hair and suffered from alopecia. They both had hair loss from chemical products and weren’t very confident about their hair because they didn’t know how to look after it.  The two talked about how it wasn’t normal for their scalps to have scabs, burns, and scars and the lack of hair products suitable for eczema and afro hair. Fed up with the harsh and often ineffective products sold to treat afro hair, Carson and Mate decided to make their own.

The duo hit their university library to find a solution. After studying cosmetic science journals, they started to blend their own products. Corson and Mate began experimenting with oils pipettes and petri dishes in the kitchens of their college halls (of residence). They carefully blended different essential oils to get the balance right, tested it on themselves and it worked.

In 2011, Corson and Mate launched Afrocenchix and became the first Black-owned hair company to be sold in Whole Foods UK. The company now offers a range of products using natural ingredients that are sulphate and silicone-free and targeted at afro and curly hair. From their humble Birmingham beginnings, Afrocenchix has gone worldwide with its products currently sold in 54 countries. The brand is available online and major retailers such as Superdrug and Independent Health Stores.

“Starting a business is hard. Starting a business as two young Black women in the face of oppression, inequality and anti-blackness is painful. We faced years of rejection from buyers claiming that Black women’s needs are ‘niche’. We’ve had investors and mentors tell us that Black customers can’t spend at our price points, so we should pick a different customer,” Corson narrated the challenges they encountered while building Afrocenchix.

Despite the success of Afrocenchix products, convincing venture capitalists has been an uphill task. Corson and Mate report being met with assumptions that they are not intelligent. They also report being told they have the wrong background, and at times, their pitches have been met with total ignorance. Nonetheless, Afrocenchix secured $1.2 million in seed funding from Google, becoming only the ninth UK business run by a Black woman in the last decade to achieve the that level of support.