Ngozi Opara: Businesswoman sees opportunity in natural hair movement

Ngozi Opara

In 2009, American comedian Chris Rock released a film called ‘Good Hair’ exploring the perceptions of hair and beauty among African-American women. He found that relaxers and weaves were the in thing, and manufacturers were making mountains of dollars to meet the demand for long and silky hair. 

But these days there is a natural hair movement sweeping all the way from the US to Africa. Think of Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, South African musician Lira or Kenya’s first lady Margaret Kenyatta and her Ugandan counterpart Janet Museveni. On the streets and in the media, more and more black women are flaunting the natural hair look.

Financial analyst Ngozi Opara ventured into the hair business in 2012 to cater to this “growing market”. The 27-year-old is founder of Heat Free Hair. Based in Washington DC, the company manufactures hair extensions targeted at African women with natural hair. She spoke to Dinfin Mulupi about manufacturing in China, fighting the fear of failure and doing business in a male-dominated industry. Below are edited excerpts.

Tell us about Heat Free Hair.

We manufacture high-quality wefted hair extensions, closures, wigs, and clip-in extensions. Our hair is created to blend effortlessly with the different curl patterns and textures of a woman’s natural hair. A decade ago straight hair was a hit and most women of African descent would buy Brazilian weaves. But today there is a movement for natural hair. Although it is still a small market, demand is growing for the natural look.

We were the first company to specialise in creating kinky, curly and coiled textured hair for the different types of natural hair. We manufacture at our factory in Qingdao, China, then ship to the US for packaging, after which we ship to our customers across the globe. Our leading markets in Africa are South Africa and Nigeria. Our customers here are career women who can afford to spend $300 on their hair and have a local stylist to help them fit the hair. We also run the Heat Free Hair Movement, which expands beyond our products and focuses on the education of the natural hair community through seminars, instructional videos and events for women who wear natural hair.

How did you venture into the hair business?

Prior to starting Heat Free Hair I worked as a financial analyst. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur so I opened a small hair studio in Washington DC to tend to clients after work each day. When I first started the business, I was still working in the finance sector in DC. I saved all my pay cheques from that job to use towards my business, and lived entirely off the money I made doing hair.

I had to deal with many fears when I started my company. For starters, the hair manufacturing industry is male-dominated. I was terrified of being in an industry that is male dominated but told myself I would do it to prove to myself that fear does not control me. I was motivated by fear.

What risks does your business face?

I have a tendency to expect growth and change to happen overnight. This mindset presents the risk of quality compromise, in which the product being produced isn’t as it has the potential to be. Over the years, I have taken on the mantra, “slow and steady wins the race”, and I have learned to scale my business gradually to ensure the credibility and trustworthiness of my brand.

Tell us about the biggest mistake you have made, and what you learnt from it.

One of my biggest struggles has been allowing the fear of other people’s words and opinions prevent me from following through on certain ideas and taking risks within my business. I have learnt that no matter what I do, people are always going to have an opinion. However, when I have my heart set to accomplish a goal or try something new, I should pursue it because I believe it can be done.

Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

I was in China working on new hair technology and a dinner was arranged amongst many factory owners in Qingdao to see me off before I left to go back to America. It was usually abnormal for factory owners to be eating together because they compete against each other – so when I first heard about this, I became emotional.

When I got to dinner and looked around, every factory owner in the room was at least 15 years my senior, male, and Chinese. They each stood up and spoke about how proud they were to see someone as young as myself, a woman, and Nigerian in China doing the work that they do.

This was overwhelming for me because many of them had been in business for over 20 years. So to have their respect and to have them acknowledge the work I was doing was a truly special moment. I felt like I had arrived at a point where nothing could stop me – and that’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.