“We created our own.”
How Ciara Imani May is reimagining Black hair and the beauty industry
Welcome to Free Radicals — a collaboration between Every, Sherrell Dorsey, founder of The Plug, and writer and editor Annaliese Griffin. Each edition features a conversation between Sherrell and someone who embodies leadership, focusing on equity, expansive thinking, and progress.
In 2019, Black consumers spent an estimated $1.75 billion on hair care products. Less than half of those products were created specifically for Black people, and even fewer were made by Black-led companies.
Ciara Imani May, the founder and CEO of Rebundle, is changing that by bringing plant-based, biodegradable hair extensions to a market in need of innovative thinking. May joins a growing wave of Black entrepreneurs who are giving the beauty market a makeover to better meet the needs of Black women. According to the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, out of more than 35,000 beauty supply stores in the U.S. only about 2,500 are Black-owned—though that number is on the rise.
For May, economic equity could not be separated from sustainable practices. While researching the supply chain for Rebundle, May looked at import records and calculated that about 30 million pounds of synthetic hair are imported to the U.S. each year, and the only place it could all end up is in a landfill. The extensions that she developed with the help of Jessica Sanders, Rebundle’s resident scientist, can be composted, and the company offers recycling for the synthetic extensions their customers are replacing.
There’s also a very real question about the health and safety of synthetic extensions, which are notorious among wearers for being incredibly irritating to the scalp. They are often made from PVC plastics, which can contain phthalates, chemicals that have been linked to a variety of negative health effects, and that consumer advocates have called for banning from household products. May sees plant-based braiding hair as an issue of environmental justice as much as a higher quality, more comfortable alternative in an outdated market.
In October, May got into a program at Arch Grants, a St. Louis-based start-up fund that provided her with $50,000 in equity-free funding. Though part of her team is still in Charlotte, May relocated back to Missouri to set up the manufacturing for Rebundle in her home state.
Sherrell Dorsey spoke with May about Rebundle’s supply chain, how knowing to ask for help makes her a better leader, and why 2020 was the right year to quit her job and start something new.
It was very bold to build a company in the middle of a pandemic. There's a sense of fearlessness here. Tell me about your vision for both yourself and your company.
I think the pandemic was the best time for me to build a company because there's nothing else to do. I didn't have any money and there was nowhere to go. Everyone had ample time to work on new projects and to provide support. So it was the best time to bet on myself.
The vision that I had for the company then and now is to create change in the hair extensions industry so that all the products are safer to use and better for the environment. Our company is in a unique position, because we sit at the intersection of beauty and sustainability, to address two very different issues that are affecting Black women specifically.
We don't want our children to experience scalp irritation, we don't want them to know that that was even a thing. For a product that's been around so long, it's pretty ridiculous that these problems still persist.
I envision that the waste is addressed in a very industry-oriented way. We've created two avenues for synthetic hair to be more sustainable, with a biodegradable alternative and then a recycling program. We're one company out of many that also need to take responsibility for what's happening. Just calling it out, that we all participate in this, we are all producing and manufacturing and distributing and wearing and discarding it, in the same way. We all need to take part in making sure that it doesn't continue to contribute to the climate crisis.
How are you connected to or even just taking up space within the sustainability industry? Because that in and of itself is really dominated by a certain kind of voice. And I know good and well that Black woman's hair extensions are not central to the conversation. So maybe talk to me about how you're integrating with that community or whether the big thinkers in sustainability are even privy to what you're building here?
That's a good question. I see Rebundle as creating space where clean beauty has not been considered. And you're right, the people who are holding these conversations and thinking through solutions to waste are not women like myself, or you, who are showing up to meetings with their hair braided and can even raise the issue.
The perspective that I bring, and the conversation that I was trying to start when I started the company is, You all may not know this is happening, but it absolutely is happening and it is affecting Black and brown communities disproportionately. Braids are worn all over the world, and if we're not thinking about solutions for products that are worn daily by specific communities, there's no opportunity to address them. We can address pads and tampons because half the population wears them. But if no one is speaking up for products that are for very specific—large, but specific groups—they won't get addressed.
Something that's unique about Rebundle is that people of all types of backgrounds and ethnicities engage with us whether they wear the product or not. They're sharing it with their community, because they are gravitating toward what we're trying to achieve. You don't have to wear braids to know that they're made out of plastic, and they're bad for you or the person wearing them, and the environment. Once you know about it, now you can tell someone else.
Talk to me about how you have approached the supply chain—that has been a major challenge across many industries during the pandemic. I’m also thinking about who controls the supply chain for beauty product brands, which traditionally haven't been led, built by, or owned by women or people of color.
At first, I was trying to figure out how you make synthetic hair more recyclable and easier to manage, but the supply chain was just too fragmented to do that. What I'll say is I tried. I tried to penetrate the plastic supply chain, and had multiple conversations, had samples. But ultimately, these companies couldn't prove to me that their products were non-toxic and ethically manufactured. They could not prove it. No matter how many ways I asked the question, I didn't have any confidence in the synthetic hair supply chain.
So we created our own.
There's tremendous value in identifying your own supply chain for a product that predominantly has one supply chain from one part of the world, which in this case is Asia. It's a strict import business distributed through stores that are not owned by us. Black people own very few of the beauty supply stores in the country. It's not really something that I wanted to participate in. So I had to find a better way to get what we needed.
We had to develop our own way to handle the materials, post-consumer use. And then we had to create our own supply chain to get the fiber that we needed, and the materials we needed to produce. It's absolutely not easy because it's so new, it's 10 times harder. But I would rather go that route than to sell you something that will continue to contribute to the problem.
Rebundle is an innovative approach to a product that could seem trivial to the rest of the world, but it has big implications for Black women. Being able to wear braids, to have that experience be more comfortable, to relax and not have to do your hair every day, especially now that braids are becoming much more accepted in the workplace is huge. What has the response been like?
Let's touch on peace of mind first. The theme of our photo shoot for the launch was Black women resting. We know that's what we deserve. We wear our hair in braids and this is something that is so intimate to our culture, it should not be an uncomfortable experience. And that's what we sold—peace of mind.
When we launched it was shared so widely and celebrated. Whether people were subconsciously thinking about the fact that their scalps are on fire, or had had terrible experiences with other products, or no longer wear braids because of the discomfort, or had not considered that a better alternative was available—it was almost a first time to ask, Why wouldn't I want better? Why wouldn't I want to see what else is out there? What else might work for me, and my braids?
Rebundle is a premium product. How are you thinking about that from a brand perspective and leadership perspective, shifting all of us to that idea of sustainability and social impact, and also to the idea that we deserve premium, high-quality products for our hair in the first place. How is that tied into the brand that you're building?
It’s infused in all of our copy on the site, and the way we communicate with customers. This is not cheap. I don't mean the price isn't cheap—our company isn't cheap. We're not trying to sell what you're used to, we’re providing you something that's totally different. You will be able to use it in the same way. But we're not apples to apples with plastic synthetic hair, and for good reasons.
So when you reframe your expectations from what you're used to receiving from a hair extensions brand, it becomes easier, and you're accepting of this alternative because you realize you haven't had this experience before. We don't just provide a product. We've given you some education, we've given you an experience with the way we talk to our customers. Our community may not have had that before, and so there's value there too.
What about your sales strategy? Will direct-to-consumer continue to be your main distribution, or are you looking to distribute in stores or through Amazon?
There are ample opportunities to diversify our distribution. There have been several inquiries into where else we will be able to sell it. I'm not just looking at traditional beauty supply stores. What does it look like for us to be at Walmart? What does it look like to get it on Amazon? What does it look like to show up at Target? Those are opportunities that are there.
What I want to focus on right now is developing the brand and the product as much as we can before we put it someplace else.
Something unique that we're building is a directory of Rebundle braiders, so that once you purchase, you know who uses the product, believes in the brand, and you can make an appointment with them. giving those braiders an opportunity to buy at wholesale, and sell it, and use it on all their clients. What I'm focused on is, how do we bring braiders into the fold?
Tell me about your vision for yourself, your life trajectory from a career standpoint. You did Venture for America, so your interest in startups is clear. Talk to me about that journey.
I studied entrepreneurship at Mizzou, where I got my bachelor's in business management and got a minor in entrepreneurship. I already knew by sophomore year that I did not want to work at any of the companies that came to the career fair. So I stopped going. I knew that I wanted a different experience.
I interned at a few different places, and I was working in places that I knew I didn't want to be long-term. So I decided to go get a master's in social entrepreneurship to support my interest in business, but also in social enterprises. I was really excited to find the program in social entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California and be accepted. I was excited also to be able to go out of school out of state, because I’d wanted to go to North Carolina A&T for undergrad.
What prevented that?
Money! I think they gave me like $2500 for the year so I stayed in Missouri.
People have ideas all the time, but they don’t always take the difficult plunge to start a company. What was the moment you realized you wanted to go full throttle with launching this company and building a brand?
Oddly enough, today is my quit anniversary—I saved it in my calendar. I quit Fifth Asset today, last year, and decided to work on Rebundle full time. The business has changed, but I knew what I was trying to do, I knew what I wanted to achieve. And I couldn't do that working weekends and after seven, eight o'clock on weekdays, if I had the energy. So I just had to go, I wasn't happy. I felt like I was losing progress.
I was just free falling from March, for a long time, for months. I was applying for grants, trying to build a team, trying to understand the product that I envisioned, that I wanted to build. And it took quite some time for me to get the story right and get the message right: this is what I'm trying to build, and this is how I'm going to do it.
By May, I knew that I wanted to source a plant-based fiber. Now I had to find what type of fibers worked, where I could find these fibers, what the process was going to be like of turning those fibers into actual hair products.
My background is in business, I knew how I could build a great business, but I didn't have the technical application to make it a reality—I had to find people who could help me do that. So by summer, I'd gone through a couple of programs. I was a part of Ventureprise and part of Blackstone TechStars Launchpad, I did Future Founders, and then the Venture for America Accelerator started in August. They provided a stipend for us to live. So I didn’t have to work a part-time job, I could just focus on the company. I got a lot done from August to November so that we could launch this past January.
We decided on the fiber, we did some testing, we did a bunch of customer discovery, tested it on ourselves. We planned a photo shoot in Malibu, hired a team, got all the assets back, then planned the actual launch of the website, which I ended up building myself, and I hate building websites.
Doing all these things in a fairly short amount of time, we had to hire an agency to help with some of our brand work. I knew that I wanted to come into the new year ready, I didn't want to wait any longer for us to play around with little things that could be figured out later.
It's a brand new product in an antiquated market, and we didn't know how people would respond. So instead of waiting until you all asked for it, we were like Here, what do you think?
You sold out of product already! Can you speak to what that feels like?
It was very scary when we launched. I was terrified. Every day I’d wake up, and there were new notifications. I was like, Oh, my God, like, people have not stopped sharing it. I was not feeling good at all—I didn't know how to accept that validation. I just felt fear. And so when we sold out I was actually relieved, like Alright, so now we just have to fulfill.
Talk me through that wave of emotions.
A few months ago, I'd mentioned to my therapist that I didn't know what it would feel like to be paid for something I created. I had been surviving on scraps for almost a year, and I couldn’t imagine what it would look like to receive value for what I had made.
When the orders started coming in, I was like, Man, people want this and all the scrappiness has proven to be useful and important, because I've been able to get to this moment. I knew we had something awesome. But it was also, Wow, people will pay us to make better braiding hair for them.
It's one thing to take your idea and start building it, and to put forth the effort and to be the scrappy startup. Now you have validation—and you also have to run a full-fledged company. Walk me through what your leadership journey has been like.
Lots of transition. I hadn't been in therapy before I quit my job. My last day was Friday, the 28th of February. I was in therapy by March 6th. I didn't waste any time, because I knew that I was getting ready to do something really scary, and I wouldn't be able to handle all of the emotions by myself.
Every few months, there's a shift in what my responsibilities include. For most of 2020 I was fundraising, building a team, setting the vision for where we'd be today. And then it became a need to execute on the vision: We need to test the product, we need to put it on some people, we need to take some pictures. And then it shifted to, we need to tell people, we need to get some press. We need to build this beautiful website. We need to be ready to accept sales.
I had to learn how to use Shopify and all the other little widgets and software to be able to have customer service. Then it shifted to, now we're in the market and I need to know how to do customer service and response to questions. If there's something that goes wrong with the site, how do I manage that.
Now that we've sold out, now we need to get ready to produce, we’re getting ready to move to a warehouse, I need to hire people, I need to increase our capacity. But also, I'm gonna have to fundraise again soon. So what does that look like? What will my role look like when I'm not doing the day-to-day of the operations and running the HQ of the business? So every few months, it shifts again, and we're in the middle of a shift now.
How do you think through those shifts?
I see them as new challenges, every time there's a learning curve for whatever it is I have to do. Whether that’s building a website or hiring people—what type of people do I want working with us? I need to choose what type of funding I want to take—what is my funding journey going to be to build the company?
I think about it as challenges that I know I'm capable of tackling. I have people and resources to support me, I almost never have to make a decision by myself. I am very resourceful and know where to turn to support the challenges that I'm experiencing. It's just new stuff. And I just go for it.
How did you learn how to ask for help? You mentioned that you never have to make a decision in isolation, that you have support teams. How do you leverage that in your leadership?
I'm always keeping in contact with people; I don't always hit them up, like, I need something. But if somebody hits me up I answer the phone. I know that people are doing great things, and I will call and talk about their journey and what I'm doing. Then if they think of something or they come across something that I've said that I need, they're willing to help. I'm always maintaining relationships.
I have several communities from school. Venture America has been the center of all of this work that I've been able to do, and then just branching off from there. I met Jackie Ros, the managing director of Venture for ClimateTech, who I talk to all the time. She's introduced me to new people. Tapping into my work experiences—the warehouse that we're renting came through a co-worker I had at the Federal Reserve when I was 18.
I think that knowing when to ask for help is a characteristic I have possessed for a really long time. I put myself through undergrad on scholarships, so I was asking for help every semester to pay for school. I'm just not afraid to get what I need from other people. I don't mind asking them to share their resources and their knowledge with me, so that I can return that to someone else one day.