The kinky and the curly are obvious. But the “yaki?”
You might not understand why Vivian Kaye’s million-dollar, Hamilton-based hair extension business carries the tongue-in-cheek name, KinkyCurlyYaki.
Certainly, she says, banks and business advisers have not.
But the women who buy Kaye’s products online — 80 per cent of them in the U.S. — they get it.
“If you’re a black woman who’s ever worn hair extensions you know what yaki is,” said Kaye, 42.
The term originates from the yak hair that was used in the past to make hair extensions and weaves. The silky texture of “yaki” hair resembles a Black woman’s hair that had been chemically straightened — a style that used to be the standard professional look for Black women.
Kaye’s company is an offshoot of her own search for naturally textured hair — all KinkyCurlyYaki products are made from human hair sourced in India and manufactured in China.
She has been overlooked by banks, business accelerators and other agencies that failed to understand her products and her market. But that has also cost them the opportunity to participate in KinkyCurlyYaki’s success.
Now she wants to share what she has learned by coaching other women, who don’t necessarily have the vocabulary, confidence and experience to parlay their ideas into a thriving enterprise.
“Any time I talk to anyone who is in a position to give money, they always ask, ‘How did you build a $1 million business and no one’s given you money to do it or to grow it,’ ” she said.
The answer is obvious: “I’m not serving an interest that would be of interest to you. The demographic I serve looks like me.” said Kaye.
“It’s almost as if no one wanted to help me just get a piece of my own self,” she said.
Black hair care is a $6 billion industry dominated by Asian manufacturers and suppliers. But they weren’t supplying the kind of textured hair that Kaye wanted.
“I wanted to look ‘presentable’ but I wanted something that would look authentic on me. What I found was that when they did have kinkier textured hair it was buried underneath the silkier textures,” she said.
“They were always selling silky hair because that was seen as beautiful whereas nappy hair or kinky hair was seen as ugly,” she said.
During a recent video chat, with her six-year-old son Xavier in the background watching TV in their Hamilton living room, Kaye appears more suburban soccer mom than the polished entrepreneur pictured on the KinkyCurlyYaki website. Her long gold painted nails are the only visible link to the beauty business.
She spent her early adult life working in Toronto but since Xavier she’s replanted herself in the Hammer close to her immigrant family who came to Canada from Ghana when Kaye was a baby.
Her dad was a mechanic. Her mother stayed home to raise four girls. After attending French immersion at Cathedral High School in Hamilton, Kaye headed to York University to study anthropology but she dropped out following a bout of depression.
Her French helped her land a series of call centre jobs and she loved the customer service aspect of the work. Eventually she made her way to a tech start-up where she was a one-woman marketing department.
When that ended, she took a job with an office services franchise company. She ran a wedding decorator business on the side.
She remembers wanting a bigger car for her business. When she slipped out to a dealership on her lunch hour, the salesman said her vehicle was worthless on a trade.
Her manager noticed she was down and he offered to go back with her.
“We went there the next day — me and my big, white, tall male boss — and literally all they could talk about was golf. And the guy was, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll give her this for the trade-in….’ And the next thing you know I had a truck,” she said.
Even as a wedding decorator, she recognized the shocked expressions when meeting clients she had previously only spoken with on the phone.
“Racism is alive and well, the quiet racism we have here in Canada,” says Kaye.
She left her full-time office job in 2010 when her wedding decor business was doing well and she wasn’t worried about making rent on her Mississauga apartment.
Two years later at a networking event, a Black woman pulled her aside and asked about her hairdresser. Kaye had sourced her hair, going through a manufacturer to get the precise textured products she wanted. But she wasn’t thinking about selling the look.
“That woman asking me if I would tell her who my hairdresser was paid the highest compliment. She, as a Black woman didn’t know I was wearing a weave. She thought it was my own hair,” said Kaye.
That is when the light bulb went on.
When the summer wedding season died down in December 2012, the idea resurfaced. Kaye remembers thinking, “Let’s just launch the thing. Let’s just sell some hair online.”
The business took off. In 2013, KinkyCurlyYaki had done just under $500,000 (U.S.) in sales.
“This is someone who was an immigrant, a college drop out, who had no idea how to run an e-commerce business,” she says.
In 2016, after becoming pregnant, Kaye moved back to Hamilton, bought a house and ran the business from her basement. She was so busy raising her son, it took her about three months to notice that sales had passed the $1 million mark.
KinkyCurlyYaki now operates out of a 1,000 sq. ft. warehouse space in Hamilton.
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“When I look back I’m really disappointed because I didn’t have access to any other resources. I wish I was more educated about taking on debt,” she says.
She had her immigrant parents’ aversion to debt and operated on cash.
“It worked for me but I think it was detrimental to the growth of my business,” she says.
Encouragement and education were scarce.
The bank that monitored the movement of U.S. funds into her account — part of the payment system Kaye was using at the time — would call to ask where all that U.S. money was coming from but never offered to help her expand.
Two years ago, she attended a pitch competition in Montreal — an event where entrepreneurs showcase their ideas to attract funders. Kaye wasn’t pitching but she noticed who was.
“White guys … were getting money for ant farms that didn’t exist. Here I had a viable product that was actually making money and I couldn’t get money for it,” she says.
She was encouraged to apply to the Canadian Technology Accelerator in New York. When she did, she says she was told, “We love you but we don’t know how to help you. We don’t understand the demographic, we don’t understand the product that you’re doing, we don’t have any connections in that industry.”
But, she adds, “I’m pretty sure if I had an ant farm they would figure out who could help me.”
“A lot of businesses like mine fall through the cracks because we don’t have the connections or the network that a lot of other people do.”
Now with COVID-19 interrupting KinkyCurlyYaki’s supply chain, Kaye has turned her attention to business coaching and mentorship through a company called Founders Fund.
It’s an offshoot of another social enterprise called, Tease Tea. Its CEO Sheena Brady and Kaye are peer mentors who connect about every three weeks to discuss their challenges and celebrate their victories.
Started last year, Founders Fund is a national membership-based, online growth accelerator, providing mentoring, leadership and grants to women entrepreneurs, who are vulnerable of slipping through the cracks.
Among its approximately 500 members, 34 per cent identify as women of colour and 31 per cent identify as immigrants. Of the $225 annual membership fee, 50 per cent goes directly into funding grants for women’s enterprise, said Brady.
In its inaugural year, Founders Fund gave about $40,000 to five companies, she said.
“(Kaye) just got what we were doing from Day 1, where a lot of people didn’t get it. We need to have successful people who have made it on the other side,” said Brady. “She’s an incredible storyteller. She’s really good at keeping people engaged and inspired.”
Kaye is passionate about the program “because there was nothing like that available to me. Because I’m part of it, other women of colour joined,” she said.
Black women don’t go where they don’t see themselves, said Kaye.
When white women tell her don’t understand that, she asks them to think about their own discomfort when they are in a room full of men.
“If you don’t feel welcome or appreciated in that space, how do you think we feel going into all white people spaces?
“If we are welcome the next thing we know the photographer’s there taking pictures specifically of you because they want to show how diverse the event is,” she said. “Sometimes I’m willing to be that token because then I’m getting my foot in the door.”
Kaye wants to help build the confidence of “women who don’t fit into that girl boss criteria, that skinny white woman drinking lattes with her white friend and Gucci purse.
“I’m the exact opposite of that. I’m a plus-sized, Black single mother who shops at Dollarama and understands the struggle.”