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Beauty supply vending machines would help Black students care for their curly or coily hair, contest-winning entrepreneurs say

Curly hair care products on a white background photographed in purple lighting.
Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

When Ashleigh Chiwaya was a freshman at an all-girls boarding school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she realized that Black students there had a unique challenge — limited access to hair care products.

Black people’s hair, according to the American Academy of Dermatologists Association, has a unique structure and is especially fragile and prone to injury and damage. It is essential to moisturize the hair well to prevent breakage.

Chiwaya, now a second-year student studying psychology and data science at Northeastern University, told her teachers that students like her needed to make regular trips to beauty supply stores.

“So from freshman year to senior year, we always had those kinds of trips to go to hair stores,” she says. “But the closest ones were 30 minutes away. … So that was a convenience and accessibility issue.”

At her Northeastern orientation, Chiwaya met Naomi Barrant. First, they became friends, then roommates. Now, they’re launching a beauty supply vending business that will make essential products more accessible to people with curly or coily hair. 

Barrant, who worked at her sister’s salon while in high school, started her own business last year. It was while styling hair for members of the Northeastern community and clients from other area colleges that she too recognized the need.

“I realized that there was a large gap between the products and supplies that students needed and what was available to them,” says Barrant, who studies business administration with concentration in finance and communication studies. 

It is hard to find some Black hair care products, Chiwaya says.

“A vending machine would be the perfect solution to making hair products easily available for students to always have what they need, feel represented, be prepared for the next day and feel confident in how they are going to be perceived, and continue to do well in school,” Barrant says.

Husky Startup Challenge winners

To help navigate the entrepreneurial process, Chiwaya and Barrant joined the Husky Startup Challenge, Northeastern’s official venture incubator and startup pitch competition.

Participants in the challenge go through a series of bootcamps, where they learn about various aspects of creating a venture from ideation to prototyping. The program culminates each semester with a Demo Day, an event open to the public where students present their business ideas in two-minute pitches.

Chiwaya and Barrant called their venture Nuly Root’d. At the most recent Demo Day, they were recognized as the most active student founders and received the Greatest of All Time Award, which included a cash prize of $500.

“In doing the Husky Startup Challenge, we were able to get a lot of one-on-one training with the mentors there,” Barrant says. 

They developed their business model, she says, learned how to create realistic expectations, determined their timeline and got the hang of crafting a pitch. 

During the spring semester, Barrant and Chiwaya plan to work with IDEA, a student-led venture accelerator to finish prototyping their vending machines. If all goes well, they hope to have the first one in the Curry Student Center on Northeastern’s Boston campus by fall 2024.

Conducted more than 200 interviews

Barrant and Chiwaya conducted more than 200 interviews with Northeastern students to understand their clients’ needs. They found that almost a half didn’t know good stores in Boston to obtain the products they needed, and 60% came across the products they were looking for only “sometimes.” 

“I think we have a really good grasp on those kinds of products, from hair ties, leave-in conditioners and hair oils to combs and nighttime protection,” Chiwaya says. “Those are all basic kinds of things that students use.”

The Nuly Root’d vending machines will have certain generic products that are considered staples, she says, as well as more niche brands.

“We want to carry products that are highly moisturizing, good for longevity, that make sure that your hair doesn’t break when you’re changing styles,” Barrant says. “Some of them are targeted to Black hair, but a lot of them are just targeted to curly, coily and wavy hair in general.”

The vending machines will also be perfect for men, Barrant says, many of whom are just starting their “hair journey” while in college.

The experience of buying products in person

People who don’t have curly hair, Chiwaya says, often ask them why students don’t just order hair products on Amazon. 

“The problem with Amazon is that they will just upcharge for extremely smaller amounts of product,” Chiwaya says.

The friends and business partners did market research, learning that items in bulk would cost them $1-$15 and they can make a profit margin of as much as 40%.

With Nuly Root’d, Chiwaya and Barrant decided to forgo e-commerce. Vending machines, they say, will save students time traveling to the nearest beauty supply store, while still providing the experience of purchasing products in person — an important cultural aspect within the Black community, Chiwaya says.

“There’s a lot of culture behind that,” she says. “So we think a vending machine will specifically resonate with a lot of our people and hopefully everybody else that needs something on the go, as well.”