Business & Tech

#234 Entrepreneur Stories: OBIA Naturals

Almost every problem harbors opportunity. Sometimes, you need a little help to see it

Almost every problem harbors opportunity. Sometimes, you need a little help to see it”. These are the famous words of Norm Brodsky, a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded 7 successful businesses including a three-time Inc. 500 company.

Anyone can identify the nature of a problem or obstacle, but successful entrepreneurs have an insatiable desire to explore avenues for a solution.Obia Ewah is one of such successful entrepreneurs and her journey into the Natural Hair universe is one of circumstance, proactivity and acquired skills.

It began in 2010 when Obia suffered from an illness that led her to cut off all her hair aka “the big-chop”. She became more mindful of the hair products she used and even more so of the type of foods she consumed. Her healthier lifestyle and the knowledge that came with it led her to create her own hair care products, and through favorable feedback from friends and family, she eventually launched OBIA Natural Hair Care line in 2012, as a full-time business enterprise.

Today, Obia is one of the most recognizable faces in the Natural Hair Care industry within the US, West Africa and a handful of countries across the globe. She has the rare distinction of being an industry advocate who is a trained chemist who also holds a Masters degree in Public Health and is also a member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. She is truly an entrepreneur bent on being an agent of change as she continues to advocate for increased education on how to achieve and maintain healthy hair. Her entrepreneurial ascent of over the past 4 years is an early indication of a bigger future for this amazing Nigerian woman.

Tell us About Your Background

My name is Obia, I am Nigerian and I was born there, don’t mind my accent. I actually came to the US when I was 5.

Thanks.  What part of Nigeria are you from?

I am a minority from Cross River State. I am not from the Calabar area but from a town called Ugep and I am of the Yakurr ethnic group.

What makes you tick?  What fuels your passion?

The way all of these things started with my business is that I went to school for Biology and Chemistry because I wanted to be a Doctor. From there, I did my Master’s degree in Public Health and went to medical school and got sick. I started this business in response to a need to provide natural hair care products to help me and help other people.  3 plus years later, we have 100 locations in 20 countries.

Honestly, it is only God because this business is not what I had as an aspiration for my life at all. I don’t want to go too deep but honestly, it is only God. I always thought I had one path for my life and then when I had to switch paths, everything starting happening rapidly. I literally let go and let God. I am still using everything I went to school for but just in a different way than I imagined I will. I am still using my Public Health degree because I write all my product labels, I am utilizing my knowledge of Chemistry by teaching girls the science of their natural hair and how to care for their hair from a scientific perspective.

Can you please tell us about the countries you currently have a presence in and how you got into those regions?

I am building a sales team to generate more business but all our sales so far have been through email requests. We have not reached out to people yet, something that I amobiatweet really proud of. People are finding out about us via social media, and word of mouth, talking and saying “I need these products!“. We are in a lot of Caribbean countries like Barbados, Trinidad, Martinique, Anguilla, Virgin Islands and we are also in a few African countries, Ivory Coast, Kenya, we have 3-4 locations in Nigeria and 4 locations in South Africa. In Europe, we are in Germany, France and soon we would be in UK amongst other places.

4 years ago, would you have thought about the business you have today?

No. 4 years ago, I was just trying to figure out how to make the bird’s nest on my head manageable after I just chopped all of my hair off! I didn’t want to wear weave-on or wear wigs or attachment. The whole reason why I went natural was to have my own hair but I didn’t want my hair looking all crazy. I literally just started making things for myself and never thought that changing my hair to where it is today will turn to a business.

So when you look back 4 years and today, it is  .   .   .

It is night and day (smiles). I thought I was working hard when I was in medical school but entrepreneurship (pauses) is so many more hours and it is so much harder than anything I have ever done in my life. I have never worked this hard. When you have a job it is 9-5, you clock in and you clock out. When you are an entrepreneur and own your own business, it is 24/7 365 days a year and no one will tell you that. Some customers have called me from a different time zone because they need to make a large order or ask me a question and guess what, I have to take those calls because I am international and more importantly, that is business. At that point in time, sleep is secondary. Another aspect of living as an entrepreneur that people don’t talk about is the lack of time to do anything for yourself especially if you are building a company from the ground up. As we are doing this interview, I have a team working on building our warehouse. As an entrepreneur, there is no manual. You have to create the employee manual by yourself, the company policy details by yourself, you are creating the mission statement, the culture. You have to lay a strong foundation that will result in the success of your company.

Can you please give us some sales numbers and what you are projecting this year?

I think I would take the Donald Trump approach. We are privately held company and all sales and all things are not public (huge laugh). If I ever decide to run for public office and I have to disclose my financial assets then we will revisit your question at that time.

At the moment, why do you think the Natural Hair movement is so big especially in a number of African countries?

Education. A few years ago, there was an eye-opening study done by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that showed the link between the use of relaxers and fibroid development in black women. The study followed a number of black women over twenty years and revealed that the women who started using relaxers earlier in life and more frequently had a higher incidence of fibroids. Looking back at different generations, our grandparents wore their hair naturally and doing that wasn’t a big deal. With the introduction of chemicals in hair products in the 1970s, our mothers started using these products and later ‘80s and ‘90s babies didn’t know what their natural hair looked like to even have the opportunity to have their ‘real’ hair back. A lot of black women today are having health issues because of the environment and some of those are as a result of using hair relaxers. The NEJM study served as an awakening for a lot of black women because it made them realize that natural hair is the better option because it is versatile. I can straighten my hair and make it look like it is relaxed without the use of chemicals. Unfortunately, a lot of black women did not have this awareness before.

What are you or fellow Natural Hair advocates doing to make Nigerian women aware of the potential health risks that come with using relaxers?

The next step is providing additional awareness and doing more research to determine if there are other adverse effects of using relaxers. Everything I went to school for I am still using it because that is a public health problem.  There are findings now that some of the personal care products cause cancer. There are reports of baby wash products that are reformulated in other parts (of the world) that release formaldehyde that causes leukemia in children.  It makes you wonder why there are so many 2 year olds with cancer with no family history of the disease. A lot of consumers are unaware of this fact but cosmetics is an industry that is rarely regulated. You would hear of car recalls, food recalls but you will never hear of your hair care products being recalled.

First thing is Natural Hair is not a fad. It is here to stay. Number two is that Natural Hair is all about education.
Who are some folks in Nigeria doing amazing things in your industry?

Kinky Apothecary (Nibi Lawson) is doing great things. She just launched Nigeria’s first ever expo dedicated to healthy hair care, beauty and lifestyle, the Nigerian Natural Hair & Beauty Show, this past May and she has had a visible presence since 2010. There is a lady called Natural Nigerian, there is IgboCurls, there are a lot of bloggers now spreading the word about natural hair care. In fact, there is a new company called Hairconomics that has introduced a greater number of Nigerian consumers to natural hair care products.

Are there any journals or publications in Nigeria focused on natural hair care products?

Not yet but that is something I imagine would happen soon. Even having articles in Bella Naija will make a difference and raise awareness about natural hair care. The first thing was convincing women that going natural is a good thing. The next step is educating them. My trip to Nigeria in May 2015 was about educating people because a lot of people after realizing natural hair is a good thing don’t have a clue on what to do with their hair. In the US, women do braid-out and twist-outs but in Nigeria, these are foreign terms. I had to conduct workshops during my trip to Nigeria and teach women how to do their hair and how to take ownership of their hair. So, that is where we are right now. We are still in the education phase.

What are some reasons why women will not make a transition to natural hair even though you have shared some pretty obvious advantages?

You, their men (laughs). Honestly, I was on the radio and there were men calling in saying “Please convince my wife to stop this craze”. The same way a man will buy a big car to impress a woman is the same way a woman will decide to put on make-up and look nice to impress a man. Some women feel like they are so used to men looking at them a certain way with long flowing hair and are worried about chopping their hair down to go natural.  A woman’s hair can get really short for a while before it grows out during the transition period. During the transition period, a lot of women might feel that they are not beautiful anymore to their men especially if their men are not supportive. For example, I was dating a guy when I went natural and he told me he would pay me to put a weave on. He looked at me as a different person, it was as if I put on a mask once I took my hair down. I believe that if the men support the women more, the women would feel more comfortable going natural and would still feel beautiful and attractive. I can still be beautiful with short hair because eventually it will grow.

Our hair (black women) doesn’t grow down, it grows up (laughs). I can really have long hair and you will never see it because it is a bigger afro compared to some other hair textures that grow curly hair down. So it is a different way of thinking and a lot of it too is self-esteem. So, again it is the man’s job to let the woman know that she is still beautiful and unchanged when she goes natural just like the man doesn’t all of a sudden become someone else because he shaved his beard off.

So, two things came out of what you just said,    1. Black women’s hair grow up and not down and    2. Obia is launching an anti-man company (laughs)

No (laughs), I just want men to be more supportive. You guys should stop paying for the Brazilian hair and let women know that you love them the way they are. African men need to be more supportive of their women and let them know that going natural is their decision and they will still love them and cherish them.

What are some takeaways you want both men and women to know about what you do?

First thing is natural hair is not a fad. It is here to stay. Number two is that natural hair is all about education. Women need to learn more about their hair; a lot of women don’t know what their real hair looks or feels like or even know how to maintain it. Number three is that it is important to be yourself. A woman should not feel pressured to chemically change her hair because she wants to conform to what people around her are saying.