Black Women Find Success in the Lucrative Business of Black Hair Care

by Vivian Hee for the New York Times Not much seems unusual about Judian and Kadeian Brown’s store...

by Vivian Hee for the New York Times

Not much seems unusual about Judian and Kadeian Brown’s storefront in a tidy plaza off Church Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where every block seems to have its own African hair-braiding salon.

Posters of African-American women with long, sleek hair fill the window. Round jars of shea butter belly up to slender boxes of hair dye on the shelves. Wigs perch on mannequin heads.
What makes Black Girls Divine Beauty Supply and Salon’s visitors do a double-take is the skin color of the proprietors. “I go, ‘Look at all the faces on the boxes,'  ” said Judian Brown, recalling other shopkeepers’ and customers’ surprise when they realize she is not an employee, but the owner. “Who should be owning these stores?”



The Brown sisters’ is one small shop in a multibillion-dollar industry, centered on something that is both a point of pride and a political flash point for black women: their hair. But the Browns are among only a few hundred black owners of the roughly 10,000 stores that sell hair products like relaxers, curl creams, wigs and hair weaves to black women, not just in New York but across the country. The vast majority have Korean-American owners, a phenomenon dating back to the 1970s that has stoked tensions between black consumers and Korean businesspeople over what some black people see as one ethnic group profiting from, yet shutting out, another.Photo

The Hair Shop is one of many beauty stores on Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn.CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times

A growing awareness of this imbalance has spurred more black people to hang out their own shingles. The people producing the products have changed, too: As “going natural” — abandoning artificially smoothed hair in favor of naturally textured curls and braids — has become more popular and the Internet has expanded, black entrepreneurs, most of them women, are claiming a bigger share of the shelves in women’s medicine cabinets.

“We’re aware of where our dollars are going, we’re aware of the power of our dollars, we’re aware of the cultural significance of the way that we choose to wear our hair,” said Patrice Grell Yursik, the founder of Afrobella, a popular natural-hair blog. “There’s been a lot of taking back the power, and a lot of that is from the Internet.”

Dozens of bloggers flock to industry shows to test new products, review them for their readers and spread the word on social media. Hundreds of thousands of women watch natural hairstyle tutorials on YouTube. Rochelle Graham-Campbell’s line, Alikay Naturals, which she has marketed through her YouTube videos, is among the most successful of the homegrown brands, including Curls and Oyin Handmade, that have gained traction online and earned a spot on retail shelves.

Still, nothing beats brick-and-mortar stores for convenience, and the chance to touch and sniff the creams, which has prompted groups like the Beauty Supply Institute, in Atlanta, to start training blacks to open their own stores.

The ownership question has been fraught for years. Some black customers complain that Korean managers follow them around their stores as if suspecting they will shoplift. Some black shopkeepers accuse wholesalers and wig manufacturers, most of which are also owned by Koreans, of refusing to do business with anyone but other Koreans.
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A 2006 documentary about Koreans’ dominance of the industry by Aron Ranen spurred some black women to join boycotts of Korean-owned stores. Mr. Ranen has chronicled one case in Pittsburg, Calif., in which a black store owner was accused of setting fire to a nearby Korean-owned store.

Korean immigrants began entering the American hair business in the 1960s, when wigs were among South Korea’s top exports. Hair-care retail was not much of a leap.

And competition was scant: Until midcentury, many black women bought their products from door-to-door saleswomen. Few stores were devoted to hair products. White flight closed many white-owned storefronts, clearing the way for Korean businesses.

“A lot of people think these people were taking it away from black owners, but that’s not the case,” said Lori Tharps, a co-author of the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.”

“They were creating new businesses,” she added. “And they were doing it in places where nobody else wanted to open a store.”

A saying among Korean immigrants has it that “whoever picks you up at the airport is the one who will give you a job,” whether in beauty supplies or in other Korean-dominated businesses like greengroceries, dry cleaners or nail salons.

That proved true for Tony Park, 45, who owns Sugar Beauty Supply on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. Like many other Korean shopkeepers, he got his start in the industry working for a friend’s store after moving to the United States. He saved up to open his own store around four years ago: The American dream, Mr. Park called it.

He explained the Korean connection to the industry simply: “Most wholesalers are Korean. They can speak Korean; I can speak Korean.” (As labor costs rose in South Korea, wig production moved to China and has settled more recently in other parts of Asia, where labor is cheap, but Koreans still own many manufacturers.)


Photo Credit: Kirsten Luce

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