Can You Wear Extensions Ethically? This Entrepreneur Makes It Possible

Back in 2009, Chris Rock attempted to shed light on the practices used to acquire human hair extensions in his documentary "Good Hair." Rock's exploration of an integral part of many Black women's experiences was less than stellar, but it opened up a conversation about the women whose hair we wear. Rock depicted Asian women shaving their hair temples to offer ass a sacrifice. That

While debates about the aesthetics and costs of hair extensions are common, we're less inclined to think deeply about where the hair come from, and, more importantly, if the hair donor is abused or exploited in the process of collecting bundles.

Valerie Ogoke started Ayune Hair, an ethically sourced human hair extensions company, so women can enjoy the versatility of wearing weaves without participating in exploitative practices.

I have read up about your company, and I am obsessed. I, literally, want to know everything.

Well, thank you for agreeing to chat with me. I actually was really excited when you shared that post about where you showed a video of a woman getting her hair cut for hair extensions, and the question was like, "Do we really know where our hair extensions come from?" Well, for me, that question flickered in my mind about two years ago.

I'm originally from California, but I've been living in Australia for, I would say, about five years, and around March of 2016, I decided to move to Bali, Indonesia, with my partner. During that time, I was rocking my natural hair, and I wanted to change up my look, as we all do and try out extensions, but in searching for hair extension, I didn't feel like any of the companies resonated with my journey, and I decided to take a back seat, move to Bali, and just focus on my spiritual journey.

In that spiritual journey, I really started to question, "Okay, I really don't actually know where these hair extensions come from and how are they sourced. How are the women being treated?" That was the beginning of my journey of creating the brand Ayune Hair. In creating that, the focus was making sure that it was ethically sourced, making sure that women are actually being paid for their hair extensions, and that no one was being mistreated or deceived during this process.

I also wanted to get into a more sustainable frame of thought, making sure that this was something that had longevity and it wasn't that there would be a point where hair would be mixed with synthetic hair, which happens actually more often than we think it does.

I think if you just think about, in general, the way we as humans consume quite a bit, and something there's not quite enough to go around, and so what a lot of companies do is they find ways to mix things and make sure that it lasts a little bit longer  in order to increase their profit. But, for me, I wanted to make sure this was fair for everyone and that no one was being deceived in the process.

This is amazing. I am an almost 30-year-old black woman. I have been around a lot of weave. It really never occurred to me until fairly recently that I should be morally concerned about where hair extensions come from, and so I'm just wondering, before you made that trek to Bali and decided to pursue that spiritual journey, did you have any emotional tug or moral tug about where this hair comes from?

Yeah. Well, I left America in 2012 because I realized that I wanted to find my happiness and what that looked like, and it's interesting when you leave your comfort zone, all of these new experiences come in, and in one of those experiences was the fact that I realized that we were all interconnected, that what I did just naturally impacts other people around me. So that was always flickering into my mind, and then, in terms of the hair extensions, it didn't really cross my mind because I wasn't necessarily wearing hair extensions. I was wearing braids when I first moved over, and then when I decided to buy hair extensions that is when the concern popped in my mind. I'm like, "I don't even know where this hair comes from."

I know a lot of us do look at AliXpress, and I saw them using pictures from other brands, so I just really didn't know who to trust. That was one part. And then I was just concerned that, "Am I supporting something that is disempowering another woman?"

Absolutely. So where did your research begin?

Literally, online, like all of us. What do we first do when we have a question? We start Googling it, right? And we're like, "Okay, how does the process work," because I've been natural for 10 years, so my journey was just rocking my natural hair in braids. I just started Googling and trying to figure out what's the step-by-step process, and I realized the most common thing, I think we all know, is that it's sourced from Indian temples, right? I think that's what we initially think, because women usually in poorer areas in India go to temples to sacrifice. It's a spiritual sacrifice to gods.That was all I knew.

The other part is that usually men travel trough really rural areas around Southeast Asia or even in China, and they just cut hair, but what I didn't realize is that no one was really getting paid for any of this. So that was a huge concern. I'm like, "Who's making the money?" Because there's a 300% profit that these people are getting, because they're not necessarily paying these women anything.

Wait, so they're not getting paid any money?

Very, very little, and when I really started to reach out to vendors, I don't ever tell people my intentions because I want them to be very honest with me, so I just asked them, "So, what is your relationship with the women that you're sourcing hair from?" And they don't know what my intentions are, so they always tell me the truth, because I don't think they know the vision that I have of making sure that the women are treated fairly. A lot of times, they would tell me that they would just give them food and water, or they would give them very little, so it was concerning that other people were making a lot of money, but the women who were providing the hair extensions weren't really getting anything out of it. That was the first thing.

The other thing is how sustainable is it for a woman to cut their hair. We start at 14 inches, right? But a lot of us go to 18, 20, 22, sometimes 24 inches. That's a lot of hair off of one head. How sustainable is that? So my other question is, "Are we really wearing real human hair extensions?"

In my peak weave days when I was really priding myself on buying the most expensive Malaysian, I feel like I've maybe paid like $200 a bundle, maybe even more. I feel like it's a lot of money, and especially if you're buying two or three ... that's hundred of dollars, That's crazy to me.

Yeah. It's really concerning. I was actually really excited when, I believe, Refinery29 just recently shared a short docuseries where I think they were in Vietnam, and it was the same discussion, "Are these women being paid?" The answer was, "No, they're not really getting that much out of it." I do think, and we're not really pointing fingers here, because the whole point of this is to practice mindfulness, like it's impossible for us to be perfect. We can't save the world, but we can try to be more mindful about the things that we do throughout our lives, so if we're in a financial space where we can afford to support something that is more uplifting for the conscious customer, then let's do that, but if we can't, don't beat yourself up for that. It's really just we're not playing a blame game. We're just trying to be more mindful.

Absolutely. You mentioned something I'm so curious about, the sustainability part. I never thought about this before, but there is no way that all this weave is human hair. I never considered it, but can you talk a little bit more about the mixing of human hair with synthetic hair and how we might be getting duped and buying the super, super expensive weave that's not even real.

Yeah. I should start with saying that this is not everyone. I'm sure there are a lot of businesses that are selling real, human hair extensions, so we're not painting everyone as the same kind of deceptive business owner. I think one of the telltale signs is if you're buying three bundles for $150-$200, it's likely that it's mixed with synthetic hair. That's one.

In my research in trying to find hair extensions, Malaysian hair extensions are not really a thing. There are Cambodian hair extensions, there are Indonesian, there are Vietnamese; but in searching Malaysia, there wasn't any ... and the same for Brazilian. One thing is that, for sustainable hair extensions; for me, it's all about how the natural process of how our hair strands fall. Every day we have 50 to 100 hair strands that fall out of our scalp, so these women, in particular from my business, they collect their hair strands, which is really meticulous and time consuming but it ensures that they never feel pressured to cut their hair. Because what we're trying to bring back is choice, rather than pressure.

We all have close connections with our natural hair and sometimes, we wanna shave it and that's fine. But sometimes we wanna just rock our natural hair and so, we have to be mindful that other women feel the same way. Especially indigenous people. And so what our women do is, they collect their hair strands and then they sell it.

And so, this is a sustainable process because naturally, you have so much hair that falls out of your hair a day and sometimes you can have about 150 hair strands. What they do is, they just collect it all and then they sell it to our vendors. So then, we never collect any hair that's actually cut from a woman's head. And so they never, ever feel like they have to do that because of their financial circumstances.
Malaysian hair is not a real thing?

When I lived in Indonesia for a year, I often went to Malaysia and Singapore and different places; and in searching for actual Malaysian hair, I did not find that. And in doing research and watching other documentaries, they didn't find it either.

Just from my research, I did not find any. And also, if people know about Malaysia and the different cultures; there are the Malays, which look more Indonesian and then you have a lot of south Indians.

So potentially, if someone is sourcing hair from Malaysia, it's probably just Indian hair. But, yeah. I would be very cautious.

I think people should probably be more mindful of what are the chances that this is Brazilian hair?

What are the chances that women are actually cutting their hair in Brazil? When I was in Los Angeles, I spoke to a Brazilian who used to sell hair extensions and he said that there were no Brazilian hair. He didn't get them from Brazil.

Wow. Okay, so let's talk about your company [Ayune Hair]. After doing this initial research, when did you decide that you wanted to start a hair extensions company?

Initially, the beginning of my move to Indonesia was a spiritual journey in understanding my connection to everything around me. And then, I had kinda epiphany that I could align my desire to share my passion for kindness and compassion with beauty, so I began researching. And what I decided to do was eventually travel to the villages.

I was venturing to the unknown, but what I realized was that really made it an authentic journey for me because I was there with the vendors, I was there meeting with women, I was there interacting with the people in the different villages. I remember just talking with my translator and he was saying people were shocked because they hadn't really seen such a young, black woman walking around and engaging. They didn't understand that. I thought it was so vital that I was present in every, single part of the journey to creating Ayune hair ... to show that I really do care that these women are treated fairly.

You mentioned something I think is really interesting. In this space there are relatively few black women, despite the fact that we are such huge consumers of hair extensions. I feel like I can only name a couple ... maybe, three or four ... black women-owned hair extension companies.

Yeah. I'm originally from Los Angeles, California. I remember visiting home and driving around and just seeing that every beauty supply was ... I don't know if I actually saw a beauty supply that was owned by a Black woman because it was predominately Koreans, and not to say anything bad about them owning it, but it was a bit disheartening that ... as you said, the consumers are Black women. We have a huge buying power and yet, the owners, or the people who are making a profit, are not Black ... the majority of them.

So I wanted to encourage us to take that power back. We know this better than anyone else because we are the consumers, so shouldn't we be selling to ourselves? That was actually quite interesting, but I feel excited because there's a lot of opportunity for us to become thriving business owners and to share our passions with our fellow sisters.

When I've spoken to black women who are opening beauty supply stores, they've talked to me about some of the obstacles of breaking into that industry. And I've been so fascinated by how closed the beauty supply industry is. You mentioned Korean people dominate the industry and, of course, they have their networks. And this is not to say anything bad about Korean entrepreneurs, that's not the point. The point is some of those closed networks are very difficult to penetrate. Have you found that to be true?

I found that, initially, some vendors weren't taking me seriously and they were all men. That was another thing. And so, I think they were a little bit taken aback because they're used to working, probably, with men and then, probably with non ... anything but a black woman.

I really didn't let that faze me. It's one of those things where if one door closes, another one opens. It was just about continuing to push forward and I really believed that if I continued being authentic and transparent in following my truth, the right people would align with me. That was what, kind of, kept me going.

Let's talk about your sourcing. You don't have to disclose any trade secrets, but I am interested in knowing as much as you'd like to share about how you get the hair that you sell.

Right. I think I mentioned before, I spent a lot of time in the villages, and I intentionally took two years, well, now it's two years and four months, to create this business because I really wanted to make sure that I was involved in the process and I was hands-on, and I understood exactly how it was being worked.And so, I was physically there, present in the factories, in the villages.

In terms of trade secrets, it's just being present and also creating a really, positive relationship with people. With the vendors, I wanted to share my passion with them ... my compassion ... I wanted to show them that I cared about them as much as I cared about this business. We often would have dinner. I would ask them about their kids. I wanted to make this, kind of, a family thing, like as a tribe.

And make sure that they knew that I cared about them as much as I cared about the women, as much as I care about black women. I just wanted to share that compassion with everyone. I don't know if that's really a trade secret, but that was basically the focal point of the entire process of creating this brand.

Again, we even went really deep into the villages and met other vendors and sat with them and the factory workers. One thing I was really excited about is that factory workers actually are treated fairly, in the sense that they have their lunch breaks, they're not overworked, they looked really happy. I went to several spaces and they didn't look unsettled or disgruntled. So I was really excited about that. Even in buying the hair extensions, because now I'm back in Australia, I pay more because the factory workers are getting raises, you know? And I appreciated them. I'm happy that they're actually being paid adequately as well as the women that are selling their hair to the vendors.

So, how do you find the women?

Actually, the process that I'm supporting has been going on for quite some time, but not that many people support it. So in Indonesia, particularly, which is the starting point or the birth child of Ayune Hair, it's been happening for at least 30 years. It's not really something that's brand new, but it's just something that's kind of been under the rug and not brought to people's attention. The Indonesian women they've always been collecting their hair strands and selling them. But they've usually worked with very few people and they're usually men, so I wanted to bring a different perspective to the hair extension industry and show that these sustainable hair extensions are amazing, you know?

The same ones [hair extensions] that I had tested two years, I still have to this day. There's longevity in it. It's a great product. In terms of finding the women, they've already been around way before I even came into the picture, so it was just really about bringing it to the forefront.

So no one is shaving their hair? They're collecting the hair that naturally falls out of their head?

Yes. We are not saying that there's something wrong with someone shaving their hair. That is fine, but again, it's all about providing choice because not everyone wants to shave their hair. It's a little bit sad when a woman feels like there's no other choice but to shave off their hair or cut their hair. I mean, if they're in a financial situation where they have no food and that's their last hope, imagine how that feels. I always say, "Put yourself in that woman's shoes. How would you feel if you felt disempowered or that this was your only option?" That would feel horrible. You wouldn't want that to happen to you. I definitely wouldn't want it to happen to me. I think if I was ever pressured into anything, I would feel horrendous. I would be really unhappy for a very long time. So I'm just trying to change that so that these women actually do have a choice.

 It seems like this process would take a long time to amass a single bundle of hair. How do you collect enough hair to sell?

Well, that's the thing. They're collecting at least 100 hair strands a day. The thing is that we're talking about longevity rather than a fast turnover. In collecting the hair strands, it's almost like slow fashion. It takes a little bit of a longer time but you know that it's done in the correct way. You know when it's being disempowered in the process. So yeah, you're not going to get like 24 inch hair extensions. I stop at 22 because there's not as many women with that long enough hair to support extremely long hair extensions. And we just work on a small supply because we believe in this process. So yeah, it does take a little bit longer and there's not this huge abundance of it, but it's always going to be done the correct way.
And how much are the women being paid?

Right. So it depends. We try to be a little bit discrete about that. It's all based on the weight. So, again, when women are collecting 100 hair strands a day, they usually sell it every two weeks and so it's more of an ongoing source of an income. It's not really a get rich thing. It's just providing an alternative source of income that's consistent. It's not like a one off where they get $100 and then that's it for two to three years, because you know it takes quite a long time to grow that length back to cut again. So it's more of providing a continuous flow of income for them.

Let's get to the pricing of your product, Ayune Hair. If I want to buy 18 inches of hair, two bundles of 18 inch hair, how much would I pay?

That's a good question. The pricing works in a particular way because it's all about thinking about all the different stake holders that are involved before it even gets to the buyer. We have our various vendors, and there's different levels of vendors, so we deal with the vendors in the villages and then we deal with our higher level vendors who have a larger factory that can clean the product again so the hair is cleaned several times.

It's extremely time consuming because we're literally going through every single hair strand in choosing which ones are acceptable to sell and which ones aren't. Because you know, again, in this process the cuticles are not always perfectly aligned. So we're always looking for the best hair strands. So it's quite time consuming so it becomes a bit more of an expensive process.

But in terms of price, I don't have the prices directly in front of me, but the Australian prices range between, I believe, like $130 to $200. It's a little bit cheaper if you're in the US. It aligns perfectly with most well-known hair extension companies. There's no get rich scheme here. It's just providing an alternative for conscious women in particular, Black women all around the world, to be able to purchase something that aligns more with their morals. Or if they're very concerned about where their hair extensions come from, then they can support something that makes them really feel comfortable and they don't have to worry. And then they can celebrate the different layers of their beauty through their hair extensions and maybe they decide to take the hair extensions off and rock their natural hair, and then they put the hair extensions on later.

It's just about supporting a lot of women who are becoming more aware around the world and providing something that aligns with them.

So you do ship to the United States?

Yes, we ship to the United States. We ship to the UK. We ship to Europe. Of course I have to ship to the United States because I am American, even though we're Australia-based, because, I couldn't forget about my fellow American sisters.

Awesome. Have you gotten any investment for this business or are you completely boot strapping it?

Well, I am so grateful that I have an absolutely amazing Nigerian mother in the US right now that really believes in my mission, so she really assisted in the investment towards creating this. I didn't really share my story in terms of moving back to Australia. Our home is really Indonesia, so I feel most alive when I'm there. But unfortunately, due to some health issues, we had to come back and all of our initial investment money was put into hospital costs, so my amazing mother stepped in and helped to make sure that this brand came out. That's it for now, but we are looking for other investors who are interested in supporting conscious consumers.

When you say "our" you have a partner?

Yes, my partner is Austrailian. He was also on the same spiritual journey as me. He really believes in celebrating kindness. He also believes in the fact that we are all interconnected, so we built this business together.

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