Two women's entrepreneurship spirit show how combining business and science might lead to a global brand

Growing up in Jamaica, Tashni-Ann Dubroy would watch as her hairstylist mom concocted moisturizing conditioners for clients using everyday products – aloe vera from their backyard, eggs and mayonnaise from their refrigerator.

“She would put it in my hair, she would put it in her clients’ hair,” Dubroy said.
 
Those childhood observations are coming in handy these days for Dubroy, who graduated from the Rutgers Business School’s MBA program this May. That’s because Dubroy and a friend launched their own line of natural hair care products in 2009.

The pair and their company, Tea and Honey Blends, have been on quite a roll recently, winning top honors and $30,000 in the 2011 Rutgers Business School Business Plan Competition, along with gaining entry into a select Macy’s vendor program.

The idea for Tea and Honey Blends formed as Dubroy and Tiffani Bailey Lash pursued their doctorates in chemistry at North Carolina State University. (They graduated in 2007.) After meeting in a class, the two became fast friends, African American women who both had issues with their hair, Lash said.

Dubroy and Lash added real tea and honey into their formula for their high-end hair care products.

“We had some formulations from way back when,” said Lash, who noted she’s always been interested in owning a line of hair care products.

What they didn’t have was tons of experience starting a complex business. “Initially it was like we were learning as we went along,” Dubroy said.

But by then, Dubroy was studying for her MBA and learning about marketing, branding and public relations – knowledge that went right into the company. She also turned to several members of the Rutgers’ faculty to tap their expertise.

“She has all the characteristics of a passionate, successful businesswoman,” Rutgers Adjunct Professor Ray Leibman said of Dubroy.

Right now, Tea and Honey Blends has just a tiny slice of the $1.8 billion ethnic hair care market. But with the money from the business plan competition – slated for sales, marketing and new product development – the two are hoping to grow.

“We’re trying to spread the name of our brand nationally,” said Dubroy, who is an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where Tea and Honey Blends also is based.

Dubroy and Lash, both 30, took a big step toward that goal earlier this year when their company was one of 20 out of 500 applicants accepted into the newly created Workshop at Macy’s. The giant retailer puts on a 4 1/2-day training course once a year for operators of minority and women-owned businesses.

The workshop at the corporate offices of Macy’s Herald Square in Manhattan, held earlier this month, provided training in strategic planning, branding and other areas, all aimed at helping the companies establish a relationship with Macy’s.

The two women got feedback and suggestions on their application to Macy’s from Leibman, who has experience in retail distribution. Their acceptance into the retailer’s program doesn’t guarantee Macy’s will buy their products, but gives them a definite advantage.

“That’s a real breakthrough for them since they’ve been selling mostly through a web-based operation,” Leibman said of Dubroy and Lash being accepted into the Macy’s program. “It’s like hitting a home run before you really know how to bat. It’s a scary thing, but it happens.

“Now she just really has to convince them (Macy’s) this product will not only enhance their customer base, but also make them money,” said Leibman, who noted Tea and Honey Blends could become a national or even global brand. “She’s got a great, great opportunity.”

Dubroy said the hair care industry has been trending toward natural or ethnic hair and away from the relaxed, straight-hair style. So they’ve focused their collection of shampoos, conditioners, oils and other products to help African American and Latino women with a natural hairstyle.

Being chemists, they also had the knowledge to come up with formulations that used natural ingredients such as tea tree, jojoba and aloe vera (thanks mom!). In fact, natural and organic formulations are key drivers in the ethnic health and beauty care product market, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm based in Rockville, Md.

“Our competitors are still using Vaseline and mineral oil-based products to achieve what women want,” Dubroy said.

And as Dubroy and Lash work on developing new products for Tea and Honey Blends, they take suggestions from many people. And, of course, Dubroy’s mom.

“To this day,” Dubroy said, “I’m still trying to translate her ideas into chemistry.”

- Greg Saitz

TAGS: Business Plan Competition Students Tea and Honey Blends