Gisele Bündchen and her long, blond and wavy hair have become synonymous with Brazilian beauty. Although her hair is gorgeous, a majority of the black and brown people of this South American country possess kinky or curly hair that is completely different from the supermodel’s shampoo-commercial-worthy strands.
The stereotype that looser, straighter hair is more beautiful leaves many girls and women feeling ashamed of the way their curls grow from their own heads. Leila Velez knows this emotion all too well.
When she was a child, Velez begged her mother to transform her thick curls into straighter strands similar to a cousin’s. Her mom finally caved in to her wishes and applied a straightening treatment to her hair, but the results were “horrible” and she cried for “days and days and days.”
Fast-forward a decade later and Velez embarked on a mission to “change this reality” for young women and girls by co-founding Beleza Natural, a hair care destination in Brazil where curly, kinky, and wavy-haired individuals have access to affordable services and products that promote healthy, balanced hair.
“I wanted to make sure they can build their self-esteem and self-love based on who they are instead of trying to adapt to a stereotype of what is beauty,” Velez tells Yahoo Beauty.
Velez tapped into this passion and combined it with the business savvy she developed at the tender age of 16 as one of the youngest-ever McDonald’s managers in Brazil. Co-founder Zica Assis introduced the skills she acquired in hair school to create products specifically for people like herself who wanted “softer, more manageable curls.” The women, along with business partners Rogerio Assis (Zica’s brother) and Jair Conde, founded the Beleza Natural Institute in Rio de Janeiro in 1993.
Velez admits that they faced lots of skepticism early on when launching the company. “People thought we were crazy and it would never work,” she says. This isn’t surprising considering social status in Brazil is often linked to hair type and texture, where kinkier hair is associated with the poor and less fortunate.
But as the old saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” Velez beams with pride as she recalls how Beleza Natural clients travel thousands of miles in packed caravans because they live in a city where there isn’t yet a location. The trek is definitely worth it, as salon services are relatively affordable.
“We had to develop our own techniques — there was no playbook,” says Velez. “Of course, in Bahia and some states, there were the ancient techniques of braiding and Afro hairdos. But we wanted more. To create products, techniques in a new way to cater to curly hair and make available many different choices. We have many for straight hair so why not for our type of hair as well?”
The women partnered with local universities to formulate hair care that was backed by science and took advantage of Brazil’s biodiversity. “So there’s a lot of acai, cacau, and murumuru butter — it’s really great!” says Velez.
Beleza Natural products also contain coconut oil. However, Velez says the choice and concentration is what makes it different from other brands that list coconut oil as an ingredient. She adds, “Every time we launch a product, we run many tests to make sure its safe. All of our products are co-created with the clients and the team. They bring their concerns and challenges to us.”
They even forgo the typical textured hair typing system, which employs letters and numbers ranging from 2A to 4C, and instead classify curls based on the biochemical structure of the hair. According to Velez, this allows them to obtain a deeper understanding on why certain curls behave differently from others and to create product lines for the necessity of each curl.
The in-salon experience at Beleza Natural is truly unparalleled. Clients wait in a stylish lounge area before meeting with a hair consultant who interviews them in an intimate setting to understand their unique hair fiber, previous treatments they’ve tried, their expectations, and how much time they’d like to spend styling their hair.
“It’s about education,” says Velez. “We want them to educate our clients to avoid the Cinderella effect — they look good at the salon, but at home, it’s a different story.”
These learnings are reinforced through silent videos that play on TV screens above the washing stations.
The final step to the Beleza Natural salon experience: soaking it all in inside a changing room, where Velez says “they can really feel like stars” before strutting down a catwalk with a full body mirror. There is even a room just for kids with throne-like chairs.
“We really want to be a community that’s centered around making people feel great,” says Velez. “It’s not just about the beauty and the way you look, but how you feel. At the end of the day, we are all the same. We want to be respected and loved.”
As a result, Beleza Natural clients are the faces you’ll see in their campaigns and brand imaging. Velez explains, “We don’t use any paid models in our communications. We don’t want a beautiful actress or model who won’t translate to the end result my client will have.”
Twenty plus years later and Beleza Natural has blossomed into 45 locations across five states in Brazil, a full line of curly hair care products, and a factory with its own research and development lab. The company also boasts over 4,000 employees, half of them former clients.
Beleza Natural is now ready for world domination, opening its first U.S. salon this August on 125th Street in Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
“The company for me is not about shampoos — this is my life, and it is a mission for me and partners. In Brazil, even though we are a majority, we still feel a lot of preconceived ideals about ethnicity, race, and social demographic differences,” says Velez. “We can promote something that can change someone’s life and they can feel empowered to go to a better job or go back to study. Because it’s not about hair, it’s about identity.”
Read more from Yahoo Style + Beauty:
- Gabrielle Union’s Curls Are My Natural Hair Goal
- Curly Hair Advocate Michelle Breyer: ‘Texture Is So Different — It’s Not One Size Fits All’
- Kiernan Shipka Makes a Strong Case for Brushed-Out Curls