A universal truth: If you're a Black woman in America, the beauty supply store isn't just a place to buy shampoo or a cheap bottle of nail polish, but a first step in the cherished tradition of self-care. You know it well: aisles that seem to go on forever and shelves stocked to the ceiling with everything from bonnets to blow-dryer attachments; a place to grab jojoba oil, wig caps, and hair jewelry.
Stores like this have been a staple of Black culture in America for decades—without them, products we’ve come to rely on would be nearly impossible to find elsewhere—so it’s an unfortunate bit of irony that the Black community largely isn’t benefiting from the success of what they sell us. According to the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, only about 2,500 beauty supply stores out of more than 35,000 in the U.S. are Black-owned, and this imbalance has long created tension in a place that's supposed to be a refuge for Black women.
“I felt like, How come it's always Black women in these stores, but there's never Black owners?” says Lia Dias, the founder of The Girl Cave Los Angeles, a chain of beauty supply stores started in South Central L.A. “There's never really Black women that work in these stores. Not only are other communities coming into our [neighborhoods] and setting up shop; they're not even investing in our communities by providing jobs.” Plus, there’s the too-familiar feeling of often being watched by store clerks when you're a Black shopper that (rightly) rubbed Dias the wrong way.
The solution is, obviously, to start your own business and run it the way you see fit. But for so many budding Black entrepreneurs, it's a frustrating proposition. For Dias—who grew up in Inglewood, California, with three sisters and says she spent a lot of time roaming the beauty supply aisles—the road to owning her own beauty supply store was packed with roadblocks. “I got a lot of nos,” she says. “A lot of nos from distributors, a lot of nos from product lines. No one wanted to provide me with terms. They wanted me to pay cash upfront. They did not want to give me proper signage and samples in my stores to help promote brands. It was so difficult. When I think back, I don't understand how I was able to scale to where we are now because so many people would not work with us.”
Her persistence paid off: In the four years since opening The Girl Cave Los Angeles, Dias, who says she makes sure her company hires workers who live in the stores' neighborhoods, has built a loyal customer base helping her create a lucrative business. “Part of the reason why I've been able to scale is that I had hundreds of people from the community that were like, ‘I don't care if your product costs more. I don't care if it takes you a week to get it. I'm going to come back and buy it from you,’” she says. “And that really is a testament to the neighborhoods that we're in. People care; people want to see Black businesses do well.”
The store's triumphant spirit isn't just felt when buying a bottle of conditioner or a new comb—The Girl Cave L.A. also walks the giving-back walk: In February the retailer posted about a grant program on its website, which provided funding for would-be business owners to get their idea off the ground. It's also a community and safe space where women can go for networking events, live product tutorials, and an overall enlightening retail experience.
“I feel like there's a silent rule when you're in the beauty supply,” says Ashli Brown, Dias’s business partner and the company’s first franchisee, opening the Compton location in 2019. “You don't judge other Black women on how they look when they're in the store.”
For Dias and Brown, empowering customers to be informed about what works for their hair and feeling confident in their expression takes priority over simply selling products. “My thing with customers is that I'm open to explain literally everything in the store,” Brown says. “I'm like, ‘Let me show you everything that I have for hair growth and let me tell you how to use this line of products and create a regimen for yourself.’”
Dias adds: “A lot of women deal with alopecia. A lot of women deal with not knowing how to manage their hair and we don't want anybody to come in our stores and feel like they have to look a part. Come in exactly how you are and let us help you achieve the look that you want.”
Although their livelihood depends on people buying hair care, Dias and Brown are adamant that Black women should not be characterized by our hair. “Hair is something that's just a piece of who we are,” Brown says. “Even though I sell products, I don't really buy into the idea or the thought that your hair makes or breaks you.”
“If you're feeling frustrated, chop it off,” says Dias. "If you feel like you want to go blond, dye blond. If you feel like you want to be embraced and you want to go natural, do that, but your hair doesn't define who you are at all.”
The positive vibes are paying off: The Girl Cave L.A. will be expanding its reach, opening its first franchise in the Dallas–Forth Worth area later this year. “We want to open up Girl Cave L.A. across the country,” Dias says. “We're accepting franchise applications as we speak. And we're looking for committed women and men who are interested in being in business.”
In 2018, Mintel valued the Black hair-care market at $2.5 billion, a valuation experts believe is actually much higher, so it’s essential that a piece of that wealth goes into Black communities and entrepreneurs. “It’s not just for me to accumulate wealth and just run my stores,” Dias says of her burgeoning empire. “This is about other women getting into this industry.”
From creating jobs in the community and inspiring other Black women to start businesses, to empowering Black women to wear their hair as they please—and feel comfortable shopping for what they need to do it—Dias and Brown represent precisely why beauty supply stores are a vital part of Black culture.
Ashley Alese Edwards is the U.S. partnerships manager in the Google News Lab and a freelance writer who covers the intersection of culture and beauty. She is based in New York City.
Originally Appeared on Glamour