Their's was a fairytale story. Coming from humble beginnings in Queens, New York, Miko and Titi Branch never once took a loan nor investment from anyone, and now their brand, Miss Jessie's is firmly indented as one of the world leaders on the natural haircare map.
We spoke to Miko, Co-Founder and CEO of Miss Jessie's about the beginnings of the brand and how her and sister Titi were bestowed the entrepreneurial urge from within the very home they grew up in.
Miko remembers her grandmother Miss Jessie fondly - a steadfast in the kitchen, a comforting but stern presence in her and her twin sisters' lives, and a monumental piece of their entrepreneurial journey. A one-armed lady who taught the girls all they needed to know about life, business, and how to survive in the world once you've failed. She prepared them for their struggles, but also their rise to fame as the sisters who re-invented haircare for the African-American woman. “She was the first CEO we ever had contact with." she muses, “My grandmother rared our family from the kitchen table."
"All we had was an idea, all we had was each other" - Miko
Miko and her late sister Titis' father also trained the twins to be entrepreneurs. Between their father and their grandmother, the girls were quick to start their own business. Their first foray into entrepreneurship however did not go so well, and the business failed in 1999. Miko recalls her and sister "made some decisions that resulted in us losing our business." It was to be the first major setback that would ultimately pave the way for the multi-million dollar Miss Jessie's brand we know today.
It was while bathing her son one evening when Miko developed the idea for the haircare brand. Her then-straightened hair frizzed up upon contact with moisture and got Miko thinking about why she was muting her big natural curls. Why not embrace her unique hairstyle? With a likeminded and extremely capable sister, and their salon at the ready, Miss Jessie's begun.
When the conversation shifted to allowing your natural hairstyle, and embracing your roots, Miko wondered whether people would be hesitant to move away from straighteners and curlers. The fashionable thing was not to be au naturale, rather, was to be styled or pulled in one way or another, so your hair did not resemble its natural state. People actually wanted to wear their hair in its naturally curly, kinky or wavey state, but just didn't know how. “To my surprise" she says, “it created a conversation that was favourable. It took me no time to understand that this was our opportunity to get our business back."
“We learned how to mix things from scratch" - Miko
The sisters took to the kitchen and began working to find the best recipes, dedicating themselves to coming out with products that “perform and work." They were to become specialists in everything curly, kinky and wavey as their was nothing in this range at the time lining the shelves of CVS or Walgreens.
"It was Titi who cracked the nut" - Miko
"Titi stayed up later than me" Miko recalls. "And it was Titi that cracked the nut." Miko's sister was the one to come up with recipe for what is now called 'curly pudding,' and there they had it. Miss Jessie's, Miko believes, came "out of necessity," but it was the twins' drive to meet this necessity that produced this whirlwind journey they would embark on from the first 'curly pudding.'
From there, they began to put a premium on their services in their salon to come up with the capital needed to expand the brand. Not once did they receive an angel investment or a familial or friendly loan, building their business as they went.
Their ability to captivate - unrivalled; their marketability - seamless; and their devotion to the home-grown brand - personal.
By 2001, Miss Jessie's was launched and by 2004 they had become product innovators with the 'winning formulation' for Miss Jessie's, with the first of its products circulated on to supermarket shelves. The business has only gone from strength to strength since then. Titi tragically died in 2014, but Miko has continued to push the legacy and popularity of the brand, having penned a harper-collins bestseller Miss Jessie's: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch - Naturally, with her sister before she passed, and now has another book on the way.
The Miss Jessie's sisters grew their brand from the ground up, and on the back of hard work, grit, determination, and failure. Miko chimes that if there was anything she could tell aspiring female entrepreneurs, it would be "have no fear, and embrace your failures. They will become the stepping stones to your success."
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.