Q&A: Lancaster contest winners work to bring Melanin Essentials natural hair products to market

Written by Chad Umble of LNP 

Eleven months after taking first place in The Great Social Enterprise Pitch, Saba Williams and Olayinka Credle are officially in business.

 

With its launch earlier this month, Melanin Essentials has started selling its body butters in local stores and will soon take online orders.

But while the two 25-year-olds continue to benefit from the exposure of their Great Social Enterprise Pitch victory, they don’t yet have enough money to start offering the product that created the most buzz: natural hair products for women of color.

Williams and Credle met at a charter high school in Harrisburg and both graduated from Millersville University.

Williams, who lives in Lancaster, now works part time at Assets, which was a sponsor of the Great Social Enterprise Pitch. Credle, a mother of three, lives in Willow Street.

The pair, who started by making products for themselves, raised about $8,000 through crowd funding last year, then got $7,500 for winning The Great Social Enterprise Pitch, which celebrates and encourages entrepreneurs whose businesses have a social mission.

They used the money to upgrade their production equipment, refine recipes and set up a small production area at Liberty Place in Lancaster.

But launching their hair products for women of color will have to wait on either new investments or income from sales of their body butters.

“We’re just praying now and waiting and making sure we have some dedicated customers for our body line,” Credle said.

How did this all start?

Credle: We went on this journey of getting into natural products. It started with food for me. But her, it started with body care.

We stopped putting chemicals in our hair to straighten it. We started to feel purpose in creating products for ourselves, and word went around with friends and they were like, “You guys make this stuff? It works!”

I was told growing up, you can’t walk into an interview with curly hair, nappy hair or black hair. You need to get wigs that look white American. You need to have that straight hair.

When did you decide to make it into a business?

Williams: I graduated college a semester early. I was at home doing some photography and she had called and said, “OK, this might sound crazy, but hear me out. You know how we make our own products for ourselves and how it works for us? Why don’t we just sell this stuff to other people?”

I was like, “OK, let’s do it.”

How did you get involved with The Great Social Enterprise Pitch?

Credle: The competition came up and somebody said, “You guys have a social enterprise. You’re trying to create products for women of color who don’t have access to this.”

Williams: We applied and thought, if we get in, this would be a great way to help us refine our business idea. We weren’t expecting to win or be a finalist. We were literally going in there for the classes.

How did the classes that led up to the final pitch event change your business?

Williams: We learned that we were too broad and we needed to focus. We wanted our products to be for everyone — and they really can be used by a lot of people, not just people of color — but they were like, “You need to have a target market.”

What was it like to win?

Credle: That took us from zero to 100 real quick. We were like nobody knew us, then overnight, people were like, “This is amazing!” Now we have like a thousand (Facebook) followers asking, “When are your products coming out?”

How did you change the business after the win?

Williams: We started putting in procedures and we started really refining our recipes. We spent a lot of time researching other ingredients that we hadn’t used that are good for the skin, hair and body, then we thought, we need a larger space.

Credle: We need to be able to make hundreds of products a week, not 10 in one day. So we were like, how do we make that happen?

We can continuously expand all of our body line as long as we want. But we really want to try to have our hair products out within a year.

Will your products be sold in salons or stores?

Williams: We’ve been talking with salons. We found they want something that can’t be sold in stores but they can get a discount. We kind of held off on that because we couldn’t really appease that with having two different recipes.

Credle: We’re going to be in local stores in Lancaster, but our focus is going to be to grow online. It’s the cheapest, easiest way to expand.

How are you doing financially?

Williams: That’s when we really pray and have faith in God.

Credle: Where we are now, we need to sell these products. We don’t have thousands of dollars in the bank — we used that to make this happen — but we’re right where we need to be.

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