Muhga Eltigani was in a dysfunctional relationship with her hair. Cascading below her waist, the tresses were eye-catching, but thin and brittle. In Ghana for an internship and to visit family in Sudan, Eltigani admired the lustrous hair of African women. She learned they made their own products at home from avocado, mangos, and Shea butter, which is extracted from a nut.
Back at University of Pennsylvania, Eltigani resolved to start fresh. Lopping off all but five inches of her hair, she treated the remainder with fresh fruits and oils. Her hair grew back softer and healthier. She documented the experience and shared recipes on a YouTube channel that attracted 40,000 subscribers. "A lot of women said the products worked for them but were too inconvenient to make at home," says Eltigani. "The market wasn't offering them because it's expensive to make something with such a short shelf life."
Even so, Eltigani knew some people would be willing to pay. Eltigani's parents, who immigrated to the U.S. on the diversity visa lottery when she was 5, agreed to let her take a two-year hiatus before law school to give entrepreneurship a shot. Four years later, her hair-care-products subscription service, NaturAll Club, is still small--but it's growing fast, with estimated revenue roughly doubling this year to nearly $250,000.
Hairy early days
In 2014, Eltigani joined the Venture for America Fellowship, which sent her to a healthy snack startup in Cleveland for more experience. On the side, she launched an Indiegogo campaign and raised $9,000 for an avocado-based deep conditioner. A chemical engineer friend helped formulate it, and Eltigani began filling orders. "I was getting emails that it was leaking or did not work or we did not account for heat and it was summer," says Eltigani. "I was like, 'Wow, I did not see this coming. I need to start again.'"
Cue the R&D montage. Eltigani and her co-founder, Sam Roberts, experimented with jars, tubes, and pouches of varying sizes and materials. They discovered the product had to be shipped frozen, which meant the addition of heavy dry ice packs. Test versions they mailed to themselves, their friends, and their remarkably patient and supportive Indiegogo customers would arrive discolored or melting or smelly.
"We were thinking of ourselves as a beauty company, but then we realized we are making guacamole," says Eltigani. "So how do guacamole companies store their products and elongate their shelf life?" The pair studied food science and tweaked the formula until the product was sufficiently stable to mail. They found plastic pouches similar to ones used for baby food.
Eltigani and Roberts bought professional mixers and fillers and set up manufacturing in Roberts's basement in Cleveland. With production reaching 2,000 units a month, they are now preparing to sign with a contract manufacturer in Pennsylvania.
Despite initial interest from Whole Foods, Eltigani decided to go 100 percent e-commerce, employing a subscription model whose predicable ordering facilitates perishable ingredients. As NaturAll Club offers more shelf-stable products--for example, its new "growth serum" made from Jamaican black castor oil--she sees potential. "I could see us being more in retail," says Eltigani. "But there is so much room to grow in e-commerce for now it doesn't make sense."
A growth market
Eltigani has just started to raise money; the goal is a $500,000 seed round. Venture for America has pledged the first $100,000, conditional on Eltigani's raising the full amount. To date, more than half of NaturAll Club's capital--a total of $120,000--has come from pitch competitions sponsored by, among others, Harvard Business School Club, the entertainer Steve Harvey, UBS, and Under Armour. The wins and the money are gratifying but draining, says Eltigani. "It takes up a lot of my time when I could be building the company."
It's time well spent, suggests Lee Zapis, president of Zapis Capital Group, in Westlake, Ohio, an adviser to Eltigani. "She really understands social media marketing, and her story resonates with people," says Zapis, who formerly operated radio stations that included black hair-care companies among their advertisers, so he is very familiar with the market. "The word 'authenticity' is overused, but it's true in her case," he says.
"She's also addressing a huge market," adds Zapis. "It's primarily for women of color. But if you're Mediterranean and you have long wavy hair, it could work for you too."
Elgitani envisions growing NaturAll Club into a billion-dollar company offering a full line of health-and-beauty products. "With the population changes, there are more minorities in America who are going to be looking for more products," she says. "I don't see why I can't be the next L'Oréal."