February has seen a fresh awareness and celebration of women of color's natural hair. Earlier this month, Hair Love, the animated film featuring a black father learning how to navigate his daughter’s tight curls for the first time, won an Oscar for best animated short film, and three new states—Colorado, Washington and Minnesota—have either introduced or advanced bills that ban hair discrimination in the workplace, an ongoing issue that even Hollywood A-listers like Gabrielle Union have endured.
While the natural hair-care movement is just now picking up steam in mainstream culture—the industry is valued at $2.5 billion—the experiences black and brown women share in managing their kinky and coily Afro-textured locks is nothing new.
For those who have the financial means, it’s a process that entails frequent visits to the salon to receive “protective styles,” hairstyles that promote healthy hair growth by limiting heat, manipulation and the use of chemicals. This often comes with its own set of challenges: Ambitious styles like tiny micro braids or floor length box braids along with overbooking, lead to extra, unanticipated hours spent in the salon chair.
Then there’s the “texture tax” stylists often add to bills for clients who have kinky, curly or coily hair, which might require more time and care than people with fine, straight hair. It’s a financial burden for clients who feel they’re being penalized for having a natural hair texture, and it can cost them an additional $10 to $30 in fees at both white-owned and people of color-owned salons. While it's common for hairdressers to charge additional fees for longer lengths, thickness is harder to classify and, unlike hair length, is beyond a client's control. More often than not, women of color face the brunt of these surcharges because their natural hair is perceived as difficult or unmanageable.
“For black women, there’s a lot of anxiety that can exist in going for a salon day, there’s so much unknown,” says Natanya Montgomery, Naza’s CEO and founder, alluding to common concerns such as accepted payment methods, timeliness and the final result.
“All of this hair anxiety causes a pretty stressful experience and that's why I think people have found that they stay with the place even if they're not satisfied with the service,” she adds.
Through her startup, Montgomery wants to eliminate this anxiety and standardize the black hair salon experience. Her company’s first salon storefront, backed by $1 million in pre-seed funding from Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan’s Initialized Capital, opened its doors today in San Francisco. Montgomery thinks of it as a Drybar for women of color. Much like how Drybar’s $100 million franchise limits its offerings to blowouts, Naza focuses on only five protective styles—braids, twists, sew-in extensions, blowouts and crochet styles—that can be completed in four hours or less, so clients aren’t spending all day in the salon. (Popular protective styles like box braids typically take anywhere from six to eight hours and sew-in weaves can take up to six hours or more.)
Similar to Drybar, services like chemical treatments, cuts and color aren’t part of Naza's menu. For styles that require extensions, Naza hair stylists provide and wash the hair. Customers can book appointments and add their desired payment method via Naza’s website, which provides a standard, predetermined fee. Clients aren’t charged until after the appointment.
“There's no upcharge for any sort of thick or extra hair,” Montgomery says. “We assume that every single person is going to come with hair as thick as it comes and as tangled as it comes...We’re prepared for the reality.”
Through its accompanying platform, Naza Labs, the company will also create a proprietary set of products using feedback from customers. It's recruiting 10,000 women to take surveys and test products in hopes that it will turn into a hair-care line that addresses the biggest needs for women of color. For now, Naza stylists use natural hair-care products that are already on the market.
Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian acknowledges that the natural hair market has long been ignored by venture capital. But Naza’s intentional purpose and the clear market need attracted the investor.
“I am personally proud to be the lead investor because it’s the kind of business I want my daughter to have access to in the world she grows up in—a space that celebrates her hair, provides her excellent service and empowers all the people who work there to excel at their craft on their terms,” says Ohanian, who is married to Serena Williams and has a child of mixed race.
Montgomery wants women of color to have a positive association with the salon experience. Upon entering Naza, clients are greeted with framed prints of vintage black hair advertisements on the wall and a mimosa to sip while they wait to be serviced.
“We want what we’re about to be really evident,” Montgomery says. “Celebrating black and brown women is core to the ethos of the company.”