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It’s not just about hair

P&G hair styles

Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced its acquisition of Walker & Company in late 2018. Most known for its Bevel shave system, Walker & Company was founded by Tristan Walker with the mission to simplify beauty and grooming for people of color.

I first learned of Walker during my time as a P&G beauty, health and personal care account executive circa 2013. While I did not shoulder the responsibility for shave care, it was nearly impossible to work at the company and not be aware of the challenges we faced in the category. New entrants like Dollar Shave Club challenged Gillette’s category leadership. Still, I expected that we’d respond and adjust. I was intrigued however, to see Bevel, a brand geared towards black men, grow even as Gillette lost market share to competitors.

I began my P&G career in the summer of 2011 as a customer business development manager for health care and cosmetics in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was excited and grateful to manage both categories. However, beauty care felt more personal to me. As a black woman who has sometimes struggled to find the perfect shade of makeup for my skin tone or the right products for my afro-textured hair, I was excited to learn about the business of beauty and how I might leave my mark on the industry. With the support of amazing managers and great teams, I’ve had many opportunities to do so. However, one memory stands out among the rest.

During my first year at P&G I changed my hair. When I joined the team, my hair was long and straight. After a few months, I cut it short. A few months later, I took it out. Took it out? Yes, I had been wearing extensions to add volume and length. Now, after at least a year of contemplation, I decided to rock my hair in its most natural, unbothered form — a TWA (teeny weeny afro). For me, this was not only a physical change, but also a truly psychological journey.

Black hair reflects black history and our roots run deep. In early African civilizations, hairstyles signaled social standing, tribe and even marriage status. Later, survivors and descendants of the transatlantic slave trade braided their hair to remain connected to their heritage, for functionality, and in some cases, to communicate messages to other slaves.

Since then, our natural hair has been both glorified and weaponized. It’s been a symbol of freedom and political resistance (afros in the 1960s) as well as a roadblock to success (requirements of straight, “professional” hair to get a job). Its versatility reflects the beauty and diversity of Africa and the African diaspora. Still, it remains a mystery to many, sometimes even to ourselves.

So, when a person of color speaks of their hair care “journey”, it’s just that – a journey of acceptance, a lesson in patience and a physical manifestation of enlightenment and growth. In its more literal sense, it is a conscious decision to nurture and nourish the hair, whether curly, wavy or straight, through proper nutrition and using the right products and regimen for one’s unique hair needs.

My hair-care journey began after college. Many of my friends had already “gone natural,” cutting off their chemically relaxed strands at the line of demarcation (where the relaxed and natural parts of a hair strand meet). I was one of the last to transition. I wasn’t convinced of the benefits of going natural. Although chemical relaxers left the occasional burn on my scalp, most black women experienced this, so I accepted it as the norm.

So, what changed my mind? I can’t say that it was one particular thing. However, the decision became clear during a phone call with a friend. I’d shared that although my life was great, something was off. I had finished college, relocated to a new city and enjoyed my new job. I had money in the bank, great friends and a supportive family. Still, some part of me struggled to embrace my new life as a self-sufficient, professional adult. As I confided in my friend, a major realization arose. To flourish in this new phase of life, I would have to embrace who I was in this new moment and reaffirm my authentic self. For me, that started with my hair.

I spent the next few months learning about hair, specifically black hair. I spoke to friends, watched YouTube tutorials and scoured internet forums. At the same time, I nurtured my soul with prayer, meditation, and reflection. Finally, I felt ready enough to big chop (cut off all the relaxed hair). I made the first few cuts myself. However, I quickly realized that despite my months of research, I was not a beautician. So, I booked an appointment for my stylist to do the rest.

The freedom I felt after my appointment was indescribable. I did not expect it to feel so good. I also did not anticipate my manager’s reaction when I arrived to work the next Monday.

In the most genuinely curious way, my manager asked about my new look. He did not understand how my hair had changed from a straight hairstyle to a curly ’fro. We spent the next hour talking about black hair. Afterwards, he asked if I would share this information with his manager, my one-up. I agreed, but couldn’t guess what I could possibly teach him. My one-up sold hair care, so I assumed he already knew everything I would say.

Surprisingly, I was wrong. While he understood the category data and the general hair care landscape, he did not know as much about the multicultural hair experience outside of the mainstream market. I explained terms like pre-pooing (conditioning hair before shampooing), co-washing (washing with a conditioner instead of a shampoo to retain moisture), and sealing (using oils or butters to lock in moisture). I even provided some historical context.

“How do you know so much about this?” he asked. I credited the months I’d spent learning in preparation for my own transition. But, really, the more honest answer is because I am black. I had to learn about this. It wasn’t really a choice. At that point in my life, I had two options – continue with the same products and routines that I had used out of habit or educate myself on what regimens and products worked best for my afro-textured
hair now.

With my consent, my one-up manager shared our conversation with the hair care brand team. As a result, I was asked to collaborate with two other colleagues (also women of color) to provide perspective and feedback on the relaunch of a hair care line geared towards our demographic. Some of our feedback was implemented. Some was not. Still, this experience further fueled my desire to make beauty and personal care better for consumers like me. So, I was excited to accept my next role as the P&G eCommerce beauty, health and personal care account executive in New York.

I’m optimistic about the future of Walker & Company. When I first learned of the news, I nearly shed a tear. While I do not know Tristan Walker personally, his story and his vision speaks to my core. With ambitions to be the “Procter & Gamble for people of color,” Tristan Walker challenged the CPG industry to reconsider how they designed for and communicated with ethnically diverse consumers. Like many, he grew tired of how black and brown people were underserved in the marketplace. However, instead of waiting to be invited to a seat at the table, he built his own. He founded a company where people of color were the central focus, and not an afterthought. In doing so, he’s inspiring others to do the same.

African-American consumers spend $1.3 trillion annually on goods and services. We also contribute at or above our fair share in some beauty and personal care categories. An insights study published by Nielsen, reports that in 2017, black shoppers spent $473 million in total hair care (a $4.2 billion industry) and made other significant investments in personal appearance products, such as grooming aids ($127 million out of $889 million) and skin care preparations ($465 million out of $3 billion). This means that while African-Americans represent 14 percent of the U.S. population, we contribute 11 percent, 14 percent and 16 percent respectively of the revenue dollars in these categories. The same report states: The business case for multicultural outreach is clear. African-American consumers – and all diverse consumers – want to see themselves authentically represented in marketing, and they want brands to recognize their value to the bottom line.

Walker recognized this need for high-quality products from an authentic source. So, he created a company with a clear mission to make health and beauty simple for people of color. As a black man who spent years of his life facing the problems he was now trying to solve, he understood the unique needs of the customer he sought to help.

He started by identifying an unmet need in the shave care market. Black men were more prone to ingrown hairs and razor bumps when shaving due to the often-times curlier nature of their hair. For this reason, many favored electric shavers over the mainstream multi-blade razors. So, while many brands advertised their three, four and five blade systems, the Bevel shave system considered the specific needs of a target consumer demographic and created a single-blade safety razor aimed at preventing razor bumps and reducing skin irritation. Although not the first or the only company to create such a product, Walker & Company differentiated itself by catering to the underserved needs of people of color in a deliberate and authentic way.

It’s inspiring to witness the growth of Walker & Company. Not only is the company making waves with male grooming, but also with its beauty brand, Form. Now, with the support of P&G’s industry-leading supply chain and marketing, I’m excited to see what’s next. As P&G continues to find innovative ways to touch and improve more consumers’ lives in more parts of the world, more completely, I’m hopeful that this acquisition will bring both companies even closer to simplifying beauty for people of color.

By Brittney Gordon (MBA ’19)