Jan 27, 2016

The Story of Carol’s Daughter

In May of 1993, Lisa Price founded the hairand skincare brand, Carol’s Daughter, in the kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment. Nearly 23 years later, in front of a packed auditorium as part of the Bright Lights, Green Sights speaker series, she reflected on those early days. In the beginning, she said, customers showed up on her stoop at 10pm, rang her doorbell, and, having heard about her business from friends, requested shampoo. In the beginning, as she mixed ingredients and tested new products, her focus remained on one concern—not marketing, not customer acquisition, but “let me not blow up this building.”

Her entrance into the market for multicultural hair and skincare products came at an auspicious moment. In the early nineties, the “going natural” movement was taking hold: women, typically African-American, were avoiding relaxer, a potent chemical compound that they used to straighten their hair. Instead, they were opting to wear their hair natural. But, with this decision, they faced a dearth of hair-care products. In 1993, stores offered, “‘the ethnic aisle,’ and it wasn’t an aisle, it was about three shelves, and it was dirty, and the products were on the bottom,” said Price. As she set out to fill this niche with a business of her own, she realized “how deprived I was for my own hair, how much I was just settling” for sub-standard products.

Carol’s Daughter grew quickly. In 1999, she opened a storefront in Fort Greene, Brooklyn; in 2002, she appeared on the Oprah show; in 2005, she opened a flagship store in Harlem and partnered with celebrity investors, including Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Soon after that, she launched on the Home Shopping Network, where Carol’s Daughter became the number one hair-care brand by 2011. And in 2014, L'Oréal USA purchased Carol’s Daughter. This was the “endgame,” said Price. “That’s what I needed. That’s what I wanted.”

But the sale of her business proved complicated. A swath of her customer base reacted with deep anger and resentment. “I was a black-owned business, and now a white company bought me,” she said. People considered her a sell-out. To her, this was a myopic view of the situation. Most immediately, she had investors, who wanted returns, and she, too, needed a personal exit strategy. In her mind, L'Oréal USA proved the ideal owner. “I wanted to be with an industry leader, who appreciated what I’d done, who appreciated the customer,” Price said. But beyond that, on a more profound level, she was looking to build wealth. “There are not many African-American people who really have wealth, and it is going to take us time to build that, and we are going to have to be okay in selling,” she said. “I started my business in my kitchen with $100. I cooked stuff on my stove. And I sold to the largest beauty company in the entire world. And I had to defend myself.”

This 23-year passage—from stovetop to L'Oréal—was difficult and uncertain throughout, and the tremendous success that Price has realized is traceable, she said, to simple inspiration from her mother, after whom the company is named. Her mother was sick for her entire adult life, dependent on prescription drugs with a range of side effects. “But she always found that things could be worse,” said Price. Internalizing her mother’s optimism gave Price the courage and the persistence to work through failure, through uncertainty. “That’s the most important business tool I’ve ever had,” she said. “Knowing that the glass is half-full.”

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