How Baltimore's Oyin Handmade is growing and changing to meet natural hair needs

It's a Saturday morning, and at Oyin Handmade's storefront in Old Goucher, 13 women are sitting, watching intently as Akos "Sunday" Regal demonstrates how to wear headwraps. She grabs one woman after another, showing them different ways to wrap different lengths of brightly colored cloth to make a beautiful head dressing.

She's from Ghana and so are most of the fabrics that she is using. Some kente cloth that she uses to accent one woman's full and fluffy 'fro is from east Africa. "This hair must be shown off," Regal tells the woman.

The event feels like a love-in, with everyone "ooh"-ing and "ahh"-ing at the results of each headwrap.

"You look like…" says one woman to another who has just had two different cloths twisted into a regal crown. Another woman finishes her sentence: "royalty."

Yet another woman volunteers that the wraps remind her of the fancy hats her grandmother would wear to church.

The women have all paid $5 for the head wrap demo. The money would go toward an Oyin Handmade product credit, and once the demo is over, they all start loading up on headwraps and various stuff for their hair and skin.

Deborah Adams is one of the women looking for a product to take home with her. She says she discovered Oyin when a woman doing a hair tutorial (YouTube has tons of women who spend their free time recording demos to help other women learn how to fix their hair, makeup, and more) raved about them. She was shocked to discover they were so close.

"I was looking through YouTube and when I saw it was in Baltimore," she says. "I said 'It's here! On Charles Street!'"

She says she loves the Juices and Berries, a moisturizing leave-in spray.

"It smells so good, it makes my hair so soft. And my grandson loves it. I bought three other products, he basically used them more than I did. But you know they are good products, I like them. . . . I came in to buy some products today."

Full disclosure: I have used (and, even fuller disclosure, loved) Oyin Handmade's products for a while now. The company has been in business for 14 years, run by wife and husband owners Jamyla and Pierre Bennu. I used to visit their store on Charles Street, buy a tub of their Honey Hemp conditioner, and maybe one of the children's books (written and illustrated by Pierre, who is also an artist), then enjoy the candy and free samples that came with my purchase.

When I started visiting, the products, which are all natural and organic, were only available online and in the Charles Street store. Since then, they have expanded into select Whole Foods, Sally's Beauty Supply stores, and Targets nationwide. The Bennus have also added a hair salon to the Charles Street location.

It's easy to love them—both Oyin the company and the Bennus themselves. The vibe, both in the product packaging and in the store, is almost aggressively cheerful: all bright colors, affirming messages. Products have names like the aforementioned Juices & Berries, Hair Dew (a leave-in moisturizer), and NoAshAtAll (a cocoa butter body lotion). The Bennus finish each other's sentences, laugh together easily, and look at each other like they actually, genuinely, like each other. There's a reason they have appeared in Oprah's O Magazine and that Ebony called them the coolest black family in America.

We met on a mid-day in early February, away from their Charles Street store. They do most of their business in Mount Vernon, in a building that houses their production facility and the sunny Exit the Apple Art Space. The first thing visitors see upon entering the building is Pierre's extensive collection of magazines and comic books featuring black characters, which are all mounted on the wall. There's also a chalkboard on which someone has written a daily meditation (today, it's "Acts of greatness do not require permission"). We walk through the entrance room, a room where employees mix up and box product, and a dark room filled with cardboard boxes, to get to the Exit the Apple space. Together, the Bennus tell me how Oyin grew from a basement project (one of many attempts at entrepreneurship), to the company with nationwide reach that they run today.

They tell me that they make hair and body products, yes, but there's much more to what they do.

"There are people in their 50s who don't know the texture of their hair," Pierre says. "Like, that's deep. The metaphor being: What part of myself have I divorced myself from, and who am I? Who have I been? It's a lot."

Jamyla says they have always been committed as a company to making sure that black people like their hair, just as it grows out of their scalps.

"We don't think your hair is a problem. Our tagline for 10 years is your hair is awesome, shouldn't your products be awesome too?" she says. "Like, we're not trying to change it. It's awesome, let's figure out how to make it be its most awesome-est. We're not trying to turn it into something else."

"And we're not dogmatic," Pierre adds. "Like, you don't need an afro, you can still do whatever you want with it."

Part of the sales process, they say, is dismantling the negative things that black people are taught about their hair.

"It's not overt," Jamyla says. "Sometimes it's in some of the language that we use, in describing ourselves, in describing our hair as a problem. 'Oh, this stuff.' Or just like the way we self-deprecate."

She says that they make sure that every person who works for the company, whether they are on the sales floor or working behind the scenes, knows how to interact with customers in a positive way.

"I feel like we've got two parallel jobs," she says. "One is to provide excellent products that help to nourish and moisturize and style highly textured hair. And another is to kind of provide an educational service and a psychological underpinning for self-love."

It all sounds a little too good to be true, but when I talk to general manager Airic Jerrod about a month later, he confirms their philosophy when he tells me his own hair story. He says he came to Oyin from a large company, where he had to keep his hair clean-shaven. When we speak, he has neat, shoulder-length locks that he wears in two-strand twists. Jerrod said he'd never worn his hair long before, but once he got to Oyin, he decided to let it grow and see what happened.

"I went through the process for a full year without getting a haircut and growing my hair, getting to know my hair and what products did it like what it didn't like and the whole how do you feel about yourself and how do you think other people perceive you and what your hair looks like, and that was something I never really thought about," he says.

"I think that's a part of the experience. You kind of dive into the culture. You want to understand, and you want to be of service to people."

Oyin offers a wide range of products for hair and skin. Because of its many twists and turns and kinks and coils, black hair is more fragile, tends to need more moisture, and Oyin's products keep that in mind. Greg Juice, for instance, is a moisturizing hair tonic that's also good for stimulating and enriching the scalp. There are two different pomades—burnt sugar and sugar berries—that work to smooth hair back into an updo, moisturize braids, or control flyaways. Boing! is a styler that helps users direct their coils and curls in the direction they want them to go. Products run anywhere from $4 to around $34. The Bennus say that they don't want you to come in and buy up the whole store—at least, not right away. It's part of their educational approach to customer engagement.

"We'd rather you leave with four $4 things than four $30 things if it's your first time," Jamyla says. "Because we'd rather you try them all out and then come back and get the one $30 thing that you can't live without than go home with more products than you need, and then we never see you again so now you've spent too much money and we're not your friends," she says, laughing.

"Yes, of course, we're a business, we want you to buy from us, but more importantly we want you to buy what's best for you."

The Bennus do a lot. On top of the business, they have two young sons and produce a podcast called Loveworks, where they discuss things like family, business, and art. Also, Pierre is putting together Irregardless, a comedy show set for April 8 at Exit the Apple. I ask them how they manage it all.

"Barely," Jamyla says, laughing. "it is hard. The balancing is hard, only because the plates are so full, and there are so many plates. None of the work is hard. We have a lot of joy in everything that we do and we're very, very, very lucky that we have those feelings toward our work. But there is a lot of it and we are constantly working to maintain that balance."

They say that they have adopted an us-against-the-problem attitude, which helps.

"It helps that we work together because we get to be a resource for each other when we are feeling overwhelmed," Jamyla says.

They also try to think of creative ways to distribute the labor. They say that on any given day, there are anywhere from seven to nine people working in the production shop. Not all of their employees are full time. They also have occasional bottling parties where people can help bottle and label product in exchange for free stuff. This semester, they are working with business students from Morgan to help lighten the load.

"It's a way to connect with our community and also to help share some of the information we've learned and also get some help with some of the stuff that is spilling off our plate," Jamyla says.

They say they'd like to be more involved in Baltimore, taking a more active role in the goings on of the city. I tell them that when I first heard of Oyin's products, like Deborah at the head wrap demo, I didn't know that they were not only here in Baltimore, but within walking distance of my then-Charles Village home.

"We want to flip that and have more of an impact in the city that we love," Jamyla says. "So, having Exit the Apple as a public space and doing the pop-ups and doing more and more public events is big on our radar."

Expanding their visibility is something that they want to do, they say, but given the pace at which natural hair market is expanding and changing, it's something that they have to do, too.

"Like, the transition from relaxed to natural, people are still doing it. More and more each year," Jamyla says. "It's been 25 years for me, so I forget sometimes that people are still making that decision every day and with an incredibly more robust set of options than I had 25 years ago."

That means they have to be flexible and adapt quickly.

"So part of it is adjusting the company's emphasis," she says. "We used to be online only and that was fine. People would wait two weeks for us to make stuff from scratch and then for it to come in the mail because there was nowhere else to get it. That's not the case anymore. Obviously our turn-around time is not two weeks anymore, we're shipping next day, but we're also on the shelf and that is a big difference in a way that we're trying to adjust so that we can be here five years from now."

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