Welcome to Byrdie's new series, The Hustle. We're profiling diverse, interesting women and woman-aligned folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
In the newest installment of The Hustle, we're getting to know Grace Eleyae of Grace Eleyae Inc., a stylish line of modern hair accessories and products transforming the landscape of natural hair care. In 2014 Grace took a trip to Kenya to lay the foundation for her business after she experienced some hair breakage during her previous excursions. This experience led to her seeking a new and innovative way to protect her hair with "fashionable" and "functional" accessories that elevated her daily look. Since Grace launched her business in 2014, she's made calculated steps to have her products featured on small E-commerce sites like Etsy and YouTube with different influencers. As her business evolved, she now boasts over 40,000 customers, a digital magazine, and her products are sold at major retailers like Ulta and Sephora.
Tell us about your background
.When I graduated from college, I worked for a brand and crisis management PR firm. The CEO of that company was moving to Baton Rouge to lead a growing baseball bat company called Marucci. He tapped me to join as his executive assistant, where I got to see a business grow before my eyes.
I sat in on high-level meetings, managed groups of interns, and gleaned as much knowledge from the CEO as I could. Though extremely challenging, I would say that experience was instrumental in shaping my career as an entrepreneur. Before starting Grace Eleyae, Inc. and launching the Slap line, I would say all of my corporate jobs have been in the small-to-medium-sized business space.
What was the journey like transitioning from Etsy to a corporation?
It had its challenges. We had a product, we had a tiny bit of traction from our Etsy store and influencers, but we didn’t have a sustainable and consistent way of reaching our customers and pushing them to our website. That was the first challenge. Once we had that solved and started to grow, even more, inventory management became a challenge. Making sure we maintained our high-quality standards even as we increased in volume became an ongoing challenge. And additionally, we had customer service, fulfillment, software, and other logistical issues that we now look back on as “growing pains.”
What was your "breakthrough" moment that brought your business to the mainstream audience?
There have been a couple of moments that felt like our "breakthrough" into the mainstream. Our first influencer was a massive milestone for us. We went from a small Etsy store selling 3-5 products per day to over 50 products in one day. That was when we knew we had something special, and all we needed to do was partner with the right people to help us get the word out. Along the way, we had many other unforgettable moments, from the first celebrities who endorsed the product to getting featured on the View, the Real, GMA, and more.
Why is your signature product named the "Slap"?
The Slap is a play on words for "Satin-Lined Cap." My mom came up with it when we were trying to think of names. I knew I wanted something catchy." At the time, we were calling the Slap a satin-lined beanie, and my mom's first suggestion was "sleanies." That was funny but vetoed. A few other names were discussed, and when she said Slap, we knew it fit perfectly.
How do your products help natural hair?
The tighter the curl, the thinner the cuticle on the hair shaft, and the more difficult it is to get the oil from the scalp to travel down the hair strands to the tips. That means that the tighter the curl pattern, the more prone to dryness the hair is.
Unlike cotton, satin and silk can repel moisture back to the hair, which extracts and absorbs moisture from hair and skin. Sleeping and resting the hair against satin and silk results in less friction which helps to eliminate unnecessary split-ends and hair breakage. Our products help keep the moisture where it’s supposed to be—in the hair—to allow natural hair to flourish and grow.
What do your day-to-day responsibilities look like as the founder of the company?
I lead the leadership team (mostly family members), and I oversee development, production, and fulfillment operations. I’m usually in meetings in the morning to make sure projects are on track, and I’m constantly comparing our plan to actuals with the team daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly.
Do you have any mentors that have helped guide your entrepreneurial journey?
My brother has one of the wisest business brains I’ve seen. Before he helped us scale the business to seven figures in just two years, he ran one of Amazon’s massive, one-million-sq-ft warehouses. He has been instrumental in guiding me as a leader. Additionally, we’ve hired a couple of third-party coaches that have helped us run our quarterly planning sessions throughout the years. As a family business, we needed to have a neutral third party to help us keep sight of the overarching goal.
Where do you find inspiration for the various prints/styles on the turbans?
My dad is from Nigeria, and my mom is from Kenya, and I grew up going to events where bright, bold fabrics were the norm. I loved the idea of incorporating them into our line.
Which products would you recommend first-time users must try?
My favorite product is still the knot turban because it works great over my TWA. But in general, my go-to recommendations for first-time users are our staples: original slap, adjustable slap, knot turban, and silk pillowcase. Any combination of those works well to cover your hair from your morning to your nighttime routine.
What are some challenges you've faced in growing your business?
We've overcome many challenges: product quality issues, shipping, and customer service while navigating the transition from a product-based business to a brand. One challenge we found at the beginning (and turned into an opportunity) was the idea of access.
Because we didn't have much access to the spaces that make big decisions for different corporations from banks, publications, and retailers, it forced us to get creative with how we ran our business and how we took the product to market. So instead of going through retailers, we were able to partner with influencers and go direct to consumers right away.
Where does your brand come into play in this bonnet versus no bonnet conversation?
I am not anti-bonnet or anti-beanie. I wanted to create a product that combined the two and provided another option. Bonnets have been used for decades, and if I didn't use bonnets growing up, I would have never had the idea for the slap.
Our brand's biggest goal is to provide solutions for people that help make their confidence look effortless. So, I think people should be permitted to feel confident in whatever they wear, even if that's a bonnet.