By Ericka Nicoll
From root to end, hair can chart your path and reveal your history. It did just that for Jamyla Bennu. “My mom was affirming of my hair [growing up], but she didn’t have the skill-set to handle it,” she said. “I had to figure it out.”
Then came the early 2000s and its Web 1.0. “I was connecting to people on natural hair message boards from my [Brooklyn] apartment,” she said. Then, she started cooking up hair and body products from natural healthy ingredients in her kitchen. “I learned how to mix this and double-boil that.”
The message boards would serve as a launchpad for Jamyla, who in 2001 launched Oyin Handmade, a unisex personal care line she co-founded with her husband, Pierre Bennu. “I would sell some of the products to people I met online. And I’d test my concoctions on myself, friends and family,” said Jamyla. Word quickly spread. “Back then we used Paypal for most of our orders.”
From day one, Jamyla wanted Oyin, the Yoruba word for honey, to have integrity, and that meant creating each product with high-quality ingredients. “My line is made with food-grade materials,” she said. “There is a correlation with the ingredients and results we see. If it isn’t safe to eat, then why would I put in on my body?”
Oyin’s Hair Dew moisturizes with olive and coconut oil, quenching the thirst of dry hair. There’s also NoAshAtAll, a cocoa butter body lotion, and Funk Butter, a natural deodorant, among others. The same recipes Jamyla cooked up in her kitchen now line the shelves at Whole Foods, Target and CVS, retailing from about $4 to $34 per item.
Moving her products from stove top to shelves took time and lots of sleepless nights. “New York was getting expensive, so in 2005 my beloved husband and I packed up and moved to Baltimore,” said Jamyla. “We knew we had a strong customer-base there and could set up a storefront.” They roped in friends and family members to help grow their brand. From bottling to packing, it was all hands on deck.
“We never took on investors and kept our costs very low. There is a benefit to bootstrapping,” said Jamyla. “We didn’t put together an actual 5-year or 10-year plan. We figured it out as we went along. We eventually did some hiring, which helped streamline the process.” New staffers included a general manager who educated the couple on business practices and creating a more cohesive production system.
“You can scale and straddle between being self-manufactured and playing in a space where you are competing with the larger players,” said Jamyla. “What helped us to do it on our own is that we manufactured in a city that allowed us to do so. We could afford a little bit of trial and error in Baltimore.”
As the brand expanded in the Charm City and around the globe, they had to learn the psychology of their ever-expanding audience. “As you grow, you’re not selling directly to the customers. You’re working with distributors and thinking about how to make them happy. It was a shift of expectation,” added Jamyla.
Expansion often means owners get a tad detached from the production of their goods as they focus on increasing sales. But not the Bennus. Life in the Bennu household means being fully emerged in all things Oyin. “My husband and I are always working on or around Oyin,” said Jamyla.” My boys, who are now seven and 10, had their playpens right in the office. We all grew up here.” They’ve learned to intertwine family and company in a healthy manner. Over their 19 years of marriage, “we’ve built this business together,” said Jamyla. “We have shared stress, we understand what each other is going through. Though, I will add that balance is a myth.”
The couple also owns and operates ExittheApple Artspace in B’More, which hosts comedy events and workshops for artists. Pierre also writes and illustrates books. And there’s also an Oyin boutique and hair salon that operates on Saturdays, leaving the industrious duo with little time to themselves.
“I’m happy, but I’m exhausted,” Jamyla admits. “It’s not ever my weekend. I’m not off. My husband and I are trying to be half-as-good bosses to ourselves that we are to our employees.”
Ultimately, the sleepless nights are about teaching their community-at-large to love themselves and every strand on their head. “The company’s tagline is, ‘Your hair is awesome! Shouldn’t your products be awesome too?’ We want people to appreciate their hair, and be proud of themselves.”