When Tamika Fletcher arrived at the University of Houston, the plan was to study communications and media studies. But that all changed when a steady stream of compliments made her reconsider her future.
“People kept asking me about my afro and asking how did you get your hair like that?” she remembers. “I told them I stopped relaxing and putting chemicals on it. I figured there was a need for styling natural hair.”
So Fletcher, then 19 years old, decided to open a hair salon out of her dorm room.
Two decades later, Fletcher is the proud owner of the Houston-based Natural Resources Hair Salon and the founder of Earth’s Nectar, a clean beauty and natural hair care brand formulated for dry, curly, and coarse hair. Looking back on those UH days, her entry into the beauty industry was driven by the lack of quality options and education.
“We needed better products,” says Fletcher. “Everything we used to find was the same stuff our grandmothers used to use: petroleum and mineral oil products that just sat on top of the hair and didn’t help it grow.”
It took thousands of tries to perfect the core Earth’s Nectar products, some of which are based on recipes from a great, great aunt who attended the Madam CJ Walker School of Beauty, a chain of vocational schools founded by the self-made millionaire who pioneered the Black beauty industry in the United States. Fletcher produced the hair products out of her kitchen for years before she started renting out a friend’s salsa kitchen at night to make bigger batches. She eventually graduated to a warehouse and started outsourcing some of the manufacturing.
Even so, the brand remained a boutique presence in her Houston salon for years until Sephora expressed interest in carrying Earth’s Nectar in the megachain’s stores. That retail placement generated a ton of press interest from Vogue, Allure, and pretty much every beauty magazine and website worth reading. The organic reach was so great that Fletcher has never had to invest in advertising. She sees it as proof of how powerful word of mouth praise can be. “Before, people were using so many chemicals,” Fletcher says. “But we were finding that just using natural ingredients, it would work, and our clients were spreading the word!”
But the six-year relationship with Sephora was phased out just as the pandemic rolled in, pushing Fletcher into new territory. The Workshop at Macy’s, a retail business accelerator, helped Fletcher get Earth’s Nectar secure a distribution deal through the department store, and she also supplements sales via Amazon and the brand’s own e-commerce site, where sales have never been higher.
Changes in distribution and keeping up with increased demand hasn’t always been easy to manage during the pandemic, however. “We’ve faced so many challenges with payment terms being changed from 30-day net to 100-day net while still being expected to produce,” explains Fletcher. That means a renewed focus in the brand’s ‘need-to-have’ not ‘nice-to-have’ products, such as treatments products that help clients obtain great hair at home without stylists.
Then came the packaging shortages spurred by record demand for hand sanitizer that forced Fletcher to get creative. “I couldn’t find a bottle from here to California, and we’re all made in the USA, and I wanted to keep it that way,” she says. “What we did was sometimes substitute a dropper for a spray bottle, and just let our clients know to expect that.”
These challenges come at the same time that her Houston salon, always a steady source of revenue, endured a months-long shutdown. Fletcher is now exploring options for outside funding for the first time. “We’ve never done it before; we’ve always been able to reinvest,” she says, “but now without the salon, we’re trying to figure out our next step in scaling.”
What’s next? There are talks with both Bloomingdale’s and Target, for which Fletcher just applied for the Rising Star Accelerator program. “We also want to expand our product line to include skincare, but in order to do that, we’re trying to decide if we would take on an investor, and trying to learn exactly how to do that.”
It’s uncharted territory, but that doesn’t phase Fletcher, who at this point in her journey knows where to find answers and expertise. Probably the biggest resource she recommends is the SBA, where she’s found everything from business resources to her SCORE mentor.
“Now,” she says, “we’re trying to figure out the next step.”
Are you on your own journey as a small business owner? Check out the Hello Alice Beauty & Wellness Industry Resource Center for resources, how-to guides, and more to help you grow your business and succeed during COVID-19 and beyond.