Mama Tress: The Future Of Inclusivity In The Black Hair Industry
By: Morgana Van Peebles
Tell me a little about yourself.
My name is Hannah, I’m originally from Long Island, but then moved to Manhattan and went to NYU for college.
A little bit about my background -- my family has always been in the hair industry; my grandfather fell into the world of wigs back when Korea was a third-world country. He ended up running a wig factory in Korea, and that’s how he got started. In 1976, he came to America, and continued his business here. My family has been in the world of Black hair and beauty for over 40 years. Just growing up and watching my parents, I’ve always been surrounded by hair and hair products lying around our house. My father would travel a lot back and forth to China where the manufacturers were, and I would tag along with my mother to hair trade shows when I was really small. My family background I think is important in terms of where I am today.
I think a lot of people ask me how I ended up here, and my original intention was never to join the family company. After I graduated from college, I didn’t have a clear direction on what I wanted to do or go, and I ended up completing Aveda esthetician school for beauty, but it still wasn’t a good fit for me at the time. Later, I ended up working part time for my family’s company, and then that turned into full-time.
You’re the founder of Mama Tress. Tell me a little bit about the company, what you do, and how it started.
When I was working with my family, there was never a consumer interfacing marketing team, and with the rise of technology and social media, I realized interacting directly with the consumer was extremely important and missing. So from 2012, I created my own team and our focus was research because I wanted to understand the customer better. Research turned into social media, and I would use it to engage with customers and learn more about their wants and needs and what they liked and didn’t like. From there, social media turned into marketing and branding, and that turned into me taking over consumer facing marketing strategies digitally.
In January 2017, I ended up creating my own agency, Mama Tress. Mama Tress is a creative communications agency, and we work with brands in the ethnic hair space, as of now. I use the term “communications” because we do so many different things. However, as we are still young for a company (into year two now), we’re definitely not the same agency we were when we started. I always tell my team that the only constant here is change so I’m constantly trying to see what our customers or what the market’s needs are, and adapting accordingly.My team's strengths are more creative based, as in content creation, art direction, production, and PR.
You do so much when it comes to hair, from research, branding, content creation, and even event planning; how did you find yourself mixing so many services into one, and was hair a field you always knew you wanted to go into?
The reason our services are so varied is because those were and have been the needs of the clients, and I just think it is an awesome opportunity to have a taste of everything. Now I know which areas I want the company to focus more in, and where I want to go next.
As for going into hair, my first thought when I was going to start the agency was that this was an opportunity for me to branch out and work with different types of brands. [But] we still have so much more to learn so I would rather focus in on this niche, especially because it is underserved. Just be excellent at what we do, and then from there, who knows. But, right now I really love being in this space of ethnic hair and figuring out how we can make it better and more beautiful.
On top of being a boutique agency, Mama Tress has even founded its own product focusing specifically on laying your edges, where did the idea to create Baby Tress come from?
My co-founder, Stella, and I are always coming up with ideas for products or services and sometimes I can get a little carried away. One time when we were just talking about our ideas, I thought “wouldn’t it be genius to create a product/brand as its own company and as an agency build it up? And then once it’s solid and ready to run off on it’s own, we let it go and instead take it on as a client.” So basically we would be birthing our own clients, and creating this cycle. This was just a random conversation we had, so no I never really anticipated the company making its own products any time soon.
The idea for Baby Tress came about when we were brainstorming for another client’s marketing campaign. We wanted to prepare some branded swag to give away, and one of the ideas we tossed out was an edge tool. But from my recollection and my team’s, all we could think of was a toothbrush. I was really confused because you would think there would be something else, something specifically made for your edges. But we did some research and couldn’t find anything substantial. Once we realized this gap in the market, it just kept nagging at the back of my mind. But because it’s not a product I use, I was really curious to hear from my team and their friends’ thoughts on and around it. With everyone’s input, we ended up crafting our dream edge tool.
Already doing so much with Mama Tress, and now Baby Tress, what do you see as the future for both companies?
Baby Tress has inspired my next phase, which I’m still trying to figure out how to make a reality. The whole journey of Baby Tress has opened up lots and lots of conversations within my team as well as outside regarding race, culture, and creativity. My team is very diverse, and I myself am not a Black woman, yet our customers are black woman, so these questions of ownership come up, and questions of belonging. Personally, I am still trying to articulate and find my place in this field, and my team helps me with that. Yes, I’m a woman of color, but when it comes to hair and hair products for African textures, it gets sticky.
This is still in the works, but for Baby Tress I am currently the full owner of the company. We’ve been getting a lot of questions from customers asking if it is a black owned business, and we’re always honest and say it is not, but that it is managed and run by a diverse team of women. Because my team is so involved, we’re in the process of creating ownership within my team which I’m really excited about. I’m excited because I want this to become the blueprint for our teams future endeavors, should we have others, as well as a blueprint for other companies. I want to show that we can all have a piece of the pie and even have more pie when we’re in it together. Some people think I’m being idealistic, and everyone can have their own opinion, but for me, inclusivity is a good business decision.
What do you feel most accomplished for in your life right now?
Mama Tress. My team. I’m going to cry.
I didn’t do this, we did this, and it has always been a collaborative effort. I always say my team doesn’t work for me, we all work for each other. What I love about my team is that they have so much integrity. They’ve made me a better and more conscious person, and allowed me to be myself around them. I feel like I can fully let go, and just be Hannah here.
Looking at Mama Tress, you’ve truly created a career tailored to your strengths and passions, what advice would you give to younger women hoping to do the same?
I wish I had mentors when I was younger. I always felt incapable and small, or not smart enough, good enough, not extroverted enough or whatever, to be able to do all the things that I wanted to do.
I would encourage younger women to just reach out to people, whether it’s a random message through LinkedIn or some other network. Just reach out because they will most likely help you, and if not there are a million other women who will.
Are there any projects you’re currently working on that we should be in the look out for?
Currently Baby Tress is at Showfield, which is kind of a highlight moment for us. We were one of seven purpose-driven brands selected by Shopify to be featured in the space. The space, Showfield is in NoHo, and it has just been an all around awesome experience. Shopify has supported us so much, and has created a physical manifestation of who we are so people could experience it in person. There are other things in the works I can’t speak about yet, but follow us on Instagram and you’ll find out more!
Ok, so this next part is just some fireball questions. Answer the first things that come to mind — describe your style in two words?
Effortless and comfortable.
I have these like charcoal odor absorbers in all my closets and I find them so useful and necessary, especially in New York.
Something you can’t leave home without?
I’m always forgetting things when I leave home… but I’d say my phone.
I used to be in love with Christian Bale!
Favorite current hair stylist?
Probably @evaniefrausto. He’s just so creative.
Who’s someone that inspires you?
My bff, Michael. Recently, he’s been killing it at work and he just always inspires me to keep pushing.