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She Started with Hair, Now She’s Here

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – One of the first things you notice about Carmella Williams is her hair. Thick, bouncy and vivacious, it’s as infectious as her smile. Hair has always been a central part of Williams’ life and now it’s a central part of her business — Carmella Marie hair products.

Growing up in a rural Hubbard, most of Williams’ family held two jobs or were entrepreneurs, including her mother, who owned a floral shop and sold Avon products. Entrepreneurship seems to be in the family’s blood.

“I always had a dream of owning a business and increasing the economic impact of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley,” Williams says.

After briefly considering a career in financial services, and failing to get a much-hoped-for job in Seattle, she had an epiphany.

“For 29 years and nine months I had been searching for what it is that I’m supposed to do,” Williams says. The answer proved to be “as obvious as all that hair on top of my head.”

“In my life, as I reflect back through it, it’s always been about my hair: how to do it, what to put in it,” she says

In 2013, she began mixing together natural ingredients in her kitchen to make hair products.

“I actually designed every product by pulling something out of my kitchen cabinet,” she says.

In many ways, this is a tradition that dates to slavery, when black women gathered on Sundays to do their own hair.

“They had to make products back then,” Williams emphasizes.

Many of Carmella Marie’s products include ingredients such as flax seed, honey, pumpkin seed oil and aloe vera. All are natural; some are certified organic. Williams analyzed what the hair products industry made available for black women and she paid close attention to what women made at home for their own hair.

“I actually did what the consumer was looking for, perfected it and nine products later, at that time, I came up with a hair product line.” she says.

Her business joined an explosion of natural hair care companies marketing products as part of a burgeoning “natural hair movement” for black women.

“People are more cognizant of what [chemical] relaxers do,” Williams says. She says that for both health and for cultural reasons, more black women are choosing not to straighten their hair. Instead, they’re learning how to style and maintain their natural curls.

Many of her clients, she says, “are older women who are letting go of the perm.”

Along with the company’s vice president, also her sister, Jacqueline, and a small team, she produces larger batches of product at the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator in Youngstown. She consults a chemist when necessary. In order to keep product fresh and free of mold, Williams also goes the natural route.

“We don’t use formaldehyde and we don’t use paraffin,” she says. “We use gentle preservatives.”

Williams began marketing Carmella Marie by holding monthly demonstrations at U Deserve It: LaRoi’s Lashery & Day Spa in Boardman. When she ran out of space at the spa, Williams moved to a room at the Davis Center, where up to 40 women showed up for each session. Word of mouth helped push sales.

“We have a really tight-knit family that are big proponents of my company,” she says.

In May 2016, Williams won a $5,000 grant from the WE Launch program conducted by Women in Entrepreneurship, an initiative of the Youngstown Business Incubator.

“I went in with a disjointed business plan,” Williams says. “They helped me pull it all together and get organized.”

The nine-week week class instructed students on such fundamentals as developing a business plan, marketing, insurance and maintenance of a business. Williams’ dedication and business plan helped her stand out.

“When it comes to accountability, Carmella is top-notch,” says Stephanie Gilchrist, program director for Women in Entrepreneurship.

A committee, which included YBI CEO Jim Cossler, and Barb Ewing, the incubator’s chief operating officer, evaluated the participants’ business plans.

“One thing he [Cossler] said about Carmella was, ‘I feel the passion in her plan,’ ” Gilchrist recalls. “We all felt that way.”

Deanna Fusillo, owner of Sassy Girl Media in Canfield, mentored Williams throughout the program.

“Carmella had a good grasp on what was going on,” she says. “She knew where she wanted to go, what her goals were and how she was going to get there. There were a couple of little bumps in the road, but nothing that was going to stop her from getting there.”

There are now 13 different products in the Carmella Marie line. They can be found in retail outlets throughout the region, but Williams’ focus now “is not so much business-to-business. We’re focusing more so on business to client.”

Williams demonstrates and sells her products at natural hair shows from New York to New Orleans, and Carmella Marie “pop-up shops” a couple of Sundays a month at Legacy Beauty and Barber in Youngstown.

She’s preparing for her annual show “Let’s Talk Hair: The Mane Event,” which will be held Sept. 30 at Youngstown State University.

“We’re on our fourth year, Williams says. “We bring in stylists and speakers. We’ll have about 20 to 30 vendors. We talk about hair. Hair is a metaphor for our life. If you love your hair in its natural state, and you take out time for your hair, that in turn flows into other parts of your life.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.