Miss Jessie’s Co-Founder on Bringing Natural Haircare to Mass Markets
Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they’ve learned on the job.
Whenever you see a celebrity like Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, Zendaya, and Yara Shahidi with gorgeous shiny, defined natural curls on the red carpet, there's a good chance they used a Miss Jessie's product while getting ready. Beloved by Hollywood stars, their glam teams, and curly-haired women alike, the brand remains as one of the most popular, afforable, and effective lines for natural and textured hair since it launched in 2004.
With deliciously named products like the iconic Curly Pudding, Curly Meringue, and Coily Custard, it's not surprising the brand's founders, sisters Miko and the late Titi Branch, started the brand by whipping up products in the kitchen of their Brooklyn brownstone. And the name of the line has family origins, too. The sisters were inspired by their grandmother, Miss Jessie Mae Branch, who would make her own mixtures to treat her grandaugthers' hair when they were kids.
"One of the reasons why Miss Jessie’s is so successful is that my sister and I were always customers first," Miko tells InStyle. "We tested products on our own hair before we ever introduced them onto the floor of our salon or brought them to market."
Once word got out about their innovative formulas, the pair couldn't keep up with the customer demand for Curly Pudding, their hero product, and Miss Jessie's became the go-to salon in New York City for curly and natural hair.
Today, Miss Jessie's products are sold in mass retailers like Target and Walmart, and Miss Jessie's CurlBar Salon is open in Fort Lauderdale, Fl.
Here, we caught up with Miko to learn about how she and Titi turned their DIY products into a massive business, why there's a lack of hairstylists trained in working with natural and curly hair in Hollywood, and more.
Tell me how you got your start in the beauty industry.
As a young girl growing up in Queens, New York, I was creative and attracted to beautiful things. I would experiment with makeup and dress up, but I very quickly became interested in doing hair, and I was good at it. It wasn’t uncommon that all the girls on my block would get their hair done by me. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in my early 20’s, I decided I would enroll in hair school because it was where my passion really lied. I worked at salons in New York City, then I became a session stylist and did editorial work with magazines. Eventually, I partnered up with my sister Titi Branch. She became my agent and called every single person in New York City asking if they needed a hairstylist. Luckily, Ashley Stewart, a plus size retailer, wanted my services. I worked for one week and made $8000. That became the seed money for our first salon in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Once you opened the salon, why did you start making products? How did you get your product line off the ground?
When Titi and I opened our first salon in Boerum Hill, we initially focused on healthy hair because we had many clients who wanted straight blowouts. After a few rookie business moves, we ended up closing our salon and buying a brownstone in the BedStuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. We refuged there and this was around the time I had my son. So, if you wanted to get your hair done by me, you had to come to our brownstone. One day during bath time, my son splashed all around and I realized I could no longer maintain my straight blowout. That’s when I started to embrace the texture of my hair. My customers saw my hair in its textured state and it started a conversation. I quickly realized this was our opportunity to really fulfill a huge void in the market. So, Titi and I very quickly became experts on how to style textured hair, and since there were no brands like Miss Jessie’s on the shelves of large retailers, we went to our kitchen table and whipped up products ourselves. Our customers began to love them, and thank god for the internet because each person told another person about the products. Soon enough, people were calling to get a jar of Curly Pudding faster than we could make it.
Do you have any products from the line that you’re particularly proud of putting out?
Two products come to mind. It would have to be Curly Pudding because it was that was the ground-breaking product that changed it all. My sister and I were mixing concoctions in our kitchen, but it was actually Titi who stayed up later than I did and really cracked the nut on how to combine all of the wonderful ingredients together to come up with a purple pudding that made good on its promise to cut down on frizz, define curls, and make them shiny.
Another product is Pillow Soft Curls. It tends to be a popular one and it’s the first of it’s kind. The formula marries fabric care technology with haircare technology and it’s all packaged in a single tube. It gives hair the same soft, static-free feeling you get by using fabric softener on your laundry, plus definition and volume.
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When you started Miss Jessie’s with Titi, products for textured hair weren’t widely available. Today, there's a better selection and more women are embracing their natural hair. What’s it been like to see this shift?
Miss Jessie’s was really there and present for people who wanted to understand and beautify their hair in its natural or curly state. We’ve been in business for over two decades now, so our first generation of customers have had the chance to tell her daughter, and her daughter got a chance to tell her friend, and so on. Honestly, Miss Jessie’s works and people who are embarking on the journey to embracing their natural texture are looking for performance — especially women who aren’t applying any chemicals to their hair because they’re really relying on products that work. I think the combination of our products actually delivering results and the trust built with our customer has proven to be a winning formula for us to continue to be one of the most popular brands on the market for curls and textured hair
There’s a problem in Hollywood where a lot of stylists on set don’t know how to style curly or natural hair. As a pioneer in the natural haircare market, why do you think this is still a problem in 2020?
Based on my personal experience, in beauty school they did not have a curriculum that took time to focus on textured hair. Most of what they taught us in school was applicable to styling or cutting hair that was straight or had been straightened. Textured hair is completely different so requires training and education. Without that training from the very beginning, you would have to seek out special training if you don’t have naturally curly or kinky hair yourself in order to style all hair types by the time you get on the set of a movie or TV show.
As we see curly and natural hair is becoming preferred over a default style, so I believe more stylists are seeking special training or further education when it comes to different textures and I think that can certainly better what we’re seeing visually on the big screen. Experience and training is the solution for stylists who have been exposed to clients with different hair types. But, I think you can’t go wrong when you have a stylist who has has natural or curly hair because they had to beatify, treat, and style their own hair. So, the chances of them having to take a special course might be slimmer than someone who does not have the same textured hair. I think someone who’s knowledgable about textured hair and who has textured hair could be a winning combination when choosing a stylist on set to style celebrities who have natural and curly hair.