Mahisha Dellinger: Founder of CURLS

Episode 409

In 2002 Mahisha Dellinger launched CURLS, a family of organic hair care products targeted for women embracing, you guessed it, their natural textures and curls. With coveted products like the Blueberry Bliss line which to this day has had no formulation changes because it’s just that good – you know this entrepreneur is doing a lot right! The CURLS brand is a great success story and you will love hearing all about her journey including the twists and turns of becoming an entrepreneur after experiencing another industry. Plenty of great insights and lessons –this episode is filled with so much inspiration and takeaways you won’t want to miss it! On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, its Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so thrilled to have my next guest here. I’ve been wanting her on for some time. So I’m really, really excited that we finally were able to make it work. So Mahisha Dellinger is the founder of incredible company called curls. And I know you’ve seen it on the shelves in various locations in the past. They’re also obviously available online too. But the company has moved quickly to bring their natural, unique products around the world as well. And the curls brand is such a great success story. As I mentioned, Mahisha has taken an idea that she was super passionate about and turned it into an excellent business with products that are absolutely awesome. And she’s helped pave the way for so many multicultural haircare brands we see today. So thank you for doing that really, really incredible. And plus, being a female founder and entrepreneur, I have a soft spot for her as well. So really, really excited to have you on the show today. Mahisha. Thank you. Thank

Mahisha Dellinger 1:52
you so much for having me.

Kara Goldin 1:54
Really excited. So before we get into hearing about curls and the journey and building it, I would love to hear more about you and what you were doing before I think you said you were actually from Northern California, you were in Sacramento. What were you doing prior to starting curls?

Mahisha Dellinger 2:11
Yes, I’m from California. I live in Dallas, Texas now. But actually worked for Intel Corporation. I had worked for Intel for about eight years, I was an intern. And after my internship ended, they brought me on to continue to work throughout college. And then when I graduated, I had two job offers. So I took one of the two and stayed on and after Intel, I didn’t move on to Pfizer, but for a good chunk of my professional career. I was actually at Intel great experience with this floor as the key amazing, brilliant people I met so many talented people. But yes, it was a great overall experience.

Kara Goldin 2:54
So did you always think you were going to become an entrepreneur and a haircare entrepreneur? I mean, what what sort of gave you the bug?

Mahisha Dellinger 3:02
Well, no, I didn’t actually thought I was going to retire the Intel i really had my sight on climbing that corporate ladder and doing so aggressively. And over the course of the eight years I had some amazing mentors and managers and, and colleagues. But I did run into one bad experience. In the eight years I was there, that really shook me to my core. And it was you know, it was targeted from my manager at the time. And it really created a level of desperation to now control my destiny because I felt so I didn’t have the power. I felt like I was definitely held back controlled, deflated, defeated and targeted. And I didn’t like the fact that at any moment I could be let go this manager if I can just be frank actually talking to me for racial reasons, reasons. And it was my first time I lived in this world when my school my high school was integrated socially. Also racially, my college was as well. So I didn’t go into the world expecting that but when it was face on and I experienced it like head on for the first time I was super shook and and scared and shocked. And just like out of control. And it really pushed me I thought okay, so in this moment, because this manager put me on a corrective action plan to get rid of me in six months. Despite my my stellar performance and everything I do all my accomplishments, everything that I knew I did and all the accolades I got before this manager came on board. So I knew it was something more that made me decide that I will never ever again let my natural legacy Destiny being in the palm of anyone else’s hands, because in that six month period, I could have been let go. And I would have obviously got another job later, but at the time

all the legwork was happening while we were perfecting all of the formulas. And so we launched on April 2 back in 2002. It was like 100 person ecommerce, I flipped the switch onto the website. And that day, I was so happy I got eight orders. I was like, Oh, no orders. Happy. Yeah, I remember that day being like, a big deal. Yeah. So that’s how it all started. I love

Kara Goldin 10:25
it. So how long did it take from the time from that dinner on jotting down things on a napkin to actually launching your first product?

Mahisha Dellinger 10:37
That was about a nine month 11 month process. Okay. Yeah, it was a lot of time because I spent the time working on r&d, getting all my business ideas and things in order. As we were working the final prototype, so we It took about nine to 11 months. And we were ahead of us a commerce for a while, but it was a great journey.

Kara Goldin 10:59
So how would you describe curls to anyone who isn’t familiar with it? And why is your brand so unique still to this day?

Mahisha Dellinger 11:09
Yes. So curls is all about kept giving solutions for every natural woman and girl embrace her natural curls. So if you embrace your natural texture curls, Kingston, we are the company for you. You know, there’s so many brands out there that are helping you straighten your hair, change your texture, make you look more like XYZ celebrity, you know, we want to help you stay where you are, but make it beautiful and help you see the beauty of your natural texture. And that comes with the right grooming products. And what keeps us unique and why we are still on top is because we really do one, crave formulas that meet the different needs of our customers but continue to go with her on her journey. So we started with just products for adults, we added products for kids and for babies. So from cradle to grave, we have you covered, we also formulate with ingredients that have a science story behind them. Not just fluff, not just fillers, but really science pack packed and science back and clinical proven ingredients. We always work with ingredient stores like blueberry, right, we’re going to extract is one of the top our blueberry collection is our top selling collection. And blueberry extract actually is clinically proven to restore damage, prevent breakage, and encourage hair growth. So we took that one ingredient and create a whole collection. It smells phenomenal, performs well it has to perform for women to love it smell great. And also and also actually have some goodness, right going to do something good for their hair. So that’s our Trifecta smell good perform and have some that’s going to make the hair better make it either stronger, healthier, longer, all the things better.

Kara Goldin 12:51
So what was the first product that you launched with?

Mahisha Dellinger 12:54
There were four products. We had a hydrating shampoo, a deep conditioner, a curl refresher and a corrosion? Just the four,

Kara Goldin 13:05
just the four and you are they still you still have those four?

Mahisha Dellinger 13:10
Well, you know, the four original four kind of progressed, and the names aren’t the same, the products aren’t the same. It’s been 20 years suddenly one year. So I don’t think any of them have that same base, we’ve evolved quite a bit. Yeah, we actually ask people, as we start to see the benefits of key ingredients, and the issues with some others, we had to adapt. And that’s one thing that keeps us competitive, we keep adapting, you can’t stay the same, you have to evolve, or you dissolve. So we make sure that we keep evolving with our consumer. So right now for Safar customers. Coconut oil used to be an amazing oil, people loved it, oh, we want it in everything. Now the cola girls like whoa, coconut oil isn’t good for our hair. So we have coconut based products, and some of our ingredients are some of our ingredient decks. So we have to evolve away from that. So we have to evolve as we continue to learn. And as our consumers demands change.

Kara Goldin 14:06
So interesting. So you were one of the first in the market. And I mean, you created a category. I know that firsthand. When I started my company hint, I was close to 20 we were 18 years ago. And you know it’s a unsweetened flavored water. Sounds easy. It’s not that easy to make and created a product that doesn’t have any preservatives in it. But also we were doing something that no one else thought was important to do. And I

Mahisha Dellinger 14:37
love it. I love your your water. I had it for the first time I was doing a conference and they sent it to me in my back. Oh, and it was a business conference. And I was and that was my first exposure was like a few years ago. And I was like This is amazing. Thank you.

Kara Goldin 14:53
Thank you but I think like the hardest thing was, you know we had to customers we had to explain To the consumer what we were doing, but then we also had to explain it to the buyer at the stores the gatekeepers, I called them, you know, and saying, We’re unsweetened flavored water, there’s no one like us. And they were like, Well, if there’s no one like you, then maybe the category isn’t that important. And I bet you had the exact same issue.

Mahisha Dellinger 15:20
I did you know what’s funny? The the story, first pitch was Ulta Beauty. And the very first door, I probably shouldn’t have been in stores yet, it was like month six, I wasn’t ready. But I remember still pitching very, very happy to have my brand out there and excited and everyone wants to hear about this, I have to tell the world, I went to Ulta Beauty. And I did pitch Chuck Barth, the buyer, then who was a older gentleman, without hair and didn’t buy really for our our category, he said, I don’t see a need for this. There’s no need for this in my stores. And he kept saying that year after year, I pitched him every single year. No need for your products in my store, I don’t see the words of the benefit. So full circle, they reached out to us years later, after of course, they’ve evolved and Chuck retire and they brought a new fresh blood. And they saw that this industry was actually viable. But yes, I had to continue to go back and back year after year after year, I did not give up on that I wanted to be delta. And this is valuable. The buyer to see the the value. Yeah.

Kara Goldin 16:27
So I always tell people, when we had our first competition, the first unsweetened flavored water they came out, you know, I thought I needed to go buy a coffin, right? It happened to be Coca Cola that came in and decided to knock us off. And, you know, what I realized was that it definitely was a disruption for about six months. But then buyers came back to us because they said actually, this is a better product. And these guys are the category leader. So it actually expanded what I was doing. So I thought totally differently about competition. I’m so curious how you felt when people started coming into your space. You know, there’s not a lot you can do to stop them. But it’s you just have to be better and focus on you and your company. But I’d love to hear your perspective on that.

Mahisha Dellinger 17:21
Yeah, what a story for you, oh, my gosh, I can imagine only how that must have felt. And that for me says you know, flattery, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. So they someone that they came after you, that’s kudos to you. They saw they saw your value. For me, yes, I do. See we’ve seen an influx. So when we first started, it was a smaller category. And it could just continue to grow and grow and grow now saturated to some degree. But you know, it does keep competitions, great to keep you on your toes, keeps you competitive, keeps you innovative, and either evolve, like I said before, or you dissolve survival of the fittest. So you have to bring your best, you cannot stay stagnant, you have to continue to do what’s great, and what your core audience needs. Not get distracted, though, because sometimes you can see your competition the left and the right and think I should shift gears or mimic that or change this. And you can get distracted by looking at your surroundings a little much. But I do think the overall benefit does help the consumer, because it’s what we have so many players in the market, we’re all gonna level up. And that’s I’m seeing in our category, we’re all leveling up. And we all create this power of this network, because now all of these retailers want these brands. So it’s a power play. I think this has been beneficial for the end consumer.

Kara Goldin 18:42
Definitely, definitely. So funding a company is often super tough for first time entrepreneurs, even if you’ve worked at Intel, or in my case, in tech at at America Online, where you know, it really doesn’t matter. It’s tough, right people, especially when you’re launching a new product for your first time entrepreneur, or maybe you’re launching an entirely new category, it’s really tough coupled with multicultural women to I mean, it’s, it’s, the odds are even tougher. So what would you say was kind of the Do you have any stories? What was your wake up call? What How did you get it done? Ultimately, because you funded the company, how did you fund it?

Mahisha Dellinger 19:27
Well, I you know, I thought I was gonna get a either a business loan a line of credit, but despite having a great business plan, that obviously was successful, and essential parts of the credit, I couldn’t get either one of them. And funding for minority businesses back then was extremely rare, and it’s much better now. The opportunities are much more grand now that you can actually chances are getting funding are better. But back 20 years ago, 22 years ago, it was really hard. So I did not get any funding, I use personal savings. And what I did was I actually started smaller than I had hoped, because that backed. But I also kept a day job, I wanted to believe in Intel. And I was recommend this to my mentees, I looked into it because I couldn’t do a, a, you know, that job at that level, because it’s intense at Intel and run a business slightly to sell pharmaceuticals for Pfizer. And that gave me the flexibility of seeing all my doctors by certain time I was very efficient. On my time, I was the first rep in the offices, and I was able to get all my a doctor seen by noon. So I would jam to get that done, and then come home and work on curls. So I kept my salary for the house. And you know, my family and every time curls made I reinvested back in the brand. So that’s what I did. I just do grow it organically, slower over time, of course, but without any debts without any equity. You know, given away, I actually did it over time by myself with my own personal man.

Kara Goldin 21:04
That’s awesome. So you must like look back on that. I’m sure it was challenging, right? You had a small child, right? You were like trying to you were just getting married. I mean, lots of things were going on for you and starting a new company. I mean, it’s, I think just looking back on those days, it’s not that they aren’t hard, but they’re doable. And I think stories like yours need to be told, because I think that inspires more and more people to know that you can do it. It’s hard. It’s not easy. You have to get creative, but you can do it.

Mahisha Dellinger 21:39
It’s hard. I want to say I had three at that time. So I had my my this time I married and I had two back to back. Oh my god 31 was was a blessing wasn’t planned, but it was a blessing. Yeah, so it was it was a lot. Yeah, that’s wild.

Kara Goldin 21:55
So being an entrepreneur is brutal as we were just sharing, and we both know developing something new that the consumer isn’t used to having has its challenges. How did you get the word out about what you were doing? I remember you were saying your eight, the first eight people ordered. I mean, you were like so you know, just so excited. I get it. But how did people know that you were available at that time?

Mahisha Dellinger 22:25
So yes, we were 100% ecommerce. So we did a lot and also self funded. So now a large marketing budget, right? I did a lot of guerilla marketing tactics, I had to go where the consumer was, I didn’t have money for TV commercials, ads, I had to go to very targeted places where they were lots of events, lots of sampling. And think about back then there were a lot of chat groups. So naturally was a place that women only went to talk about their career, their problems, their solutions, what products are using, what type they had, what their you know how they’re selling their hair, and it was a Mecca, a worldwide Mecca, and I did a lot national and a lot of sampling do them. But really going to events in different cities and having Street Team ambassadors represent us at different in different cities at different events. So not just like hair shows, because that’s where other hair brands would be. But just think of where our consumer would be on a natural Saturday. So if she’s at like today’s day, if she’s Beyonce concert, then our girls are outside after passing out the new products, I was gonna try and tell him to go to Target to get it or Ulta or CVS, or Walmart. So we do a lot of on the then as well on the ground activations to go worse tumors, so a lot of sampling, going where she is and getting her to repeat by. And so not those little piddly little small samples of curly girls have a lot of hair. So we’re talking premium two ounces. So you can actually experience a product. And that was the basis for us to really get going and elevate it and growth because once I knew once they tried it, they will love it. And that’s what it took. And that’s what we did.

Kara Goldin 24:11
Your story is so similar to ours in the early days that we always we went out to events and gave out thought about where our consumer was and and gave out bottles. We never gave out small samples because if people had just had sugar right before they drank our product, they were like I don’t taste anything. Right. So you couldn’t determine their palate needed to be cleansed before they had any more of it. And so, so to your point that you gave out larger sizes so that people could actually experience it very, very similar and our entire marketing budget actually went towards product sampling in the first few years. So very, very similar. So I love you launched an incredible give back a niche should’ve called the called Black women making millions Academy. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Yes, thank

Mahisha Dellinger 25:07
you. Thank you, that is so near and dear to my heart. Because like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have the support the resources, the access early on. So now that I’ve learned the ropes and have experience and have the knowledge bank and have people that can help, I wanted to create a way to help those like myself, add a show on own mind your business with me he shot that helped women, right? So we did that for, you know, 10 women on the show. But once it wrapped, I wanted to help on a larger scale, because I was getting lots of requests for one on one mentorship. Obviously, one person, I can’t do that. So I thought, how can I bring this shows element on steroids and help the masses and that’s how it was born. So before COVID, we were doing lots of in person events. And we kicked it off with a four day amazing retreat. It was full of workshops, breakout sessions, we had evening events, and morning meditation and, and we have pedal power panels and all kinds of amazing things for four days. And we had it divvied up by whatever part of the your entrepreneur chat track you’re on. So beginners growth level, also people looking for. For fun day, we had it broken into tracks, it was very well thought out organized, planned. And we sold out in 30 minutes, we turned on that switch, 30 minutes, all the tickets are gone. So from that point on, we started to do regional events where I would go locally to different areas with local people that were also business leaders to help people in that area. And then once COVID Hit we went to virtual right. And everyone’s zoomed out now I mean, we’re kind of done was, oh my gosh, Zoom overload. So now we’re going back live in August, August in Atlanta, we’re bringing it back where we’re actually tickets are up for sale. Now if you follow black women making lens Academy, you can find how to get tickets, when we just turn the switch on, we have a lot more seats available. And we’re doing the same thing again. But this day, this time, it’s only two days. And it’s local. So I’m excited. This is really my goal, because a big piece of my DNA as a person and my brand is to get back. So we have a goal of helping 25,000 businesses in a year. So we are tracking to do so based on all the individual classes we’ve been doing on Zoom, which we were doing weekend, every weekend classes every single weekend. Since COVID. Started.

Kara Goldin 27:35
Yes. That’s amazing. That’s that’s, that’s a lot of work. Right? It really is. And it’s not just, I mean, I think that just the idea that you’re taking time to do that is just really inspiring, too. So it’s, I’m sure you’ve helped a lot of people along the way, what in general, are people in need of you talked about the different tracks? But do you think people do they come with an idea and they just don’t know how to do it? Or are people like looking for ideas? Or where what do you think is sort of the the kind of the the wall that prevents them from actually going out and starting something today.

Mahisha Dellinger 28:15
So we’d have everyone that comes they’re already either an entrepreneur, I want to be entrepreneurs today have those challenges. So the startup track, there’s a come up track and a bullet track, the startup is a brand new entrepreneur looking to start everything she needs to start a business from top to bottom. And in the come up is track is the woman who is actually already operated by needs help blowing it up. And actually, you know, scaling, and last track, which is the blow up, they’re actually looking for funding and need assistance with financing. So they all are different people, different audiences, different needs. So for the startup, she is at the starting point and needs handholding in a lot of ways, right? So that’s a different level of need from the woman that’s actually providing so we’re funding the challenge is Do I get a business partner? Do I go after a loan? Do I do angel investors? What do I go out to do my pitch? How do I create a pitch? Should I even have an investor? Not everyone should you know so knowing how to decipher where you should be and knowing that all money is good money. So helping them through that journey because that’s also critical. So having the people help her navigate that world. And for the startup they’re really just needing to know first of all making sure you have a business plan. That’s a big piece because when I did my show nine antenna ladies not have business plans did not and that is critical for success. Because if you don’t have a roadmap, how do you know where you call a? So for that track startup, we make sure that they have the foundational work done, and that’s what they sometimes don’t even know they need. Right? And so the mid track is a lady who’s already you know, which has come up she’s already operating But she has not had a scale. Right? So how do you scale the business? What resources are needed? So it’s really operating all these three and bringing the right people to CES all array journeys. And that’s what we do well, and finding those speakers, those workshops as class to help all three independent individual entrepreneurial journeys.

Kara Goldin 30:22
So last question, What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received and in life or in business that has, that you kind of come back to on those challenging days that you maybe remind yourself a bit to give yourself a little bit of motivation?

Mahisha Dellinger 30:41
Well, a few. The biggest one is not about really making money or about being a mentor or being mentored it’s really something for your I, the advice I got, that was the most beneficial for me. It’s all around mental health. Because as an entrepreneur, and entrepreneur, you get go through so many peaks and valleys, highs and lows, challenges and obstacles and yeses and lots of nose so that your mental health can be compromised and keeping the first thing first which knowing that families first before business is a big thing for me. So for me, God first family second business third, reminded to keep that order and keep perspective. But the second piece of advice was to remember that failure isn’t final. It’s a lesson. Now that one is easier said than done. sounds great on paper, right? But it’s not as easy when you have birth something. And it’s like your fifth child has had four children now, and you see something go wrong, and you make a loss, temporary lesson. To not internalize it. So I think for me, it’s all been about balance, mental health, and keeping things in perspective, those two piece of advice helped me tremendously through the trying times.

Kara Goldin 32:09
I love it. Well Mahisha thank you so much for coming on today and sharing and everybody needs to go and buy some curls. And definitely check it out. It’s it’s an incredible product, it products, the blueberry in particular. And you’re right, it smells so good. It’s really really yummy. But also just I always love products even more when I understand the founding story and and meet an incredible founder like you’re especially one that’s giving back as you are. So thank you again for joining us. And we’ll have all the info that we talked about in the show notes. So thank you everyone to for listening and have a great rest of the week. Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening