If Camille Genise Heard had different hair, she might not be where she is today: poised to enter the tech industry.
Her hair, however, used to give her trouble, and that inspired her to develop an online tool that made her an entrepreneur and recently landed her a big victory at a competition hosted by Black Girl Ventures, a crowdfunding entity that specifically supports African-American businesswomen.
“I had to bet on myself,” said Heard, an Ivy League graduate who left a prosperous career in insurance to move back home with her parents in Cleveland Heights and pursue an app called “For Everyone’s Love of Hair and Beauty,” or FELOH. “It’s a whole different life I’ve started.”
The app, conceived in 2018 and set to launch in late June, is a virtual marketplace for independent beauty products. It applies the influencing power of social media to the growing realm of online beauty commerce, driving customers to brands by rewarding users for their social interactions.
Brands, most of them smaller, independent companies, pay a nominal monthly fee and a commission on sales to be listed on FELOH, while users earn free products for creating posts, writing reviews, and inviting others to the platform.
“Shopping is becoming so much more socially influenced,” Heard explained. “Our sellers really just want to get their products into the hands of people who will provide legitimate feedback.”
She’s not blowing hot air, out of a hair dryer or otherwise. Pre-launch, Heard said she has 55 vendors and 230 content creators ready to go. By the end of FELOH’s first year, she aims to have thousands of users and at least 300 vendors representing all skin colors and ethnic needs and selling everything from makeup, haircare, and nail products to men’s beard grooming tools.
One of the early adopters is Charron Martin, founder of a Mayfield Heights company called Perfect Pineapple. She said she believes FELOH is just the thing to get the colorful wraps she makes in homage to her late grandmother on the heads of women across the nation.
She doesn’t mind the prospect of giving some products away for free. If FELOH raises awareness and generates sales, ultimately allowing her to expand, the investment will more than pay for itself. That she already feels a bond with Heard as a fellow African-American businesswoman only sweetens the deal.
“I think it’s going to be great for me,” Martin said. “I think it’s really intuitive. I’m hoping to see people fall in love with my brand through her platform.”
The roots of FELOH lie in Heard’s hair, specifically in her former desire to straighten it.
Had the process been easy, the products and equipment affordable, or her experience familiar to those around her, Heard might have kept it up. It might never have occurred to her to seek other tools and methods or validation for her decision to embrace the curls nature gave her.
But straightening was painful, and complicated, and so she explored other options. This led to the idea for FELOH, and ultimately emboldened her to quit her job as an insurance lobbyist in Tampa to pursue her newfound dream of helping others connect with their peers and escape their beauty binds.
“I started studying it, and I realized how much I could benefit from a community that shared my struggles,” Heard said. “The ecosystem is definitely there.”
Funding was the last push Heard needed, a critical sign that FELOH may be right about people’s love for hair and beauty. The over $11,000 she won in seed money this spring from her application to Virginia-based Black Girl Ventures sped up her timeline, allowing her to hire more help, spread word of FELOH at beauty expos, and launch this summer.
Now the app is on the verge of going live, and Heard is about to test her hypothesis in the real world. But she’s not too worried. If the vendors and customers she attracts end up regarding FELOH anything like the way Martin already feels about it, there won’t be anything venturesome about it. It’ll be a lock.
“It’s all the things brands need,” Martin said. “To see something like this come out of Cleveland makes me super proud.”
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist living in Shaker Heights.