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An Afro Latina’s mission to embrace natural hair gets push from beauty giant

Ease and joy are two things that Carolina Contreras, founder and CEO of Miss Rizos, hopes to bring to people through her upcoming products designed for curly and Afro-textured hair.

“I knew, I knew, that what we had was special. And I knew there was an empty sort of shelf both online and in stores kind of waiting for this product to happen,” she said.

Contreras, who is Dominican American, will see her products sold at the beauty retailer Sephora. It’s part of Sephora’s 2022 Accelerate brand incubator program, focused on mentoring and supporting upcoming women beauty entrepreneurs.

Beyond hair care, Contreras sees her Miss Rizos products as activism. She first became known through her blog, Miss Rizos, celebrating natural hair, as well as through her social media presence and a couple of hair salons she opened.

Embracing blackness, but what about hair?

The concept of Miss Rizos — rizos means curls in Spanish — originated in 2011. After college, Contreras decided to spend time in the Dominican Republic, where she was born.

She wanted to learn what Blackness within the Dominican diaspora meant; it wasn’t a topic openly discussed in the community, she said. A two-month trip turned into a 10-year adventure.

In the Dominican Republic, the routine blowouts to straighten her hair did not last, and choosing between enjoying a beach day and keeping her hair straight became a burden.

The entire premise of moving back to her home country was to learn about her Afro Latino roots, but she was holding back on the one thing that would bring her closer to it — her hair.

Contreras said that one day, two college professors approached her while she was at the beach. They suggested she should stop sunbathing before her skin got too dark. Contreras was not oblivious to the prevalent issue of colorism in her home country. She let them know she was not worried about getting darker, among many other things, but what they later told her felt like a slap in her face.

“You talk about embracing blackness, but you relax your hair,” she said they told her.

That became Contreras’ wake-up call. She realized she was n’t straightening her hair because it was her choice of her — it was the only thing she knew. Her mother de ella would relax her hair de ella from a very young age. Whenever her natural hair growth would start coming in and money wasn’t tight, a hair relaxer was the go-to thing. With time, straight hair was the ultimate definition of beauty.

After the comments by the professors, she began to cut her hair and learned to style it in its natural, curly form. As she became in touch with her Blackness, she also found her purpose.

Contreras’ online community grew as she taught women how to care for their hair on social media and erase the negative connotations associated with Afro-textured hair.

As she shared her hair journey on her blog, people in the Dominican Republic would ask her if she could do the same with their hair. The only experience she had, besides styling her own hair, was a few things she had picked up from working in her aunt’s salon in the United States.

In 2014, Contreras opened one of the first hair salons for Afro-textured and curly hair in the Dominican Republic. The salon was extremely successful, and in 2019 she opened her second salon, Miss Curls NYC, in Washington Heights. The New York City salon closed during the pandemic, though she plans to reopen it at some point.

Before applying to the Sephora Accelerate program, creating her hair care line was always top of mind. She had tried in the Dominican Republic, but things did not work out.

The Sephora program is in its early stage, so Contreras can’t say much about what the final hair care line will include.

“I want people to be able to glide their hands through their hair with our products and to feel sort of this ease and joy around their curls,” she said, stressing her goal of celebrating Afro-textured hair.

When customers pick up the product, Contreras wants them to know and feel it’s a Dominican-owned product line.

Funding women of color

The Accelerate program is now in its seventh year and has evolved to focus on Black, Indigenous and women of color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs. This year’s program will launch 10 BIPOC beauty brands.

Accessing funds is especially difficult, especially for women. According to Crunchbase data, “for the first eight months of 2021, companies with solely female founders raised just 2.2 percent of all venture funding.”

Priya Venkatesh, SVP of Merchandising at Sephora.Courtesy Sephora

“To be an entrepreneur is one of the hardest things,” said Priya Venkatesh, senior vice president of merchandising at Sephora. “America offers a great marketplace for entrepreneurs; however, it is hard. You have to get capital, You have to have connections. No one’s born with a knowledge of ‘Let me create a brand from scratch,’ there’s many aspects to it.”

While the brands from previous Accelerate programs weren’t always sold at Sephora, the program has pivoted and committed to launch all brands in Sephora in line with its commitment to dedicate 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

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