February 25, 2021 | Jim Magats, SVP Omni Payments
Afrocenchix co-founders Joycelyn Mate and Rachael Corson
The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted small businesses, and businesses owned by underserved populations have been hit especially hard. To stay afloat and remain competitive, businesses are shifting strategies, adopting new technologies and turning to data to better understand and serve their customers.
At PayPal, we work with more than 29 million businesses, the majority of which are small businesses. In honor of Black History Month, I’m spotlighting Black-owned small businesses like Afrocenchix, who we’ve been fortunate to partner with since the business’ early days. Founded in 2010 by university classmates Rachael Corson and Joycelyn Mate, Afrocenchix is a UK-based business specializing in natural haircare products that empower Black women and men to embrace their natural hair.
I recently participated in a Bloomberg SMB event with Afrocenchix Co-Founder Rachael Corson and was inspired by her story. We caught up with her to discuss how Afrocenchix has grown during the pandemic, obstacles she had to overcome and her advice for other small business owners.
Jim Magats: Can you share a bit about Afrocenchix?
Rachael Corson: At Afrocenchix, we formulate, manufacture and sell natural, safe, effective haircare products for afro and curly hair. I’ve got really bad eczema, so Afrocenchix was partially born out of my struggles finding products I wasn’t allergic to, and my business partner was suffering from some hair loss, so that’s how we ended up starting Afrocenchix.
JM: How has the pandemic impacted or changed your business?
RC: Before Covid, we were selling 60-70% of our products online, 30-40% through retailers, and we were about to launch in two additional major retailers. Now, we sell 90% of our products online and 10% through retailers, so we had to completely change our marketing approach. We stopped advertising and instead focused on community. We promoted the small businesses amongst our customers, we wrote guides for doctors, nurses and other essential workers on how to maintain their hair in a Covid-safe way, and we hosted free webinars and opportunities for people to connect.
As a result of these shifts, demand for our products actually increased, which meant we had to increase our supply, which has been difficult due to the pandemic. Because we sell products with pump tops – and suddenly everyone is buying handwash, hand sanitizer and other products that have pump tops – a lot of the suppliers that make the packaging we need couldn’t fulfill our orders. We finally managed to partner with a fulfillment company, which is fortunate because we’ve had more demand than ever and have managed to have an almost 400% production capacity increase.
Covid has been an accelerator for changes that were happening anyway. For example, more and more people are comfortable shopping online. As a product-based business, if you’re selling directly to your customers online, you have that connection with your customer, and you can build that relationship versus selling through a third-party retailer. I think in many ways, for brands that have that resilience and approach to innovation, it will actually be a positive overall because people will still want those in-life experiences after the pandemic, but we’ll be able to offer additional value online.
M: How can businesses stay in sync with their customers?
RC: Everyone calls me a nerd because I’m obsessed with data. Because we started Afrocenchix to address a problem, it meant we were always thinking, “Okay, who else has this problem? Who can we help? Who can we assist?” The way to answer these questions is to collect data, either through questionnaires or platforms that anonymize data. I think the most important thing with data and analytics is to remember that it's a tool to answer questions and in answering those questions your purpose is always going to be solving problems for your customers.
JM: There’s been a lot of conversation about challenges that Black female small business owners face. Can you share more about your own experience?
RC: Everyone talks about the ‘glass ceiling’ that women face, but I think that’s a white woman’s buzzword because, for us, the blockade has never been glass. It’s concrete. I find it rare to meet Black people who’ve had the majority of adults in their life really believe in their potential, whereas my white friends, they’ve got countless people who believed in them. I went through school with this assumption that I was really stupid. The teachers who believed in me really stood out as they were few and far between! I was predicted to receive low marks in my General Certificate of Secondary Education exams but got the top marks, A+s and As. Based on the different way I was treated, some of my white and Asian school friends suggested there was likely bias at play. These experiences are sadly really common amongst the Black women I know.
JM: What can companies like PayPal do to support and empower Black entrepreneurs?
RC: It would be great if companies like PayPal could empower Black entrepreneurs by supporting them with small business-focused initiatives and use their platforms to spotlight entrepreneurs and brands. This could include events that discuss some of the community's pain points or celebrate innovation, mentorship and peer-to-peer networking events or press opportunities.
JM: Has PayPal helped your business in any way?
RC: When Afrocenchix initially launched, we were still teenagers and our website was very basic. We decided to integrate PayPal into our business for its simplicity and instant recognition. Because of the widely recognized and trusted PayPal brand, we were able to get some of that credibility that we hadn’t yet built ourselves and also offer a really easy, smooth checkout for our customers. We’ve also had great support from PayPal in terms of marketing. PayPal has featured us on their social media channels and helped to boost brand awareness by showing Afrocenchix to a wider audience.
JM: You’re clearly an inspiring and successful entrepreneur. Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs or people looking to start their own business?
RC: Keep your purpose and mission front of mind – have a North Star that keeps you going in the direction you want to be moving towards even as challenges arise. Stay focused on your community and customers and on serving their needs – if you look after your customers, they will look after you, too. Once you have the right mindset, so you know how you’re serving others, do your best work consistently. This means listening to your body and taking breaks so that you can be at your peak, it means doing constant research and staying ahead of the curve.
We’ll be publishing another interview with an inspiring PayPal small business owner next month, so be sure to check back in.