Feature written by Quan P. (Founder of BLACKAMAZING)
Bantu Team John, Meron and Richard are on a mission to make the process of finding a local hairstylist easier and less time consuming.
In a Nielsen report titled “The Multicultural Edge: Rising Super Consumers” (2014), Ethnic Hair and Beauty Aids were ranked #1 for African-American spending at 85.8%.
Despite outspending any other demographic, it is not uncommon for black customers/clients to struggle finding hair care products and stylists for them.
Bantu addresses this problem by allowing people to find stylists based on their desired hair styles and budget.
It’s more than an app — it’s a community, experience and platform for black owned businesses. It also eases the culture shock of relocation, whether temporarily or long-term.
We caught up with Meron, co-founder and head of Bantu’s PR and User Engagement, to discuss how they became the most popular app for black hair care.
What sparked this idea and when did you decide to pursue it?
Meron: Being an international student studying in Ottawa, John, our technical founder and lead app developer saw other international students come from abroad and struggle to find anyone in their area to style their hair. There was an obvious gap between women that could style hair and women that wanted a skilled stylists to do their hair.
After some market research, it was clear that technology offered a way to bridge that gap and connect clients with hair stylists in their local community – it was the perfect way to address the problem of searchability.
Hair stylists are out there, in salons, or working from home, or are traveling hair stylists – but the problem presented that women didn’t have an easy way to access this network of stylists. Word of mouth tended to be the way that most stylists were discovered, which posed a challenge if you didn’t have a network to help you out. Chelsi, on our team is originally from Toronto.
When she moved out to Ottawa for school in 2010, she used to travel back to Toronto on the 5-hour trek, JUST to get her hair done! She definitely wasn’t the only one.
This app was created for women like us, your aunt, your friend, your travel buddy, or weekly girls-night-out date just looking to get their hair done.
Were there any risks that you had to take and/or challenges that you faced during the development process for Bantu ?
We have created an app that places black women as our key target demographic. As with the creation of a large number of products for the Black Community, we knew that we were risking criticism from those that aren’t necessarily included in our target group.
We recently published a blog post that addressed a recent instance where an anonymous reviewer called Bantu “racist.” I’m sure you can imagine our thoughts.
Being that we’re a startup company, as with any other new business venture, we do as much as we can on the resources that we have. That said, our small team often has to juggle multiple priorities and we end up wearing multiple hats.
Did you learn anything new about app development while working on it?
Absolutely! I’ve learned a ton.
We really consider ourselves a tech startup catering to black women, and their hair in particular. Thankfully, we have a very skilled team that are not only competent, but are passionate about app development. We are fortunate that we have a software developer as a founder, who mentors other engineers of color.
Coming from a non-technical background working on a tech startup, if there are two take-aways for me, they would be:
1. Determining why I want something. For example, its very easy to ask for a new shiny feature, but now I’m thinking about the psychology behind the ask. What will that enable me to do? How do I feel doing it? Could it be done a different way?
2. Somewhat related, is that developing an app requires both creativity and logical reasoning.
What went into the process of improving the app to include more style services and cover more locations?
The original app, which was created in 2014 by my partner John, was only available in a few locations in Canada where we were founded and only had three hairstyles (braids, twists, weaves). When I joined the team in late 2015, I knew that there was great potential for Bantu to help many more women. Being a woman on my own natural hair journey, I brought a new perspective.
Black women carry their crowns with pride. To have an app that captured all of the various ways that black women would want to wear their hair became important to myself, and the team. I quickly got to work adding more styles and geographic locations, because I knew Bantu had something to offer black women everywhere.
We’re proud to say we have 64 hairstyles to date, catering to both natural and relaxed women, with hairstylists in the US, UK, Canada and France.
In October 2016, we launched the Android version of Bantu. It’s been quite the journey, and when we think about the early days, we can see that the first iteration of the app was a shell of what it was today. We’re so excited to reveal more features in the future, which are largely driven by feedback received from our stylists and users.
What is the most rewarding part of being on the Bantu app team?
So for this question, I actually polled the entire team (ha, the pressure!). It was actually a really fun exercise. I think I’ll ask it every year!
- The look on women’s face when they know that their is a product that has “answered their prayers”, it’s even better when they realize that it’s completely FREE.
- The most rewarding part is helping others. When women tell us how happy they are the app exists and that we made something specifically for them.
- Most rewarding for me is that I have a newfound appreciation for the beauty and intricacies surrounding black hair. It’s not just hair.
- What’s most rewarding about being a part of the Bantu team is that we not only help women solve a relevant need, but we are involved in a paradigm shift that is advancing the black tech ecosystem.
- I love working for Bantu because it’s a black tech company, but also because it supports the micro economy by promoting entrepreneurship. The (natural) hair community is connected in a faster, simpler, more modern way, thanks to Bantu.
Photo Courtesy of Bantu
Special thanks to John, Meron and Richard of Bantu for sharing their story!