Vanessa Lorraine has always found herself navigating territory where she was an outsider, breaking down the barriers of entry and then bringing others in. As a 24-year-old, black female Stockbroker, she held executive-level positions in a middle-aged white male-dominated industry. But she did not get there by chance. Upon graduating high school, Vanessa found herself sorting through admission offers from multiple universities including Ivy League institutions like Yale and Cornell. She decided to obtain her B.A. in Economics from Washington University in St. Louis in 2003 and her Master’s degree from DePaul University. Directly after graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, she obtained a position as a Financial Advisor and began studying for her licensing exams. She had no prior experience or exposure to the industry, but with 70 plus hours a week of studying, she became a self-taught stockbroker.
She continued to move up the corporate ladder in finance with a focus on educating and helping others who had not been exposed to the industry. She gave the same level of dedication and passion to her career as she had given to everything else in life. However, her career took a turn in 2014 when she found herself unexpectedly in ICU battling for her life with blood clots in her lungs. A health condition which often proves fatal for many. Yet, she fought through a won. Vanessa describes it saying, “What I’ve survived has killed others, instead it birthed a vision in me.” She returned to work even more focused and driven, only to find that her job had begun to train her replacement and fired her shortly after her return.
It was then she says, “I reminded myself that I don’t become any less valuable after a rejection.”
She taught herself how to write patents and trademarks and learned all the ends and outs of importing and exporting. This new knowledge coupled with her passion for hair and beauty birthed The Curl Refinery in 2015.
“One day a popular YouTuber noticed my page and asked if I had hair for a new style. I sent her the hair, she did a YouTube video that went viral overnight and The Curl Refinery was born from a $100 investment.” –V. Lorraine
How did you transition from being a stockbroker at 24 years old to now the owner of a successful hairline?
Honestly, there was no true transition. I literally just took a leap of faith. Every life experience before my company had been preparing me for where I am today: from learning to write patents and trademarks to understand the ins and outs of business due to my career in the financial sector. However, when the moment was thrust upon me, there was no transitional phase. My company exploded overnight after the YouTube video and I decided to never turn back. I literally invested $100 into my company and used every sale to purchase hair for the next order for the first few months.
Would you say that the hair business is a great field to invest in?
There is no debating the fact that the black hair care industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. However, many people believe that it is oversaturated. I love this industry because no matter how much it evolves I do not see it going away. This field has helped me turn a $100 investment into a company that grosses a million dollars a year.
What are the downsides to the hair business?
I do not experience the typical downsides of the industry. Most businesses have issues with innovation, large amounts of competition and product quality and consistency. However, those were not issues for me. As a stylist and a creative, I am constantly coming up with new products. I envision a style or item, then make it by hand before I produce it at my factory. In regards to large amounts of competition: I stand out because I am a consumer of my own product, unlike my Asian competitors. I know exactly what my customer wants because I am my own customer. This is a huge competitive edge that I have over other companies. And in regards to quality and consistency: because I control every aspect of my business and know exactly what I want a product to do and look like, I can maintain an exceptional level of quality control.
What upcoming events do you have?
I will be in Miami at the end of this month at the Baw$e conference. I also have a speaking engagement in Nashville in October with the Sisters in Power organization.
You are an author, tell me about your latest book.
I have a book launching this week entitled, ‘My Million Dollar Mistakes-10 Business Mistakes that Cost Me Millions of Dollars’. The journey of starting The Curl Refinery with $100 and growing it to a million dollars in sales in under one year taught me so much. However, along the way, I not only spent money in the wrong places but I lost out on millions in revenue by making 10 mistakes. This book walks people through those mistakes and how they can avoid them in their own business. It will be available on my website vanessalorraine.com next week.
What advice do you have for those seeking to enter this field of business?
My number one piece of advice would be to find a mentor. I had to recreate the wheel in so many areas of business because I did not know anyone who had walked the same path before me. That is the primary reason why I wrote my book and why I consult. I help others start their businesses and grow them. My goal is to help build as many minority-owned beauty brands as possible so that we can take back and dominate this industry together.
What are the key steps that you have learned that have helped you to maintain a successful business?
I outline all of them in detail in my book but my top two would be:
- To listen to your customer. Offer your customers a way to provide feedback about your products and services. An upset customer is going to tell someone about their experience, and as business owners, we should want that someone to be us so that we can grow from it and resolve the issue.
- Do not take things personally. Early on, I was emotional about every business decision I made. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into The Curl Refinery and it was my baby. While my business will always hold a spot in my heart, to be successful you have to shift away from making emotion-based decisions.
Did you ever have any moments of doubt as to whether this was your purpose and how do you overcome that?
Of course. There have been countless moments where I felt discouraged. They often involve the challenges that I face running a 100% black-owned and operated hair company in a Korean dominated industry. I have some of the craziest stories, from hiring a Korean associate to pretend to be me and speak on my behalf. However, I sit back and reflect on why. I wake up every day and continue to push because my passion is to see African Americans take back this industry. After I reflect on “my why” I encourage myself by remembering this is not my first rodeo. As a 24-year-old black female stockbroker in the middle-age white male-dominated financial sector, I faced the same challenges. I overcame them then and I will absolutely overcome them now.
All images provided by Vanessa Lorraine