The wig industry aimed at women of color has an estimated market of approximately $13 billion. Black women face unique challenges when it comes to making these wigs, and the process traditionally involves spending eight hours or more with a stylist.
A group of four black women, two with MBAs from Wharton and the other two with PhDs from MIT, parfait because they believed they could build a better and more efficient way to design and build these wigs using technology. Co-founder and CEO Isoken Igbinedion, her sister CTO Ifueko Igbinedion, COO Marlyse Reeves and CMO Simone Kendle devised an innovative process using a unique combination of artificial intelligence complemented by human stylists to build wigs faster, cheaper and better.
The four women have developed a solution that makes it easy for women to choose a wig and answer a series of questions to arrive at the final design. They mixed this with machine learning to help with sizing and proper coloring while engaging human stylists to make the final decisions when needed. They marketed the idea and received a $5 million seed investment led by Upfront Ventures.
Recognizing the problem
Like black women who have spent hours with stylists creating their own wigs, the team brings a personal understanding of the industry they are trying to serve.
“For all of us, it really started with a problem experienced by many women of color, including all of us, and that is managing and caring for textured hair,” Isoken told me.
As part of her MBA program at the Wharton School of Business, Isoken began looking at how technology could be applied to black women’s hair care products. She found that little attention was paid to this market, despite the fact that consumers are willing to spend hefty amounts on these types of products.
In addition, she found that the existing models did not have the diversity needed for this application.
“And from that research, Parfait was born with this mission to create products and experiences with technology that truly recognize and prioritize all people,” she said. “And we do that by solving for the margins, by solving for people of color — and that starts with wigs.”
When looking to start the company, Isoken turned to her sister Ifueko, a data scientist with a PhD from MIT, to help build the machine learning models on which the solution is based. It is worth noting that they grew up in a house with seven other siblings.
The company has built a digital workflow that cuts processing time from hours with a stylist in a salon to maybe 20 minutes on the company website.
That process involves selecting a wig and then filling it fill out an online questionnaire that includes choosing your skin tone, hair texture and color, length you want, haircut type, part style, wig type, whether you want to include the use of a glue or not and finally how you plan to to prepare your natural hair for the wig. Based on this information, they will price the wig for you. After you provide your credit card, Parfait will send it to be built and will deliver the finished wig within 7-9 business days.
If you’re nervous about making these choices yourself, you can also sign up for a 15-minute online consultation with a stylist first.
“I think the main pain point that we are really solving is to make an outdated process more streamlined for users,” explains Ifueko. “So you can talk about the end-to-end user journey: they log in to a website, they stay on a page for 20 minutes, they choose their wig, they pay, we take a picture and then they are on their way. ”
As part of the process, the company also does a deep face swap so customers can see how they will look with a specific wig.
“In addition to digitizing this process, we use machine learning to do the sizing and tip matching of the actual product, making it an experience that people will know for sure when purchasing and that’s what it really comes down to,” she says. . said.
Instead of using AI to improve human stylists, Parfait turns that idea around and lets the stylists improve the AI when needed. “So we actually have a team of stylists supporting our back end. Not only do we use optimized station-based manufacturing processes, but they also have expert knowledge in this process of dyeing and tailoring a wig so they can actually look at a wig. picture and say, ‘Oh, that prediction is a little off,’ she said.
She says they don’t remove people from the process because you can’t expect AI to be 100% accurate when it comes to selecting the right size and color. What’s more, when the human stylists make these adjustments, it updates the dataset, and that should make the process better and more accurate in the future.
Overcoming obstacles for investors
With a smart solution, a huge approachable market and a very capable group of co-founders, you would think it would have been a piece of cake to get funding for this idea, but they faced the same hurdles that many people of come across color when it comes to getting investment dollars. Aand the challenge is even greater for women of color. As Dominic-Madori Davis of londonbusinessblog.com discovered in a recent articlewomen of color receive very few investment funds:
Last year, women raised just 2% of the record $330 billion in venture capital. Of that 2%, less than 0.50% went to Black women, about 0.51% went to Latina founders, an estimated 0.71% went to Asian women, and only 0.004% went to Indigenous founders, according to Crunchbase data.
Isoken says it has been challenging to get investors to understand the magnitude of the problem and the size of the addressable market, especially when most investors didn’t understand the target market.
“It was extremely difficult. No one would give us the time of day in the beginning. Nobody believed in space. They didn’t think the problem was big enough. And they didn’t quite understand that it was a solution that required technology to solve it,” she said.
Perhaps that was why it took a black investor like Kobie Fuller at Upfront Ventures to invest in the idea. Fuller certainly sees huge potential that many other investors haven’t tapped into. “They’ve developed a product that’s pretty revolutionary when it comes to disrupting an industry that’s over $13 billion, and it’s strange that not many people are thinking about it,” Fuller said.
He believes part of the problem is a lack of venture capital black check writers who understand that there are several markets that traditional VC firms miss for whatever reason.
“I think there should be more Black Check writers who are willing and excited to meet these founders and quickly understand these use cases that deserve capital, not just because the community deserves the support, and it deserves to have products that innovation is directed to them, but also these founders should be able to bring these ideas to life,” he said.
Ultimately, the four founders want to change the way women of color buy wigs (and men too if they’re interested). They believe they can do just that by creating a standardized process infused with technology. And they’ve found an investor who believes in their vision to help them get started.