Discovering Black ‘apothecaryism‘
After struggling to find products that moisturized and nursed her natural hair, De’Vonna Pittman decided to open Nature’s Syrup Beauty hair and skincare in 2017. “I started the business with just one product. It was a body butter that back then we called our hair butter,” said 51-year-old Pittman.
The timing was right. This year, Pittman (DP) was named the 2023 “Emerging Business Owner of the Year” by Minnesota’s National Association of Women Business Owners.
MSR: Tell me about your business.
DP: “We’ve never changed the ingredients from the beginning—shea butter, coconut oil and essential oils for fragrance. My hair loved it and my skin loved it. Then I started creating other products to not only just continue to embrace my hair, but to also add more products to the line.
MSR: What inspired you to start your business?
DP: I wanted to finally embrace my hair the way it grew out of my scalp. Like so many other Black women, we don’t really get to experience our hair as young girls. Because right away in our youth, you are either led to believe that your hair needs to conform to European standards of straight, silky hair. We get chemical relaxers to straighten our hair without ever having to experience what our hair texture feels like.
MSR: How does your business impact the community?
DP: I think one of the ways we do that is by embracing our own hair. I finally consider my hair to be beautiful. I think that when we move in our communities as we are and embrace our natural beauty, it really just shapes us as a community. It allows us to embrace the different and diverse textures and hair types and complexions throughout our entire community.
MSR: What has been your biggest challenge in owning a business?
DP: I’ve worked by building a business from the ground up and understanding that you need to build structure. At first when I started, it was just this thing that I was doing on the weekends.
But when you decide that your business is destined for something different, then you have to start building it and bringing in structure. You have to make sure that it can stand. And the only way you can do that is to make sure that you have things in place, processes in place. So that’s a challenge for me.
MSR: How do chemical relaxers affect Black hair?
DP: So chemical relaxers, they strain the hair and they break down the texture chemically, making it smoother and straighter.
So it’s strange. The hair cuticle takes out the natural curl and it pretty much just changes the whole texture of it. But what we also are starting to talk about more is how those same chemicals are not good for us, how they get into our scalp and create chemical reactions that ten years down the line could cause cancer.
For some women, it’s fibroid tumors. For some, it’s cancer. And so I’m on a journey to not only have people get to a point where they’re embracing their natural beauty, but to also consider the health risks of chemically straightening your hair.
MSR: What has been the most rewarding part of owning your business?
DP: There’s a couple of things. First, it’s just not really having an expectation initially of what the business would be and watching it grow to what it is and what it’s becoming. I don’t even have the words for it, because it’s become this thing that people trust and people look for and that they have added to their regimen. So that to me is empowering. It’s inspiring for me as a business owner.
And also just seeing folks finally find something that works on their hair. You know, people get really excited when they use the product after one time, especially our curl-rejuvenated people are starting to really embrace their natural texture. When they use our curl rejuvenate and it just, you know, helps their curls to snap in a way that they’ve never seen before, they get excited and that makes me extremely happy.
MSR: What’s your vision for your business? What does success look like for you?
DP: I want to take it one day at a time. But I also do see retail in our future. Right now you can get our products on Macys.com. We’re online, but we’re not in any Macy’s stores yet, and I’m not even sure if we will be.
My long term goal is to mass produce the products and make it available for people across the world, including women and men with textured hair who are in the armed forces, and making sure that they have options.
Additionally, for me it’s really important to not only gain access to beauty and cosmetics but to also create access for people who one day want to start their own brands. Because it hasn’t been easy trying to figure out how to do this. It’s been me asking the same question over and over again and forcing my way into certain rooms.
For some people who start businesses, we don’t always have our finances in order. So I really want to help people to make sure that they’re ready. Because when you ask for access and you gain access, you have to be ready for that access.
You have to have good credit in most cases. You also have to have had those conversations with bankers. You’ve got to have the capital, and so those are conversations that I want to start having with people who are interested in building a beauty brand.
MSR: What’s one thing you wish you knew before starting your business?
DP: If I knew that where I’m going was possible, I probably would have quit my job earlier. I just quit a year ago. Less than a year after I quit, we launched into the Macy’s marketplace. And that to me was very empowering, exciting and surprising. Had I known that once I gave my undivided attention to my business that it would start to grow beyond my wildest dreams, I definitely would have done that sooner.
MSR: What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
DP: Just do it. Do it. Start. Register your business right away. Because there are a lot of people out there who have businesses and their businesses aren’t registered yet and it really just opens up so many doors for you.
When the pandemic happened and funds were available, there were people who were running businesses but they weren’t registered. So they couldn’t prove they had a business. So formalize your business and get out there in the community and make sure everybody knows what it is that you do.
MSR: Would you like to add that we’ve not asked?
DP: When I mentioned creating access for young folks who are interested in starting their businesses, my goal is to do that by making sure that I am bringing social impact into everything that I do. And for me, it’s about providing products that people need, but it’s also about providing impact for the community and people who might want to start their own businesses.
So in the near future I’m going to be showing people how to make their own products, how to bring their products to scale and then to market, and how to barter.
It’s a program that we’re finalizing called Black apothecaryism. So apothecary is, you know, the study of plants, the study of herbs. And so I want to make sure that I’m bringing in other makers to help me teach you how to create your own products.
For more information, visit www.naturessyrupbeauty.com.