Vanguard by Shopify Studios is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
Vivian Kaye is the CEO of Kinky Curly Yaki, a brand that makes premium textured hair extensions for Black women. When Vivian saw an opportunity to start a business that celebrates Black beauty, she went all in, and grew it into a million-dollar company. This is how it happened.
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- Recommendations: Ebony Magazine, Brand Nubian
Tanya Hoshi, Emma Fedderson, and Anshuman Iddamsetty
Senior Supervising Producer
Jason “Metal” Donkersgoed
Vivian: I didn’t start the business to make money. I started the business to help myself feel good.
Vivian: I wanted to make sure that you understand this is how my hair grows out of my head. So this is professional. Thank you very much. Focused on my work. Not my hair. My name is Vivian Kaye. I am the founder and CEO of Kinky Curly Yaki, premium textured hair extension brand for Black women.
Anshuman: This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios. It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money. Today.
Anshuman: I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty.
Anshuman: Vivian Kaye’s first encounter with entrepreneurship came from her mom.
Vivian: Well this is something I don’t remember, but it’s what my mom has told me. But I was born in Tema, Ghana, so that’s Ghana in West Africa. And my father was already in Canada, so my mom, to support herself and I and my older sister, she would put me on her back and go to the markets of Macula in Accra, and she would sell goods in the markets.
Anshuman: That work ethic has come to define Vivian’s entire life. She’s something of a serial entrepreneur, a magnet for ideas.
Vivian: My light bulbs tend to just happen like, they just like, you know, you’re just in the shower. You’re like, let it be.
Vivian: That’s literally what happened, and so then it’s like, that sounds awesome. Same thing with when I came up with the name, you were like, Oh, what did you do? Did you start? I’m like, Nope. I just literally was in the shower. Kinky Curly Yaki.
Anshuman: The mission of Kinky Curly Yaki is simple. Celebrate the beauty of natural textured hair.
Vivian: I tell people, Listen, we have to show people what our beauty looks like. If we keep letting them tell us what beautiful looks like, then we’re never going to be our own beautiful. So we have to show them what our beauty looks like.
Anshuman: Today in the very first episode of Vanguard, Season 2, I speak with Vivian Kaye of Kinky Curly Yaki.
Anshuman: Super quick. Do you know someone who’s working on a side project? Someone trying to get their own small business off the ground? Someone who might benefit from a podcast, like the one you’re listening to right now? Then tell your friends about Vanguard, drop it right in the group chat. And while you’re here, I would really appreciate it if you reviewed us on Apple Podcasts. Every star, every review helps us out a lot. Okay. Now back to the show.
Anshuman: You grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, which is just outside of Toronto, which is an extremely white city.
Vivian: Yes, it is.
Anshuman: How did that shape you as a young person?
Vivian: Good question. Well, at the time, I was in my school and I went to French immersion, so it was even more extreme. And especially in elementary school, I was usually the only black person in the class, so that was pretty tough. But luckily I was built tough. People would insult me or try to insult me, and it’s like, well, that doesn’t resonate with me, so I’m not going to let it sink in. And it wasn’t until I got to high school, and it was in the inner city of Hamilton, so quote unquote inner city. So there were more Black, more Black people there. It wasn’t until I got there that I realized how Black I could be, if that makes any sense.
Anshuman: Yeah, absolutely.
Vivian: And so then it was there I gained more exposure. You know, I started listening to Brand Nubian...
Vivian: …all the ’90s pop. Yeah, ’90s hip-hop. And then, you know, Ebony, I remember Ebony came up. Ebony used to do fashion shows and that was my first exposure to seeing Black beauty. And I thought, man, like, that’s what I want to do. I want to be Black and beautiful. And of course that didn’t reg, you know. I didn’t know what exactly that looked like, but I knew that that was it. Like that’s what I wanted to do and that really resonated with me.
Anshuman: I’m curious, when you were a kid at that time, what did you imagine your career to look like?
Vivian: I had no clue. None. I’m one of 4. So we were 4 girls, and I was the only one that was the circle trying to fit into the square, and I couldn’t quite fit. My mom tried to get me to fit, everyone tried to get me to fit, and I’m like, I’m just not fitting in that square. And I’m sorry I’m a circle. Right. But at the time, there was no one to guide me and tell me that, listen, Vivian, you’re a circle. You should succeed as a circle, and this is how you can do it.
Anshuman: It was tricky for me, especially as I got older and tried to make my way through life. I dunno: What am I supposed, like after high school, what am I supposed to do? I have no idea. And then my parents were like, okay, well excellent — these are the universities you should go to and this is what you’ll be taking.
Anshuman: But I dropped out of university.
Vivian: Oh, me too!
Anshuman: It feels good to actually just get that out there! What was the university experience like for you?
Vivian: I studied anthropology or that’s what I thought I wanted to do. I was like, Anthropology, you know, the study of cultures. I have a great interest in that. So that’s what I did. And then a boy happened. Well, sorry, he didn’t happen. He followed me. He followed me from Hamilton and, you know, I got depressed. I actually, I got pregnant and then I miscarried and I got severely depressed. Nothing was sinking in, nothing was resonating with me and I just said, you know what, enough is enough. So I dropped out and then my mom came and threatened me and told me to move back to Hamilton, and then I did.
Anshuman: How did that feel after, when you were back with your mom, back to what you knew…. You had all this possibility in front of you?
Vivian: Well, at first I didn’t see it. It took a hold because I was under the cloud of depression. And my mom took me to the doctor and she put me on, she had me put on, medication. And it wasn’t until I took Paxil, or whatever it was called, that all of a sudden it was like, like I literally, the cloud had lifted from in front of my eyes, and I could see again. And it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I had been depressed because I was also trying to live a life that wasn’t mine. And it was from then that I decided that I would just continue to live for myself.
Anshuman: So what did living for yourself look like?
Vivian: It meant taking jobs that I wanted to do. So I realized that I was really good at customer service and talking to people. So I took customer service jobs, and then of course when I showed some initiative, then they started to give me things to do that could, I guess, grow my skill set. And I didn’t realize that that was basically building my foundation for being an entrepreneur.
Anshuman: And so when Vivian’s older sister got married and couldn’t find a good, affordable wedding decorator, Vivian had an idea.
Vivian: I thought to myself, Wow, we just need something simple. So I bet you there’s, you know, I bet you there’s other women that are like me that just want something simple but fabulous. And so then that was the start of my first business, which was a wedding decor business. Called Vivian’s Decor. And I started that business and that business immediately took off.
Anshuman: As you were figuring out Vivian’s Decor. What was business like for you?
Vivian: It flourished. It absolutely flourished because I realized, Oh man, I’m really good at this. And I literally had no experience in it. I made stuff up as I was going along. I studied, I did a lot of research, so I would look at what the big name decorators were doing, and I would do the Vivian version, or the bootleg version as I would refer to it. It was transformative because here it was, I started with nothing and I built it into something. But of course, again, I thought it was a fluke. Like, I just thought I just happened to get lucky and, you know, ’cause you start to downplay your power. I didn’t see people that looked like me doing the things that I was doing. So it just felt like, it was like the other shoe was going to drop.
Vivian: Like, Okay well geez, you know, as a Black woman, that’s one of the things that’s ingrained is that not only do you have to be good, you have to be two times better than the best because you have to show them—you have to show them. Yup. I guess they, you know, they would come in and expect me to be like, “Hey, you go girl,” and, you know, snapping my fingers. And I was not like that. Like I just knew, Okay, well, I just need to show them that I can be professional, and I will do what I say. And I had to do it with style, with class, and as a professional. And so then that’s what I would do.
Anshuman: What happened to Vivian’s Decor? You said you missed doing that work.
Vivian: Well, you know, while I was doing Vivian’s Decor, I needed to look quote unquote presentable.
Anshuman: What? Actually what?
Vivian: What? Okay, so quote unquote presentable. What that means is, so with a lot of Black women, we spent a lot of our, especially if you’re at my age, I’m just over 40. We spent a lot of our early 20s putting chemicals in our hair to straighten it. So we would straighten our hair to make it look like European hair or silky, you know, silky hair. But that’s not the way the hair grows out of our heads. You know, the standard of beauty was drilled into our heads. We have to look quote unquote presentable. That includes not having curly hair. So, you know, I would wear protective socks ’cause our hair is not suited to this. A North American climate, you know, we’re from tropical climate, so our hair thrives in those environments. Whereas up here when it gets cold, we need to protect it.
Vivian: So we tend to wear braids and weaves and wigs to protect our own hair.
Anshuman: Before you started Kinky Curly Yaki, what was the state of the weave and extension space for natural hair?
Vivian: If you went to any website at the time and they had kinky textures, they didn’t advertise it because nappy hair equals bad hair. They would bury it under the silkier textures because that’s the standard of beauty. So anytime you see Beyoncé or Oprah or anyone, any famous black woman out and about, she’s probably wearing a wig or a weave. And it’s probably not kinky because there’s the standard that, you know, Black women are being held up to where we need to have silky hair, even though that’s not the way our hair grows out of our heads. But I was tired of these silky textures that didn’t look like me. It didn’t look authentic on me. And so then I wanted something that looked good, then suited my lifestyle. My, you know, get-up-and-go-decorate-someone’s-wedding lifestyle.
Anshuman: So Vivian started digging through the internet for kinky textured waves…
Vivian: ...and I found something. I liked it. I wore it to a Black girl meetup. And a girl asked me what my regimen was and who my hairdresser was, and I was like, “Girl, this is a wig.” And she was like, “Wow, I would totally buy that.” And I was like, Oh! That’s when the light bulb went off. If she would buy it and I bought it, there’s gotta be other women who would buy it. I bootstrapped my business. I didn’t realize that I bootstrapped ’cause I started with no outside investments, no anything. I literally started with one bundle of hair. If a customer would buy one, I would take that money and buy two. And that’s literally how I grew my business. So I didn’t realize I had bootstrapped it.
Anshuman: Could you talk a bit about what that process was like to figure out, like the prototypes, you know?
Vivian: Well, it’s kind of interesting because a lot of people think, Oh yeah, there’s, you know, there’s kinky-haired girls cutting off their hair to create these extensions where no, it actually starts out as Indian hair and then it goes over to China because they do the processing. So what we do is we process the hair to mimic the textures. So they would, you know, they go by numbers. So you say, Okay, I need an 8 millimeter curl. And they’re like, Oh wow, that’s a pretty big curl. Okay, well, we start there, and then you sort of work your way. Okay, “Oh, you know what? Go down to 3, do 3 millimeters and see what that looks like.” It turns out that’s really kinky, and we’re like, Oh, we’ve never done this small.
Vivian: I’m like, go smaller and be like, okay, I needed to be a bit more kinkier. And they were like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. It’s too kinky. It's too kinky.” And it’s like, No, that’s exactly what I want. Because they’re in China. They don’t know what kinky looks like. So we have to tell them. And especially because at the time, they weren’t really taking black women seriously as business people or as business women. It’s an Asian-dominated market. So they weren’t used to black women doing business. So sometimes I just, you have to gangster-ize them and do what you gotta do to get the quality that you need. But now, like, they know who I am, they know my name.
Anshuman: So Kinky Curly Yaki was taking off. What was your personal life like?
Vivian: My personal life was a hot mess. So I started Kinky Curly Yaki in December of 2012. And then by June 2013, I found out I was pregnant. I was pregnant, and I was like, Oh shit. I had this growing business. That business was doing really well.But luckily I built this community around the brand, and they were super supportive. So, you know, I would put up things like, Okay guys, you know, I’m due any minute now, so I’m gonna need you to just calm yourselves while I go have my baby.
Anshuman: So then what happened next?
Vivian: Well, I had the baby. He's great. He’s 5 now. Hi X! And my personal life fell apart. My son’s father decided that he didn’t want to be with me. And it was pretty shattering, life shattering. Yeah.
Anshuman: How do you navigate a moment like that?
Vivian: Well, it was pretty tough because I tried, you know, I tried to save it. You know, I foolishly had given him 40 percent of my company. And then, you know, 6 months later, he left me alone with a business that was about to hit $1 million and a baby. It was tough. Say the least. It was tough.
Anshuman: Do you remember anything of what was running through your mind at that time?
Vivian: Of course, I would just, I blamed myself. No, you know, obviously looking back at it now, I was, I know that’s totally not true. But no, it was devastating because I was, again, I was the circle trying to fit into the square. All my sisters had gotten married. All my sisters had kids. All my sisters had jobs, and here I was the entrepreneur single mom. I was the exact opposite of what my parents brought me to this country to do!
Anshuman: I did not want to bring that up! What did this mean for your business? What was happening there?
Vivian: My business was booming. That’s the ironic thing. It was booming, you know. And plus, because that was happening, I even dug my heels deeper into the business and I said, I need this to succeed now.
Vivan: I’m a mother. I have someone I’m responsible for. I have to do whatever I need to do to make this work, like my mother did. So there were even times where I balanced Vivian’s Decor and Kinky Curly Yaki, and I would carry my son on my back like my mom did to do the work that I needed to do, to provide for him.
Anshuman: What was it like when Kinky Curly Yaki surpassed $1 million in revenue?
Vivian: It was surreal. And plus I didn’t realize I had done it until, like, maybe 2 or 3 months after, only because I was so busy dealing with my personal shit show. I literally just had my head in the sand, and we just focused on raising my son and growing my business. That was it. And everyone seems to think that because you’re an entrepreneur, you have your shit together. Man, my shit was all over the place.
Anshuman: Looking back, are there any benefits to not having a business degree?
Vivian: I think the benefit of not having a business degree is that I went in naive, so I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t have any precedent. I didn’t have any sort of template that I thought that I needed to follow in order to grow my business. So I literally learned as I was doing it. So I may not have a degree from, you know, some prestigious university, but I do have a degree of experience. And from the school of hard knocks.
Anshuman: Where you are now, what advice would you give to the next generation of entrepreneurs of color, especially women of color, especially Black women, especially indigenous women. What would you like to tell them?
Vivian: My advice for the next generation coming up is to do what Chad does. There are so many mediocre white men doing things that they should not be doing. But you’re sitting here letting it be, letting who you are, and what you look like, be a hindrance to that. Be Chad, do what Chad does.
Vivian: If I’m offered that seat at the table, I’m going to sit at it, and I’m going to sit on it. I’m going to be like, “Hey Chad, what’s up?” I’m going to show up as myself because Chad needs to know that this is what we are, this is how I am, this is what I look like. Get used to it. Take the seat. Don’t feel like you’re a token. Okay. We’ll go show them what a token should look like so that you’re not a token. You become the norm. Oh, Chad. Please no offense to any Chads that are out there in real life.
Anshuman: So earlier you mentioned how so much of what you do is to almost prove to yourself that you’re good enough, that you’re worthy, that you matter, I suppose. Do you feel that now?
Vivian: Abso-fucking-lutely, and I can tell you the exact moment when I felt like what I do really matters is when, one day I left my iPad open, and my son loves to record videos and pretend he’s, you know, on YouTube or whatever. And he did this video where he said, “My mom doesn’t know I’m on her iPad, but I want to be just like her. I want to become a Kinky Curly Yaki person.” And when I saw that video, I said, I matter.
Vivian: What I do matters because he sees it. I feel like it’s the best time of my life right now. Like it’s just, I’ve never felt, it’s never felt so good to be me.
Anshuman: Vivian Kaye is the CEO of Kinky Curly Yaki. PS, in August 2017, Vivian regained 100% of her business. This episode was produced by Phoebe Wang, Emma Fedderson and me, Anshuman Iddamsetty.
Tammi Downey is our senior supervising producer, and our score was composed by Jim Guthrie. Please remember to rate and review Vanguard on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. It helps a lot. Thanks.
Vivian: I am my mother’s wildest dream ’cause she wouldn’t have thought that, you know, a woman from the villages of Togo, West Africa, would come to Canada, have a child who didn’t finish her education, and still create a $1 million business. Yeah, I did that shit.
Anshuman: Mic drop.
Listen to more episodes of Vanguard by Shopify Studios, a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
Feature image by Franziska Barczyk