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Featured Member: Ayanna Washington, Founder and Owner of Donna Marie Beauty

At age 14, Ayanna Washington began her first business efforts to create and sell natural beauty products. She seemed almost born for this kind of work.
Editor, Anne Miller
January 13, 2017

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You could say natural beauty products are in Ayanna Washington’s blood.

Her mother is a naturopathic chiropractor. Her grandmother Donna Marie, who Washington’s company is named after, taught Washington the power of nature. At age 14, Washington opened a mobile natural hair styling and braiding business that she continued through college. She took over-the-counter beauty products and doctored them with aloe vera, shea butter and other natural products.

“My clients had hair concerns including hair loss, alopecia, dryness and breakage, and struggled to find products that were able to tame their curls and kinks,” Washington says. “These hair concerns were a result of repeated use of chemical straighteners (perms) and heat styling tools.”

After college came cosmetology school, and “a lightbulb went off.”

“I grew tired of doctoring up drugstore products and thought that there had to be a way to make products for women with textured hair that contained natural, beneficial ingredients and less synthetic fillers,” she says. She created Dream Curling Creme in 2008, and with it Donna Marie Beauty was born.

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Ayanna Washington demonstrates how she mixes formulas for her natual beauty business, Donna Marie Beauty. 

1. What is your business’s background?

Donna Marie Beauty is a nature-powered hair and skin care brand for women. We help women look and feel beautiful using truly natural ingredients. Our products are small batch, handmade using plant-to-hair and plant-to-skin formulations, inspired by my grandmother’s simple, natural remedies for beauty and wellness.

I developed the products out of necessity. I felt like women deserved better quality products and deserved products that did not contain harmful ingredients. I started this brand to inspire women to celebrate their own natural, unique beauty and be proud of who they are individually, unapologetically. Our products inspire self-confidence, self-awareness and the natural beauty of all women through no-nonsense, plant powered, beauty and wellness products.  

2. How has your business grown since you started?

We started in 2008. At the time, there was a strong need for natural styling products for highly textured, kinky, curly and wavy hair. Our products have expanded from a single product, our Dream Curling Creme, into a full line of products from shampoo to leave-in conditioners, styling creams and finishing oils as well as 100 percent natural skin care products.

As a creative, you think you can do it all, but that mentality quickly leads to burnout and burnout quickly leads to failure. Building a team is so necessary in the beginning stages of business.

Now, the industry has blossomed and involves thousands of brands dedicated to meeting the unique beauty needs of women of color and women with highly textured hair. As a result, we are launching collections that address very niche, underserved beauty needs using unique ingredients from nature. Our latest collection, "Repair + Shine," uses Japanese camellia oil and honey to reduce breakage, repair damage and add shine to damaged hair. We also launched a skincare collection addressing dry skin and sensitive and acne-prone skin care needs (a less popular but growing niche for women of color) using plants and superfoods.  

We will continue to scale in the direction of addressing unique needs of women that haven't been met in the beauty industry to stand out from the competition.

3. What hurdles have you overcome in running your business?

When I first started the business, I sourced my ingredients from wholesale suppliers who source their ingredients directly from the manufacturer. On one hand, wholesale suppliers offer a way to source ingredients in smaller quantities, reducing your expenses, while your business is small. On the other hand, sourcing your ingredients from wholesale suppliers can be very limiting and also problematic. If your supplier stops carrying your ingredients, you sometimes have no way of knowing how to source your ingredients elsewhere because the manufacturer’s information is usually not revealed.

When our supplier stopped selling the main ingredient in one of our star products, the business landed on very tough times, financially. I went from making enough money to quit my full time job in 2011 to returning to a 9-to-5 in 2013 due to low sales. I learned the hard way that you should always have multiple sources for your ingredients and try to purchase directly from the manufacturer to avoid shortages and abrupt discontinuances. I used the down time in my business to study marketing and influence, to connect with my customers and rebrand the business. Now, after three years of research, I've connected with manufacturers of my ingredients and I am set to relaunch my star product in addition to new collections in 2017.   

4. What is your research process?

Our research process is very detailed. We want to make sure that when we develop a product it serves a need, but is also truly natural, which can be challenging. I start out thinking about the problem I want the product to solve, how I want the product to smell (we use plant-based fragrances) and then research the plants or superfoods that have properties that can serve those needs. The process involves market research, researching natural ingredients by studying herbology, testing the ingredients in a formula for efficacy (on humans, never animals), tweaking the formulation and utilizing focus groups for final feedback before a product is released.  

This process can take two to three years to complete before releasing a product. Research and development is extremely important when creating a product that is sustainable and will perform for your customers.  Avid research helps avoid the pitfall of having to reformulate a product because it doesn’t meet the needs of the customer for the long term, a hard lesson I learned early in the business.

5. What do you wish you had known before you started?

You can’t do it all by yourself. I have always been a DIY type of girl. Whenever a need is not met in my life, I just create it. As a creative, you think you can do it all, but that mentality quickly leads to burnout and burnout quickly leads to failure. Building a team is so necessary in the beginning stages of business.

Building and maintaining systems that are automated and able to run without my constant supervision is my biggest challenge right now. In addition to team building, without a strong system in place, the business won’t grow and we’ll stay small-batch handmade.

Also, I wish I knew that starting with one product initially and then growing from there is a much smarter way to launch your brand. When I first started, I wanted to cure every beauty problem and launched about 10 products. Without a system in place to produce these items, I spent more time making products and had very little time to market the brand, leading to burnout. I had to scale back tremendously and focus on making a few great products before expanding our offerings.

Photos: Courtesy of Donna Marie Beauty
Editor, Anne Miller