Isoken Igbinedion and Simone Kendle were tired of being left out of the tech industry narrative.
So they decided to change how it looked, one wig at a time.
The duo is just two of the four co-founders of Parfait Hair, a company that uses AI and facial recognition technology to provide custom wig products to consumers.
Igbinedion and Kendle first met during their studies at Wharton, the private, Ivy League Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. During their studies, they realized that while a lot of the tech being created was interesting and innovative, there was a huge hole in the market surrounding using this type of tech to support communities of color, and more specifically, black women.
“AI-enabled tech has been applied in numerous industries to better the purchase experience for consumers,” said Igbinedion. “Why couldn’t it be applied to the cumbersome, complex, inefficient, and costly market of wig buying?”
The wig and hair extension industry is ever-growing, with a worldwide market value estimated to be over $7 billion by the end of 2022, with an increased forecasted value of over $13 billion by 2026, according to a recent Statista research report.
Wigs have historically played a large role in society, from denoting one’s social status in the 16th and 17th centuries, to being used as a way to conceal hair loss or experiment with trendy styles today. Despite this, the mechanics of wearing wigs and the process of finding the perfect wig for each individual hasn’t gotten easier over time. The Parfait team’s own hair-related journeys played a role in their desire to fix that issue.
“My interest in the hair industry originated like many others — from having to learn to manage and care for my textured hair,” Igbinedion said. “When I was 10 years old, I had a dangerous encounter with a relaxer that almost made my hair fall out. Since then, I’ve looked for different ways to care for and style my hair, but in all the years since, there has been very little innovation for consumers to make it easier.”
Kendle had previously owned her own hair business, and after having her own hair loss experience, she was ignited to pursue Parfait’s mission.
“I had post-partum shedding after having my daughter — my entire side of my head [of hair] was just gone,” Kendle said. There’s a huge population of women and men who wear wigs or extensions functionally, because they need to; these are huge parts of people’s identities and how they represent themselves in the world.”
Consumers who shop from Parfait are able to log onto the business’ website and choose from a variety of customization options to create their own, unique wig. Customizations include wig cap sizes, lace tint, texture, wig cut and more.
The team’s goal is to make Parfait the go-to choice for consumers looking for top-of-the-line wigs made perfectly for them.
“Parfait is for people who want to take ownership and power over who they are and how they look, every single day,” Kendle said. “We’re targeting women who are college educated or career-driven; people who are go-getters and have attention to detail, because everything we do is with quality. There are lots of vendors that you can go out and buy hair from, but our customer really understands quality and they know that they want the top-of-the-line, consistent product every single time. That’s what they get from Parfait.”
According to a Nielson report on the beauty industry, black women spend the most than any other demographic, reportedly spending nine times more than other consumers in this industry. Despite this, black women still don’t have many options that cater specifically to their needs, with the majority of their dollars being spent on companies that cater to wider, and often “whiter,” audiences. Parfait hopes to improve this lack of visibility in the industry.
“We are a technology company first,” Igbinedion said. “Not only because of the way that we approach building and creating this new experience for women of color in the wig industry, but the technology that we have creates a whole other opportunity to solve a much larger problem, which is the issue with AI bias and tech and making sure these product and service outcomes actually work for people who look like us.”
The team’s extensive tech background has allowed them to create their proprietary technology that aims to change the future of what AI tech looks like.
“There’s a future where everything is AI driven, “ Igbinedion said. “If [black women are] left out, we won’t be able to have product or service outcomes that work for us in the future. We want to take a stance; that is not going to be our future. We will build the technology that we need and partner with the people that we need to, to be able to ensure that those outcomes reflect us in the next 10, 20 years.”
The Parfait team had the knowledge and skills in order to make their ideas a reality, however they still needed one important component in order to fully get their startup off the ground: funding.
“I talked to 50 people before anyone would even pay attention to the idea or us as founders,” Igbinedion said. “It was so interesting. Like the very first conversation I had with a VC, they completely glazed over; they did not understand the problem at all.”
The challenge Parfait faced was relaying a problem that primarily black women face to an investor pool that was far from their target audience. A recent report from Equal Ventures noted that 58% of venture capitalists are white males, compared to black female venture capitalists making up 1% of investors. This disparity in the VC world can make it difficult for entrepreneurs to explain the depth of the problems they’re solving when the problems mainly affect minority groups.
“They didn’t think that the market was big enough,” Igbinedion said. “I had to continue to prove to them, despite the fact that there’s clearly billions going into the market every year, that it’s a large enough market to enter into. Finding people who align and understand…was really difficult because [the problem is] so unique to our community and to women. And obviously venture capital is primarily made up of white men.”
In order to help investors better understand the problem, the team had to learn how to pivot their pitch, creating more relatable yet parallel scenarios to communicate the issue.
“Initially, trying to break down why customization matters or that it’s based on skintone and other factors…if you have never worn a wig, it’s hard to understand,” Kendle said. “We had to start building out these analogies of, if there are only small, medium, large hats or jeans, and you’re wearing that same hat or that same pair of jeans every single day for eight to 12 hours a day, what would you look for in the product?”
Parfait continued to revise their pitch, practicing routinely with each other until they got it down to a science. They emphasized the importance of this for founders, regardless of what racial or gender biases may be against you.
“Regardless of being Black women, [tightening your pitch is] more about being a driven founder and recognizing what it takes to get your business to the next level,” Kendle said. “Were there some biases in place? Sure. But you can’t let it stop you; you just have to keep pounding the pavement. We can’t control that [some investors have] never worn a wig, but we can control how we present ourselves and the real problems we solve.”
This method of “pounding the pavement” worked for the Parfait team, leading them to gain a better understanding of their product amongst investors and eventual investments in their business. Early supporters of the team included E’mani Davis, Investment Analyst for Unshackled Ventures, and Daniel Acheampong, General Partner and Co-Founder of Visible Hands. E’mani had just gotten hired to the Unshackled team, and her understanding of the industry and the problem Parfait was solving made her an instant supporter.
“She made them pay attention to us,” Igbinedion said. “And so when we finally got a meeting, they did pay attention and they saw the market opportunity. They saw we had an incredible team and they invested. It was a no-brainer, but getting people to that point of conviction is really difficult.”
Acheampong also fought for the team’s growth and has been an enthusiastic supporter from day one.
“I actually was telling him about this idea from the beginning,” Igbinedion said. “And then we were having a conversation about deciding whether or not Parfait was going to raise our seed round or just raise a larger Pre-seed round. [The team] had gotten to our goals a lot faster than we expected, so we needed more money to go out to market. Trying to figure out how to do that at that point, I reached out to Daniel for advice, and then [Visible Hands] was like, ‘We’ll give you money.’”
Acheampong and the rest of the Visible Hands team believed in the technology behind Parfait, but even more importantly, believed in the women behind the startup.
“The Parfait team is outstanding,” Acheampong said. “For us, backing Parfait wasn’t just a financial investment, it was an opportunity to collaborate with brilliant thinkers and operators who deeply understood the pain points of their customers and had a clear execution strategy. They are ready to use AI to disrupt the multi-billion dollar wig market.”
Parfait became a fast-growing portfolio company participating in the Visible Hands accelerator. Visible Hands was able to provide the team with extra support, and the 2021 VH accelerator kickoff in Tulsa helped Parfait to find a full sense of community as they worked on scaling their business.
“The Visible Hands cohort kickoff in Tulsa was a complete game changer and really the linchpin to our experience with VH,” Kendle said. “It built our trust to be able to lean on them as an organization. Every day we learned something, whether it was from a speaker in the room or someone else sitting at our table. We met great founders who had already had a startup before and had already raised money before.”
Parfait received an initial investment of $25,000 from Visible Hands, and after their time in the VH accelerator, they continued to receive funding, from an additional $125,000 from Visible Hands to their recent $5 million seed round led by Upfront Ventures and Serena Ventures.
When asking the team about how they scored such an amazing investment round from VC firms like Serena Ventures, they were still in awe at their success.
“We were shocked,” Igbinedion said. “They reached out to us. They actually were looking for a company like ours — female-led, black-led, tech-heavy, in a culturally relevant space, but that wasn’t a SaaS company. I think that we just kind of fit that bill for [Serena Williams]. And she really wanted to support founders like us who traditionally do not get these opportunities.”
Parfait’s support system has since continued to grow, whether through direct monetary investments or warm introductions from investors in the ecosystem. In addition to building great relationships and intros, the team emphasizes the need for founders to make sure their product is its very best if they’re looking to gain traction.
“You need a great product,” Kendle said. “One of the key parts of us nailing the Upfront investment was we delivered a wig to one of the investor’s wife in two days, and it was a part of his vetting process. Had we not had our infrastructure in our spot in Dallas, Texas to be able to do something like that at the quality we needed; had we not had our team ready and able to do sizing, the technology we use to for lace tint matching, or the emails she received as we got her order prepared, we may have lost that investment. To us, that was a $3 million wig, and we had to nail it.”
The team has been having more exciting updates through the start of this year, from their investments and official launch to the celebrities now backing their business.
“It’s been so exciting to see all of the support that has just come from places we never expected,” Igbinedion said. “We have Chamillionaire and Kelly Roland who’ve joined our team as investors and advisors. We continue to get support from very successful black women in their fields who want to actually help us get to the next stage. And so that amplification from such powerful and important people, it’s been incredible.”
The Parfait team is looking forward to the continued growth of Parfait, with their next goal of the year to be featured in Fall 2022’s New York Fashion Week.
Igbinedion and Kendle both agreed to one certainty for the future ahead for Parfait — the team is ready to take on any more obstacles that come in their way, and they’re not stopping until Parfait can continue bringing more visibility to the beauty and tech spaces.