Swella is revolutionizing the hair braiding experience — VH gave them the investment to make it happen
Swella integrates technology to elevate the hair braiding experience. They strive to empower a more inclusive beauty standard — democratized through innovation, efficiency, and sustainability.
Brooke Hill wanted to create convenient, luxury experiences for women, powered by technology.
Hill didn’t set out to start a company. However, while in the middle of receiving her MBA, she started building and dedicating herself to working in the previously overlooked industry of braiding and salon experiences for Black women.
The 2021 Visible Hands Accelerator was the perfect fit to turn Hill’s vision into a reality. She was given meaningful capital to test out a “braid cafe,” ran a 5-week pop-up salon that made $9,000 in revenue, and served 30 customers with an 80% booking rate.
“[It] was really big for Visible Hands to invest in me as a person: to give me $25,000 and say, ‘We trust you. We trust your decision making. We trust your entrepreneurial process, and we’re going to let you have at it.’ Visible Hands understood my problem and believed in my ability to solve for it.”
-Brooke Hill, Co-Founder and CEO of Swella
Hill’s early career set the foundation for the skills she would need to run a startup. During her time as an account manager at Google, she noticed there was an element of the social culture she was left out of. Before holiday parties or events with her team, her female coworkers would go to salons such as Drybar for a quick hair blowout. During a 45-minute lunch break, they were able to have an easy, quality experience.
Hill realized this convenient experience didn’t exist in the same way for Black women.
“Every quarter, I would take a vacation day just to get my hair braided,” Hill said. “It took all day; everything from sourcing the stylists myself to going into deep Brooklyn or Harlem to get the service provided.”
This became the seed of the idea for a hair braiding cafe that would provide the comfort and caliber of salons like Drybar.
Over 13 million Black women in America lack access to reliable, quality braid services. Unlike how other demographics and hair types have designated salon chains that provide efficient standard services (i.e., Supercuts, Drybar), Black women do not have this convenience.
Additionally, the time commitment is substantial for both clients and stylists. On average, Black women spend two hours preparing their hair and an additional four to six hours receiving the style.
Two years after Hill’s time at Google, in the middle of completing her MBA at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the idea for a braid cafe resurfaced.
“In an operations and management class we did a case study on Drybar,” Hill said. “I was looking around in my classroom — there were five Black women in the class and three of us had braids. I quickly chatted [with] the Black girls about a ‘Drybar for braids’ and everybody immediately said, ‘yes, this should exist.’”
Hill saw a path to solving this issue in the Black haircare space, especially as someone who was familiar with the problem and how it was affecting herself and others in her community.
“I had a vision of what I wanted,” Hill said. “I didn’t care who solved it. If it happens that I have the idea and I’m going to carry it out, I can make it happen.”
Hill created Swella, which aims to bring the convenience of other haircare experiences to the braiding industry and offer Black women a comfortable experience while getting quality braids. Swella is on a mission to give Black women their time back and prevent braider burnout through standardization and automation.
Although Hill was confident in her ability to create a braid bar, she knew it was a big undertaking and would need some substantial support to make it happen.
“I realized that the space that I was trying to get into was a shadow market; there was no structure,” Hill said. “Most braiders are entrepreneurs, and they work for themselves. Here I was, trying to shake up this industry that has been the way it is for the last 20 years.”
Hair braiders are often self-employed, so not only do they need to operate all aspects of their own business, but also need to undergo a tedious, costly process to become a licensed hair braider. This process can cost thousands of dollars and in many states, hair braider licenses require more training hours than EMTs.
Hill’s vision for the hair braiding industry would also offer a space for hair braiders who are eager to use their skills but aren’t looking for the large burden of running their operations.
Why Visible Hands?
While finishing up the first year of her MBA program, a friend passed along the Visible Hands (VH) application to Hill.
She quickly realized VH was the best space to understand her vision of creating a tech-enabled solution for the Black community.
“I wanted to partner with someone who understood that technology has disrupted many spaces, and haircare was no different,” Hill said. “Technology could be implemented to make processes for underrepresented minorities more efficient.”
VH was ready to support Hill in creating braid cafes by providing capital, support, and space for her to execute.
“I had an idea and I now need to move forward,” Hill said. “Visible Hands gave me that proof, they provided me with $25,000 so I could put pen to paper and try it out.”
VH’s founder-first approach put Hill in the driver's seat: seeing her as the expert who would solve the problem best.
“I believe the solution is constantly evolving, but what is not is the problem that you’re ultimately solving for,” Hill said. “Visible Hands’ focus is great because they’re allowing [founders] to spend that money [on what they think is best] and put their trust and their belief in you.”
Before joining the accelerator, Hill had already interviewed over 200 women about their braiding experiences. Her next step was to test out some of her ideas in the real world based on the feedback she had received.
She set out to create a pop-up braid cafe in Philadelphia. This would be a comfortable space where women could get their hair braided by top-tier stylists. The salon would offer amenities such as drinks and laptop desks to keep the space relaxing and functional.
Jackie Byun, an associate at VH, played an essential role in publicizing the pop-up shop through brand design and social media support.
“Brooke already had a clear idea of Swella’s brand and how it should look and feel,” Byun said. “I just helped to visualize it. We created a brand book and social media posts with the new design but the growth of Swella’s community in a matter of a few weeks was a testament to Brooke’s talent as a founder.”
The brand book and social media assets laid the foundation for cultivating a dedicated Swella community.
“Social media was the driver of all of our traffic at the time; we didn’t even have a website,” Hill said. “It was helpful that I had somebody to help me curate social media posts and keep a consistent brand. Even for the MVP, we needed to be authentic on social media so customers could trust us.”
Hill came to VH ready to execute and was determined to create a successful pop-up braid cafe, however, the extra set of hands from the VH team proved to be essential as she continued to be a full-time student in the second year of her MBA program.
How was VH a catalyst for growth?
Hill also drew inspiration and advice from her fellow cohort members. Although Hill was working full-time with her schedule split between school and Swella, she made sure to consistently engage with mastermind sessions at VH. These were curated groups within the larger cohort that met to support one another.
“Mastermind groups were extremely helpful,” Hill said. “I made sure I went weekly. It was a great time to bounce ideas off of each other. [The] cohort is extremely talented and very smart. It was nice to be able to have those live brainstorming sessions, and also to contribute to the brainstorming for someone else.”
Hill was able to accomplish a massive amount during the 14-week accelerator. Although her ability to execute was paramount, one of the most valuable takeaways was learning the ability to ask for help.
“I felt like a burden,” Hill explained. “Sometimes as founders, we feel ill-equipped if we ask for help. I’m still learning every day to ask for help; that [it’s] okay to ask for help.”
In the weeks that followed the pop-up cafe, VH General Partner and Co-Founder, Daniel Acheampong, connected Hill with her Co-Founder, Zanbria Asante who was equally driven to give Black women quality experiences. Asante founded UNRAVL, a tool that automates the takedown process for braids, helping actualize Hill’s dream of applying technology to the hair braiding industry.
“Most days, I wasn’t confident in what I was building, but I was confident in my why,” Hill said. “Hard days were made less hard due to the amazing cohort of fellows. Justin Kang [VH GP and Co-Founder] even took a train to Philly to visit my braid bar and see it in action. It was Visible Hands that helped me to feel supported early in my journey of entrepreneurship.”
Hill realized she did not have to go through this process alone. Whether it was the support of the VH team to lighten the load or Asante to share the founder burden, Hill had people in her corner.
When reflecting on her time in the accelerator, Hill was grateful for the safe space VH created during the early stages of Swella.
“I think a lot of times underserved populations don’t have the safety nets,” Hill said. “It’s important that companies like Visible Hands give us the space to allow our brains just to go and the privilege to try something new without all of the downsides of not having a safety net.”
Since completing the Visible Hands Accelerator in December, Hill and her team have been busy with the braid bar vision. They recently rebranded and launched the new Swella website. Join their waitlist as they prepare to open their flagship salon in Atlanta!
- The Visible Hands Team