People often ask Did you always know that you wanted to be a cosmetic chemist? The truth is I didn’t know that cosmetic chemistry existed growing up. But had I known then, what I know now, my entire childhood would probably be different.
Growing up I had so many issues with my hair. I constantly begged my mother if I could get a relaxer, usually while in route to our bi-weekly Saturday salon appointments that lasted well over 6 hours. But she previously had adverse affects to a relaxer and was dead-set on not letting me repeat her experience. She would say, “If you want to get a relaxer when you’re an adult, then you do that. But you will not get a relaxer as long as you live under this roof.” Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get from under that roof because I felt oppressed having to deal with the drama of straightening my hair every two weeks just to “keep up my appearance.” I would literally sit in the shampoo bowl at the salon and pray to God “Please Lord, make my hair straight after this shampoo, so I don’t have to go through the torture of getting my hair hard pressed.” But every salon visit, it seemed as if the Lord never showed up. But He knew what he was doing…
Throughout high school I excelled in science and math, and genuinely enjoyed it. I guess most of my classmates considered me a nerd, but I would like to think that I made being a nerd look kinda cool. I was the captain of our Dance Squad, I was an actress, I played sports, and I would like to think that my quirky sense of humor made me a fun person to be around. I started applying to universities that were strong in the fields of chemistry and engineering, and was blessed with the opportunity to attend Stanford University. I had never lived outside of the Chicago area, and now this young brown-skin girl was moving to the other side of the country at 17 years old. It was a daunting experience. But one thing I was looking forward to was finding the first salon I could get to and getting a relaxer! Little did I know, I was entering an entirely new world, especially when it came to hair.
I arrived in California and found myself smack-dab in the middle of Natural Hair Mecca. (This is before the rest of the country and the world picked up on this concept.) I was no longer the odd-woman-out, spending all this time thermally straightening my non-chemically processed hair. Matter of fact, I became somewhat of an asset to the Black women on campus because I knew how to thermally straighten hair. I would pull out my hot irons and stove a few times a month, and offer $15 press-and-curls from my dorm room. (I was a hustler even back then.) I remember a few times I accidentally set the fire alarm off and found myself awkwardly explaining to dorm staff that there was no fire and that Black hair normally smoked up a room and smells burnt. How did they not know that this was the norm?!
I also started to notice that there were a number of women who were rocking these “naturally curly styles” between their appointments with me, but never did I dare take my own hair there. That was just uncivilized where I came from. But this experience of being surrounded by women who accepted and embraced their hair, and all of the work that came with it was eye opening to me. And as my time passed on the Farm (the nickname for Stanford’s campus), I found my desire to get a relaxer slowly died.
When I sat in classrooms at Stanford with all the other engineering students, I knew I was “different.” On paper, I knew I deserved to be there. My achievements and report cards both agreed that I had rightfully earned my spot at this prestigious university, but a big part of me didn’t understand “why” I was there. Being one of four women in my Chemical Engineering program, and the only African-American, I often felt like an outsider. But race and gender were not the only factors that made me feel like a visitor in this world, it was my hidden passions and desires for more creative things, such as dancing, acting, hair styling and design, that often diverted my focus. I had this creative itch that I always needed to scratch, but rarely found an outlet where these two worlds wouldn’t collide. The struggle to live the engineering life, often interfered with my creative side, and I often found myself living a double life.
When the time came to start preparing for a career after undergrad, my options often fell into only a few places such as petroleum, biomedical or explosives. These were the more common routes for a Chemical Engineer. After trying a common path via academia, I finally decided that I was not “common” and needed to divert from the scientific path to find something that would allow me to be more creative. I yearned to find a field that allowed me to create something more tangible to consumer world.
I found an opportunity to enter the world of product development in beauty, and made it clear that I didn’t want to be just a “lab rat.” I wanted to contribute to the creative side of marketing and product ideation. Thankfully, Gary Gardner, a pioneer and titan of this industry, encouraged me to learn both sides of the industry and offered me the chance to actively participate on the science side of beauty, while learning and contributing to the marketing side as well. At that point, I didn’t realize that this was the opportunity of a lifetime, but in hindsight, it was the moment that changed the trajectory of my career, and my life, forever. I finally found myself in a world that allowed me to pursue both of my passions. I didn’t have to live a double-life anymore.
As I was being groomed by experienced experts from all sides of the cosmetic space, I took careful notes to understand what aspects needed to come together to create amazing products and positive customer experiences. It slowly came to understand that product development is an art that is rooted in science. Science tells us how or why certain things can or cannot mix together, but the art is creating the experience that these mixtures of ingredients will provide for an end-user. It is where these two worlds intersect that I am able exist.