‘Boots On The Ground, Scrappy’: How An O Editor And A Harvard Law Grad Created Swivel Beauty, On Mogul Watch

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz

This is one in a Moguldom original series that shines the light on the founders featured on MogulWatch, a comprehensive list of startups that have received — or hope to receive — venture capitalist funding. Find out how much money they have received from whom, and news and data about their company. 

Black women are big spenders when it comes to their beauty products.

African Americans have cornered the ethnic hair and beauty market, ringing up $54 million of the $63 million total industry spend in 2017, according to the February Nielsen market research results report, “Black Impact: Consumer Categories Where African Americans Move Markets.” Experts value the hair care industry at $15 billion in the U.S. per Statista.

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From purchasing home products to salon visits, Black women are a prime market for targeting in the industry. Even so, Black women still have a hard time locating the resources they want to fulfill their beauty products and service needs.

Childhood friends and business partners, Jennifer Lambert and Jihan Thompson, want to remedy this issue with their beauty venture, Swivel Beauty.

Jennifer Lambert and Jihan Thompson help Black women find beauty products and service through their company, Swivel Beauty. Photo provided by Swivel Beauty

Swivel Beauty helps women with textured hair search for top-rated salons and stylists (including those who make home visits) by hair type and desired style, according to the website.

Combining their skills helped the partners make great strides in the beauty industry since starting up in 2016.  Jihan has a degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania and was an editor for Redbook and O, the Oprah Magazine. Jennifer is graduate of Harvard Law School with experience in mergers and privacy from her work at New York law firms.

As outsiders in the hair care industry, Lambert and Thompson weren’t satisfied to just create a solution. They work to incorporate in their app the feedback of their stylist clients, whether informally through conversations or on their official feedback platform — “The State of the Styling: The First Ever Textured Hair Care Industry” Report.

Swivel Beauty participated in the Sephora Stands Accelerator, which helps to build female founders in the beauty industry. They also got support from Backstage Capital and are currently closing a funding round.

The Swivel Beauty app can be found on iTunes for Apple with stylists in the New York City and Washington, D.C. area. Swivel Beauty is taking requests for additional cities from app users.

Moguldom spoke with Swivel Beauty co-founders Jennifer Lambert and Jihan Thompson on how they began their company and how they hope to take the struggle out of hair styling services for consumers and stylists.

Moguldom: Why Swivel Beauty? What made you start it?

Jihan Thompson:  Jenny and I grew up together. We’ve known each other since we were in the fourth grade. We’ve been friends for a long time. We grew up in D.C., but we parted ways for college. I went to Penn in Philly, Jenny went to Boston College and then Harvard Law in Boston as well. We both moved to New York. She was working as a corporate lawyer. I was working as a magazine editor. We started Swivel because honestly, we were focused on solving a problem, we had for ourselves. We knew many other women of color were struggling to try to find a stylist to get their hair done. Jenny and I are both Black women, and we have lived with this struggle forever. Moving to a new city, not knowing where to find a stylist, being in a city for a while but not knowing what our options were for finding styling services was frustrating. We had this moment where we felt like this doesn’t make any sense. We know the Black hair care industry is a $15 billion dollars-plus industry, and women of color spend a lot of money on their hair and yet, there was no tech solution making it easier for us to find the right stylist, whether we were natural or relaxed or transitioning out of a relaxer. It just wasn’t easy to get a great blowout, or get braids, or find a stylist who could do a killer sew-in. As we talked about our problem finding stylists and how tech could help, we were like, “Wait. This actually could be a great idea.” I had seen firsthand when working at Oprah Magazine. We were writing about everything happening in beauty and tech. I was road testing products that were supposed to make my hair experience easier, and they weren’t. I could see on the front lines how much was happening in the space and how much women of color were basically being ignored and left out of the conversation. So, we finally decided to say, “Look, this is a problem that’s important to us, where we know from a business standpoint it makes a lot of sense. Why don’t we try to create something that we think can address this issue?” We also felt like if we didn’t do it, somebody else probably would and then we’d be using their product. So, it felt really important for us to go out there and create the solution we knew Black women deserved when it came to finding the best hair stylist for their hair type and texture.

Moguldom: What has been some of the feedback of the users of your service?

Jennifer Lambert: It’s been exciting. We’ve received incredible feedback on both sides, from both the stylists on our platform we’ve partnered with to help get their name out there and for the customers who have found people through our platform. On the customer side, we’re hearing women say, “Oh my God. I would never have found this salon without you, and I didn’t even know it was possible to find a stylist who does a blowout in Midtown Manhattan for this price point. I thought I had to go to Harlem or Brooklyn for this.” People who have lived in New York for five, 10 years are telling us they haven’t been able to find a stylist, and they are so happy to finally have this solution that makes this one area of their life that really shouldn’t be complicated, uncomplicated for them. On the stylist side, some of the most rewarding feedback we get is how much we’ve helped their business. We have some stylists to have made significantly more money off all the clients that they received on our platform. One stylist made over $20,000 of business from Swivel customers last year alone. Another said that her regular customer base has increased by 20 percent. It is just really rewarding to know we’re doing something that helps people in a tangible way.

Moguldom:  What do you consider as some of your notable wins?

Jihan Thompson:  I would say we’ve had a lot of great wins since we launched. We launched our beta initially in August 2016 just with a handful of stylists from salons we just walked into off the street and said like, “Hey, we heard you do good work. We’d love to sign you up.” And that’s how we began, very much boots on the ground, scrappy. Now we’ve grown that to over 300 stylists on our platform, mostly in the New York market but we’re beginning to expand to other cities. I think for us, our ability to grow the business (is a win). We now have over 2,000 women on our waitlist in cities we haven’t launched yet who are begging us to come to their location. Any time we know we’re providing value to the customer is a win every single day. Other wins: we were accepted into Sephora’s Accelerate program last year, which was a great win for us. It’s a very competitive program. They choose 10 companies that they believe are going to be one of the next-generation beauty leaders and we were selected as one of those to go through their boot camp.

Jennifer Lambert:  I’ll say one of our most thrilling early wins was a feature in the New York Times. That happened December 2016. Of course, we had always read the New York Times and been so enthralled by the people and the stories and the quality of the reporting. So, to be featured in there was one of those pinch-me moments for sure.

If your hair is natural, you don’t want to read a bunch of reviews from somebody who has relaxed hair. If your hair is a super kinky, coily type, you don’t want to read from somebody who has a super loose curl. We really focus on personalizing the experience which makes us different.” — Jihan Thompson, co-founder of Swivel Beauty

Moguldom:  There are other companies attempting to market to Black women and Black hair care using technology. How is your product and app different?

Jennifer Lambert: I’d say the major way we’re different is we’re making something by us for us. For women like us. Our passion and authenticity shine through in the solution we’ve delivered. We’ve focused on, again, just simplicity and thoroughness. We have a lot of empathy for our customer and making sure the way we design our app speaks to the core of what really matters like not wasting time and finding vetted, quality, thorough information. I’d say that that probably is the main differentiator.

Jihan Thompson:  I think there are a lot of great businesses moving into this space, which we love. We love the ability for Black women to have more options when it comes to beauty when it felt like before there were none. But I think what we focus on in our approach is what makes us different. We created our own review platform different than anything else that’s out there. So anytime a woman writes a review for a stylist on our platform she has to say what her hair type is which makes it easy for our consumer to find the information she needs from women like her. Like if your hair is natural, you don’t want to read a bunch of reviews from somebody who has relaxed hair. If your hair is a super kinky, coily type, you don’t want to read from somebody who has a super loose curl. You’re not going get the same experience. We’ve always come from a place saying every Black women’s hair is not all the same and that’s fine, and we want to make sure when she comes to our platform, she can drill down to the information she needs as quickly as possible that’s just for her. We really focus on personalizing the experience which I think is something that makes us a little bit different.

Moguldom: How do you keep the creativity flowing to make sure you’re making the best product for both the consumer and the salon clients?

Jennifer Lambert:  I think there’s something about a whiteboard and reserving the space to get together to make amazing things happen. We have regular team meetings where we brainstorm, seeing what makes sense. We make sure to talk to our customers, both on the client side and the customer side.

Jihan Thompson: There’s a quote, I don’t know who said it, I read a long time ago that said, “Whoever stays closest to the customer wins.” And I think for us it’s not just about winning as much as it’s about staying close to the customer, so we can stay as creative as possible.

If we got in a time machine and hopped five years down the line, Swivel is in every major city in the U.S. and key international markets. We are the first thing a woman thinks of when she is thinking about booking a hair appointment. We have a huge amount of information that’s well coded and easy to access that makes it super easy.” — Jennifer Lambert,  co-founder of Swivel Beauty

Moguldom: You’ve raised capital from outside resources, correct?

Jihan Thompson:  We’re currently raising our seed round right now, our pre-seed round right now. We’ve been funded by Backstage.

Moguldom: How did you connect with Backstage Capital?

Jennifer Lambert: We went out to a female founders’ conference in San Francisco two or three years ago. We met Arlan (Arlan Hamilton, founder of Backstage Capital) there, and it was kind of interesting timing because we hadn’t launched Swivel yet, it was still very much idea stage, and she hadn’t launched Backstage yet. She was still idea phase as well. But we shared what we were working on and what our ideas were, and our values and what was driving us to do it and we connected on our respective missions and kept in touch over the years. So, when Swivel was finally launched and when Arlan started we came back together, and she believed in us to make the investment. That was our first outside investment, and we are grateful and excited about it.

Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for Swivel Beauty?

Jennifer Lambert: If we got in a time machine and hopped five years down the line, Swivel is in every major city in the U.S. and key international markets. We are the first thing a woman thinks of when she is thinking about booking a hair appointment. And we have a huge, a tremendous amount of information that’s well coded and easy to access that makes it super easy for a woman to pull whatever information is important to her to decide on what salon to go to for her hair styling needs.