As a project engineer for 20 years at UPS, Melvin Rodriguez never dreamed he’d end up working in the $2.5 billion Black haircare industry. The Chicago native was used to running multimillion-dollar projects for a giant package delivery service.
Now he’s putting his experience and degree in computer information systems to work for himself as co-founder and chief operating officer of Mielle Organics, a company he and his wife started in their basement.
Monique Rodriguez drew on her experience as a nurse and a background in science and health to share tips on video for how she kept her tailbone-length hair healthy and beautiful. She and Melvin started creating products in their kitchen, basement, and garage. When they outgrew their first and second warehouses, they moved into a new one with a salon. The pair has seen great business success since 2014.
Today Melvin is responsible for the operations and strategy at Mielle Organics, which now has products on 100,000 shelves of major retailers including Target, CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart and has orders in 87-plus countries, according to the website.
Sharing the lessons they learned making it on their own, the duo gives back through philanthropy (the Mielle Cares Foundation) and their online educational platform, The Secret Sauce Academy, created to help other entrepreneurs.
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Melvin said he credits faith in God during the loss of their son and extensive research for the path they are on today.
We’ve learned so much and we can’t take this knowledge with us, so why not share the wealth? Why not share the knowledge to help and bless someone else?Melvin Rodriguez, COO of Mielle Organics
More and more Black women are embracing their natural hair and fighting against discrimination in the workplace for not chemically straightening their hair. “Your beauty is your beauty, and no one shall define your beauty other than you,” Melvin says.
Melvin spoke to Moguldom about his leap into the hair care industry, the cost of doing business in retail and where he sees Mielle Organics in the next five years.
Moguldom: What made you decide to venture into the haircare industry which has always been full of products for women?
Melvin Rodriguez: Monique and I pride ourselves in encouraging others to represent themselves and to be proud of who they are and what God has given us. Your hair is your hair. God gave you that. Your beauty is your beauty, and no one shall define your beauty other than you. Our products, made with natural and organic items, align with our goals that are very consistent in our message of “Your Black is beautiful.” We don’t segment just hair. We speak to the texture of hair. Whether your hair is 2c, 3c or whatever, that’s your hair, that’s your beauty.
Moguldom: You were an engineer and now you are in the beauty industry. Did you ever see yourself making that type of leap?
Melvin Rodriguez: Absolutely, no. Ten or 16 years ago, you couldn’t have told me that. We started Mielle in 2014. If you would have told me then, “You and your wife will be launching a haircare company selling shampoos, conditioners and all of those items,” I would have looked at you and laughed. But you know what, it’s all in God’s plan.
We were raised to go to school, get an education, get a good career job and then retire at 55, 60 years old, so you can enjoy the rest of your life. That’s the plan, right? That’s man’s plan. God had a different plan.
The trials and tribulations my wife and I endured several years ago after losing our son, brought us closer to God. We became close to each other and things were revealed to us in terms of how can we turn this pain to a greater cause, to a greater message for others. Monique had the idea of going into beauty. She said, “You know what, I love beauty. I love being beautiful. Why not talk about it?” And all she did was talk about beauty and maintaining healthy hair, and your beauty. She did it to the point where individuals wanted more. They wanted to know where they could find our products. In real life, we had no products, but a light bulb came on. And when we talk about how God reveals things, it was revealed to us during our challenging times to create a haircare company. And being that I am so passionate about people, it just came naturally for me. Even though we’ve been doing very well at selling our brand, more importantly, I love seeing the impact of how it has helped so many individuals around the world.
Monique and I understand that the success of our company doesn’t belong to us. Our success belongs to you. God told Abraham he was going to make his name great. He told him you will be a blessing to others. That’s how we operate.Melvin Rodriguez, COO of Mielle Organics
Moguldom: You sell your products in stores and online. What was it like figuring out how to navigate the consumer goods space?
Melvin Rodriguez: For us starting Mielle, we understood it was important to research. We wanted to understand the market, trends, consumer spending, behavior, and what retailer would be our first. All of that was by research and design.
Moguldom: Did you participate in any startup boot camps or accelerator programs?
Melvin Rodriguez: No, our company had fortunately built up such great demand in the market, the retailers were reaching out to us. They were wondering “Who is this Mielle we’re hearing all this buzz on social media?” By the grace of God, Sally Beauty reached out to us. They were our first. During our research on what potential retailers we would want to enter first, they were the retailer of choice and it happened. They reached out to us, we had a meeting at their headquarters, and the rest was history.
Moguldom: What have been some of the challenges that you can remember? And how have you overcome them?
Melvin Rodriguez: I would say understanding the cost of doing business in retail because it’s very expensive. If you don’t understand co-op, PPRs and different programs you’re required to do periodically, it will be hard. For example, if a retailer runs a BOGO deal, it’s great because you can do a million dollars in sales off of one retailer in a month. However, understand where they lose in product sales, you lose as well. You want to be in a position where you can afford those bills, those chargebacks. It all goes back to understanding your cost of goods.
For us, we had to learn where we thought we were making great margins we actually were not, because of the cost of our items. From the caps, labels, jars, shippers, and everything it takes to get the product to the customer, you need to understand how to be profitable. Our new motto is “profit first.” If it doesn’t show a profit, true profit from a P&L perspective, it doesn’t make sense. We had to learn that, and it’s definitely one of my biggest pieces of advice. Don’t be so eager in wanting to hit retail right away. Because when you hit the retail environment, it’s almost like when you were at home with your parents and when you finally move out, now welcome to the real world. When you go into a retailer, you’re in the real world now and you got to be ready to comply. Because when you’re operating in the corporate spectrum, you’re held to higher standards. They are expecting things of you and if you can’t deliver, it’s a problem. Again, do your research and be well prepared.
We believe there’s no need to compete. There’s room and there’s money for all. Why not help each other? Your current situation does not determine your final destination.Melvin Rodriguez, COO of Mielle Organics
Moguldom: It’s one thing to make your products at home in your garage, but at some point, to fill the demand you have to move into your own space. What was the process like for you to open your own warehouse space?
Melvin Rodriguez: It was a fulfilling moment. Starting from humble beginnings with no business experience and the questions from people saying, “What are you doing? You guys are crazy. You have great six-figure careers. Your lives are set. Why would you exit that?” — it’s a blessing. Going from the kitchen to the basement, to our garage to our first warehouse and outgrowing that to where we are now, it’s very fulfilling. It just speaks to God’s commitment of blessing all of us exceedingly and abundantly, above all we could ever imagine. It’s been a humbling experience that shows all things truly are possible. And it speaks to if you put the work in, it will flourish.
Moguldom: Are you self-funded or did you obtain loans or do any investment fundraising?
Melvin Rodriguez: Monique and I have always been avid savers. We lived frugally and would save. We were fortunate enough to have two incomes. Monique would bootstrap her paycheck while I was working. It was self-funded by the two of us in the beginning stages. And for us, our motto has been, “If they did it and were able to do it right, why not us?”
Monique and I have been together since we were 12, 13 years old. We’ve grown together, we’ve been through so many things together. We would drive around nice neighborhoods and look at these homes and say, “One day, that’ll be us.” We would strategize. “In order for us to get there, we will need to do X, Y, Z, and save this amount by this time.” That’s what we did. We had a plan and we understood the motto, “If you fail to plan, you’ve already planned to fail.”
Moguldom: You learned a lot along the way and now have an online six-week-long mentorship platform called The Secret Sauce Academy. Can you share with us what happens during that time and what people walk away with?
Melvin Rodriguez: The Secret Sauce Academy was created to share knowledge. Monique and I understand that the success of our company doesn’t belong to us. And you may say, “Really?” No, it doesn’t. Our success belongs to you. God told Abraham he was going to make his name great. He told him that he was going to bless him, but he also told them that you will be a blessing to others. That’s how we operate. We operate along those principles.
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The Secret Sauce was designed to help aspiring entrepreneurs become successful. We started Mielle with no help, no one giving us any advice or any counseling. We just did it by faith. We’re giving individuals tips on how to run a business, to scale a business, what to look for, and how to understand a P&L balance sheet, cash flow, and profitability. We’re giving them tips on marketing, understanding consumer behavior, what to do, and what not to do. We’re doing this because it’s one of our initiatives of paying it forward. We understand the success we have today can be taken away tomorrow. It’s fulfilling to do this because we’ve learned so much, and we can’t take this knowledge with us, so why not share the wealth? Why not share the knowledge to help and bless someone else?
Moguldom: Can you please explain what your nonprofit, Mielle Cares, does today?
Melvin Rodriguez: We truly do care for people and communities. We love seeing our people win. We believe there’s no need to compete. There’s room and there’s money for all. Why not help each other? The Mielle Cares Foundation feeds the homeless, volunteers, speaks to youth groups and various schools. In fact, next month we’re taking 21 young ladies from the inner city of Chicago to London. We’re giving them exposure to what they never could have dreamed of before. It’s one thing to hear it, but a lot of times you need to see it and feel it to really believe it. We want these youth to know their current situation is temporary. Your current situation does not determine your final destination.
Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for Mielle?
Melvin Rodriguez: We’re going to speak it and claim it. Shea Moisture is the top beauty brand in our space. I would say that within five years Mielle will take its place and that Mielle will be known as a household beauty name. If you go to your home and look at your soap or deodorant, wherever you see Unilever or P&G items, you’re going to have Mielle items in their place. Our goal is to be globally known, at a larger scale.
Moguldom: Does that look like selling your company or allowing another large company to take part in your business to make that happen?
Melvin Rodriguez: We’re going to make it happen. We are. We don’t have any interest in that regard. We are committed to excellence. We’re committed to getting there.