Junior reimagines natural haircare for men

Shamillah Iga created Nile Hair in 2019 and has won 2nd place with a $20,000 prize in the Marshall School of Business’s New Venture Seed Competition. (Photo courtesy of Shamillah Iga)

When Shamillah Iga’s brother began to grow out his natural hair, she noticed there were limited hair care products marketed towards Black men. Inspired by this, she founded Nile Hair, a company dedicated to reimagining natural haircare for men. 

“The main issue here is, like my brother, many Black men at the time really had to choose between products marketed for women or products not suited for their curls,” said Iga, a junior majoring in international relations global business. “That really began my journey with Nile Hair.”

Nile Hair began in Fall 2019 in one of Iga’s first entrepreneurship classes as a project on the initial stages of planning a business; she was encouraged to move beyond the course with something she was passionate about. When the pandemic hit, Iga said it felt as though it gave her more time to pursue her passions. 

“It was kind of an awakening about just how much I would prefer to go into entrepreneurship rather than a more traditional field of work with the instability that I saw everyone experiencing,” Iga said.

In Fall 2020, Iga’s business progressed further through her participation in LavaLab, USC’s student-run product incubator.

Every semester, LavaLab gives a small cohort of students the opportunity to learn how to build a startup. Last semester took a different form than usual as LavaLab launched their first virtual program called the social entrepreneurship toolkit.

“Over the past year, we’ve had a focus on making entrepreneurship accessible and inclusive for all,” said Glory Kanes, a senior majoring in computer science and business administration. Kanes is also LavaLab’s president. “We launched LavaLab for impact, which was specifically to support USC’s Black community with entrepreneurship.”

One of the new programs launched within this was LavaConnect, where students who had entrepreneurial ideas that supported Black communities and communities of color were paired with LavaLab alumni to help build their products.

In the program, students are paired with an e-board member and given a team that includes a product manager, designer and developers. Madison Gong, a junior majoring in cognitive science and LavaLab’s director of industry relations, was paired with Iga as her mentor in the process of further developing Nile Hair.

“LavaConnect is a very mentorship-based [program], very much so how we can help the student entrepreneurs achieve what they want to achieve during the semester,” Gong said. “It was very focused on making sure that their products came out the way they wanted with whatever help they needed.”

LavaConnect helped Iga improve on the work she had already done in the months prior.

“[Iga] already had a vision, we just helped,” Gong said. “We worked a lot with some design tools to revamp the branding, helping her set up the website [and] helping her with social media, where to get started with that.”

Andrew Hulin, a senior in the Iovine and Young Academy, worked on Iga’s team as the product manager. As product manager, Hulin helped with different product and design aspects as Iga was forming her vision for Nile Hair.

“My job was to help identify roadblocks, help with product decisions, help make sure that the solution being provided by the product really matches the needs of the community,” Hulin said. “In any capacity that I was present on the team, it was 100% guided by Shamillah. Everyone else was there to support and help unlock any potential barriers.”

As with starting any new business, Iga said she faced challenges “every day, if not every week.” But especially with the pandemic affecting the manufacturing industry as a whole, Iga faced difficulty with production and supply chains.

“The outer packaging, like the carton or box that the hair and beauty oil was going to go in, is sourced in China, but there [were] a lot of delays,” Iga said. “I had to pivot really quickly and ask [the manufacturers] to source that in the U.S. domestically, but even then, there were still delays.”

Despite these difficulties and delays, Nile Hair officially launched April 14. Iga’s vision for men’s natural hair care is now a reality with the release of her product “Headwaters Collection Hair and Beard Oil”.

Nile Hair also won 2nd place and a $20,000 prize in the Marshall School of Business’s New Venture Seed Competition.

“When I saw [the product] in person, it looked so much better than any of the digital mockups, which is an awesome experience and feels really rare,” Hulin said. “It’s a crazy experience to get it out there.”

However, Nile Hair is more than just a product. Iga said she also wants her company to have a focus on education, which led to the creation of a virtual barbershop. The barbershop allows for men with textured hair to talk to barbers about different hair care issues and solutions.

The concept for the barbershop sparked after Iga began talking to potential customers, where she found that men “really don’t have anyone to ask haircare questions to.” 

“What I got from them was that it would be different and really valuable and something substantial to be able to have a community or have men that look like them with their hair type talking about these issues online,” Iga said. 

With both the product and virtual barbershop, Iga wants Nile Hair to give Black men representation in the hair care industry. 

“The future of beauty and grooming is focused,” Iga said. “You can’t just throw out a blanket solution and [pretend] it’s going to work for everyone because companies are too lazy or don’t see the value in different consumer category types.”