Why you should care

Rags-to-riches business stories are inspiring, especially when fueled by the spotting of an opportunity missed by most trained eyes, and driven by raw imagination and a wild kind of confidence.

Heloisa “Zica” Assis and Leila Velez are nothing if not savvy marketers.

Not one, but two of Brazil’s popular TV soap operas feature beautiful black women in lead roles — a journalist and a police officer in training — sporting hair styles offered in Assis and Velez’s Natural Beauty Institute, a fast-growing franchise of hair salons aimed at Brazil’s huge population of women of color — more than 50 million. Even though a majority of Brazilian women are of mixed race, until recently they were typically relegated to trope TV roles of the faithful maid or the sassy best friend.

A recent newspaper article featured Assis explaining how women could get their hair to look just like the soap opera characters’. After all, she designed the style. Easy. Just select the Instituto Beleza Natural catalog (No. 8) when in for a treatment.

What we do is not just about the hair, but it’s about self-esteem.

Black beauty is big business in Brazil. It’s both a social trend and a business opportunity that Assis and Velez helped create and jumped on. And they have big ambitions to grow their chain of 26 hair salons throughout Brazil and eventually take it around the world. Forbes ranks Assis as the 10th most powerful businesswoman in Brazil.

“For many years, going to a nice salon was only for rich women,” Velez tells OZY. “Salons were either beautiful and expensive, or kind of shabby and cheap. We came in to shift this paradigm. We knew that all women wanted to have their beautiful space too. So we offer salons of quality at a reasonable price point.”

But like all great businesses, it has a big idea.

“What we do is not just about the hair, but it’s about self-esteem,” Velez says. “All women in the world deserve to have confidence in themselves. Instituto Beleza Natural has the chance to bring that along … even in Africa, Europe … all over the world.”

They come from the communities and they understand the reality.

Indeed, “Be proud of your curls,” the company’s website proclaims. “Beautiful is being you. … Transforming self-esteem for almost 20 years.”

Today the company has 2,300 employees and 26 salons in Brazil. According to Velez, 70 percent of the workforce is drawn from former clients. “They come from the communities and they understand the reality,” she says.

Screengrab of website with various headshots of woman and different hair

Variety of haircuts available as listed online

It’s a long way from the poor suburbs of Rio de Janeiro where Assis grew up with 13 siblings. Without a formal education, she found work as a housekeeper. As she wiped down the sinks of her wealthy clients, lifting one hair product after another and setting them back down again, she got to thinking about her own hair.

It was wild, but she found that the only hair products available for taming her mane were for straightening, meant to eliminate curls and style her black hair white. But she wanted instead to polish her curls, to bring out natural beauty, so she thought to concoct a potion.

My dream would be to open a salon on 125th Street in Harlem. And then Atlanta, Miami … the options are exciting.

Later, working in a hair salon, she spent slow afternoons in the back snapping on rubber gloves, pouring and stirring, and then throwing it all out, again and again, until she found that perfect mix.

She soon met Leila Velez, then a 16-year-old employee at McDonald’s. Potion in hand, they teamed up with two investors and founded the first salon in 1993, in a backyard garage in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Tijuca. They called it Instituto Beleza Natural — the Natural Beauty Institute.

With Super-Relaxante — Super-Relaxer — as the focal product, they moved quickly out of the garage and found a huge underserved market.

The business duo scaled the brand with an ingenious concept: a catalog of 30 hairstyles. They trained stylists precisely in those 30 styles with explicit instructions, minimizing the margin of error. As women know, a tiny error in a haircut makes the difference between an afternoon of regret and ice cream or a night out in your LBD.

Their average salon service costs 80 reais, or about $40, relatively affordable for most Brazilian women. While the company doesn’t disclose sales figures, it says it serves 100,000 clients a month, which could produce nearly $50 million in annual revenue.

Other top salon franchises in Brazil, Werner Coiffeur and Instituto Embelleze, have higher prices and market to a European concept of beauty. They’ve let Instituto Beleza Natural essentially corner the market on women of color, with a focus on the fast-growing lower middle class, the 42 million Brazilians with per capita income of $100 to $500 a month. Brazilian media have hailed the chain for “revolutioniz[ing] the market with a product geared for black hair.”

Zica stands as someone who broke through the glass ceiling…

 

Of course, success will likely breed competition, but it looks like the market has plenty of room. The Brazilian Association of Personal Hygiene, Fragrance and Cosmetics Industries released data recently showing the industry’s sales ballooned from $2.2 billion in 1996 to $17 billion in 2013.

Assis and Velez’s company hasn’t stopped growing, either. The five-year plan foresees 15,000 employees and 120 salons by 2018. Just this summer they opened five more salons. Beneath the Web page announcing these most recent openings is an impassioned stream of comments by women pleading for the company to open a salon where they live: “People, for the love of God, open a franchise in Brasilia!”

Assis and Velez are looking even farther afield, to the United States. “My dream would be to open a salon on 125th Street in Harlem,” says Velez. “And then Atlanta, Miami … the options are exciting.”

“It’s not just about the numbers,” Velez says. “Zica stands as someone who broke through the glass ceiling and managed to succeed in a not-very-welcoming environment. That is her power.”

The stuff of fiction? Indeed, Assis’ life story provided plot material for the most popular soap opera of recent years, Avenida Brasil, now serialized around the world.

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