Black Hair? There'll Be an App for That, Thanks to This Army Medic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This veteran and OZY Genius Award winner knows all about the discipline required to get things done.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
I feel pretty good — tomorrow’s my last final exam on regression analysis. The worst is over. I slept in a little late and ran errands. I gave myself the morning to just take care of me. Every three weeks, I wash my hair, palm-roll my locs and then braid them up. Recently, my hair stylist passed away, the only shop that did locs on the north side of Chicago.
Hair is something that everyone gets, man or woman. We all have hair and want our hair taken care of. More often than not, there’s a sense of community and bonding when you go to somebody’s house and they do your hair, kind of like taking an Uber or Lyft. There’s something there that doesn’t happen when you take a cab. So, one of the things Black women think about when they move is, “Who will do my hair?”
I grew up with my younger sister. My grandmother raised us in Hempstead, a suburb of Long Island. We lived in a duplex with a big backyard and had plenty of fun back there — the occasional rock fight and fist fight. Normal kid stuff. We used to hang out on the porch, and sometimes we would sit and braid each other’s hair. We played football in the middle of the street. Good times.
In the age of Airbnb and Uber and apps, wouldn’t it be convenient to have that same accessibility to find stylists for Black hair?
My mom, cousin, uncle, great-uncle and grandfather all served in the military. I joined the military right after high school as an Army medic and trained at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. By 2003, I got deployed right around the whole “shock and awe” operation with my signal battalion, a unit that kept all the communication channels open. In Kuwait, one of the ways I made extra money for fun was braiding people’s hair. Half the time, my barracks room was me braiding someone’s hair, whether it was the civilian contractors who were in town or the female soldiers who needed to keep their hair maintained — and Kuwait was not going to be an easy place to do that.
We all thought it would be a quick six months — go in there, find Saddam and call it a day. Lo and behold, I spent a year in Iraq, and then a year and a half in Kuwait. I was young; I turned 19 when I was in Iraq. It was a very strange time — you’re in charge of everybody, but at the same time, everybody’s taking care of you. I was a medic attached to a platoon of 20 soldiers, the sole medical provider for two months in Iraq. My job was to keep them patched up, hydrated and taken care of while we were out there in the desert. In the military, they train everybody to be combat lifesavers, to be ready for any kind of emergency medical situation.
That’s the beauty of being a medic in the military. You get to learn and do things that licensed nurses sometimes can’t do. I got to assist with flight physicals, I worked in the pharmacy, I ran the audiology clinic, I did medical operations processing. I got tossed around to different hospitals under different doctors. Plus, since your body needs to adjust to Iraq — sorry to be gross — diarrhea was the main thing to treat the first couple of months. Don’t forget the heat rashes, too.
I decided not to reenlist after four years. I’d spent most of the time in the desert, and I had developed a romanticism around being a civilian again. I was 21, and I wanted to go be a normal person, not be in the desert, and not be in uniform every day. So I ended my contract to see what life was going to be like. I bounced around a bit. I developed rabbit’s foot — I just got so used to moving around. I got jobs in retail and banking and took a couple of classes at the local community college. When I went back to Hempstead and tried to find people who would do my ’fro, it was a struggle. When I moved to Chicago and tried to find someone to do my locs, that was a struggle too. I was literally stopping people on the street, and people who saw my hair stopped me on the street, too, asking me if I do locs. It’s a shadow underground market.
I decided to go back to school on the GI Bill, a nontraditional student. I chose the industrial engineering major at the University of Illinois at Chicago specifically because of my background in management experience and a curiosity about operations. We’re trained to be efficiency experts. My app idea, Grapevyne, was born out of my experience. Now, in the age of Airbnb and Uber and apps, wouldn’t it be convenient to have that same accessibility to find stylists for Black hair? And people outside of this cultural bubble have no idea that this is a thing, so part of Grapevyne is about bringing a heightened awareness: to bring more resources to the Black hair market, encourage more beauty schools to train on natural hair and allow more salons to cater to a market now that they have a measurable sense of the demand.
I want Grapevyne to be a useful go-to tool in people’s toolbox, to be a relief where there used to be concern. You shouldn’t have to worry if your stylist goes on vacation or if you move. By August, I hope to have a launch party. Part of the OZY Genius Award will let me hire a developer, and part of the summer will be spent getting the word out, doing a lot more customer research and then building up our following via social media.
I know it takes years for some startups to get off the ground. But my imagination goes all over the place. My ideas often go from acorns to oak trees. I don’t know how to sit still.