The wig industry aimed at women of color has an estimated market in the neighborhood of $13 billion. Black women face unique issues when it comes to building these wigs, and the process traditionally has involved sitting with a stylist for eight hours or more.
A group of four Black women, two with MBAs from Wharton, and the other two with PhDs from MIT, founded Parfait because they believed they could build a better and more efficient way to design and build these wigs using technology. Co-founder and CEO Isoken Igbinedion, her sister CTO Ifueko Igbinedion, COO Marlyse Reeves and CMO Simone Kendle came up with an innovative process involving a unique combination of artificial intelligence augmented by human stylists to build wigs faster, cheaper and better.
The four women have built a solution that lets women simply choose a wig and answer a series of questions to come up with the final design. They have mixed this with machine learning to help with sizing and proper tinting, while bringing in human stylists to make the final decisions when needed. They brought the idea to market and have gotten a $5 million seed investment led by Upfront Ventures.
Recognizing the problem
As Black women who have spent hours with stylists building their own wigs, the team brings a personal understanding of the industry they are attempting to serve.
“For all of us, it really started with a problem that's experienced by many women of color, all of us included, and that's managing and caring for textured hair,” Isoken told me.
As part of her MBA program at Wharton School of Business, Isoken began looking at how tech could be applied to the Black women’s hair care product industry. She found that little attention was being paid to this market in spite of the fact that consumers are willing to spend substantial sums of money on these types of products.
What’s more, when she looked at how technology, specifically machine learning and AI, could help streamline wig design and manufacturing, she found that the existing models lacked the diversity needed for this application.
“And out of that research Parfait was born with this mission to create products and experiences with technology that really truly recognize and prioritize all people," she said. "And we're doing that by solving for the margins, by solving for people of color -- and that's starting with wigs.”
As she looked to start the company, Isoken turned to her sister Ifueko, who is a data scientist with a PhD from MIT, to help build the machine learning models on which the solution relies. It's worth noting they grew up in a house with seven other siblings.
The company has built a digital workflow that reduces the processing time from hours with a stylist at a salon to perhaps 20 minutes on the company website.
That process involves selecting a wig, then filling out an online questionnaire that includes choosing your skin tone, hair texture and color, the desired length, the type of hair cut, the part style, the type of wig, whether you want to include the use of an adhesive or not and finally how you plan to prep your natural hair for the wig. Based on this information, they price the wig for you. After you give your credit card, Parfait sends it out to be built and delivers the finished wig in 7-9 business days.
If you are nervous about making these choices yourself, you can also sign up for a 15-minute online consultation with a stylist first.
“I think the main pain point that we're really solving is making an antiquated process more streamlined for users," Ifueko explained. "So you can talk about the end-to-end user journey: They log into a website, they spend 20 minutes on a page, they choose their wigs, they pay, we take a picture and then they're on their way.”
Parfait's four co-founders: Isoken Igbinedion, Ifueko Igbinedion, Marlyse Reeves and Simone Kendle. Image Credits: Parfait
As a part of the process, the company also does a deep facial swap so customers can see what they will look like in a specific wig.
“On top of digitizing this process, we’re using machine learning to do the sizing and tip matching of the actual product, which will make it an experience that people feel confident with their buying and that's what it really comes down to,” she said.
Instead of using AI to augment human stylists, Parfait is flipping that idea, and having the stylists augment the AI when needed. “So we actually have a team of stylists that support our back end that not only are we using optimized, station-based manufacturing processes, but they have expert knowledge in this process of tinting and sizing a wig, so they can actually look at a picture and say ‘Oh, that prediction is a little bit off,’” she said.
She says they aren’t eliminating humans from the process, because you can’t expect AI to be 100% accurate when it comes to selecting the right size and color. What’s more, as the human stylists make these adjustments, it updates the dataset, and that should make the process better and more accurate in the future.
Overcoming investor obstacles
With a clever solution, a huge addressable market and a highly capable group of co-founders, you would think getting funding for this idea would have been a breeze, but they faced the same impediments that many people of color face when it comes to getting investment dollars. And the challenge is even steeper for women of color. As TechCrunch’s Dominic-Madori Davis found in a recent article, women of color receive precious few investment resources:
Last year, women raised just 2% of the record $330 billion in venture capital. Of that 2%, less than 0.50% went to Black women, approximately 0.51% went to Latina founders, an estimated 0.71% went to Asian women, and a mere 0.004% went to Indigenous founders, according to Crunchbase data.
Isoken says that trying to get investors to understand the scope of the problem and the size of the addressable market was challenging, especially when most investors didn’t understand the target market.
“It was extremely hard. Nobody would give us the time of day in the beginning. Nobody believed in the space. They didn't feel it was a big enough problem. And they didn't fully understand that it was a solution that required technology to solve it,” she said.
Perhaps that’s why it took a Black investor like Kobie Fuller at Upfront Ventures to invest in the idea. Fuller certainly sees tremendous potential that many other investors have failed to take advantage of. “They developed a product that's pretty revolutionary with regards to disrupting a $13 billion plus underserved industry, and it's odd that not many people think about it,” Fuller said.
He believes that part of the problem is a lack of Black check writers in venture capital who understand that there are different markets out there that traditional VC firms are missing for whatever reason.
“I think there need to be more Black check writers out there that are willing and eager to meet these founders and are able to quickly understand these use cases that deserve capital, not only because the community deserves the support, and deserves to have products that have innovation being funneled to them, but also these founders should be out there being able to bring these ideas to life,” he said.
Ultimately, the four founders want to change the way women of color shop for wigs (and men too if they’re interested). They believe that by creating a standardized process infused with technology they can do just that. And they’ve found an investor who believes in their vision to get them started.