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‘Have that grit to get it done’: Mahisha Dellinger on achieving success as an entrepreneur

Mahisha Dellinger, Curls CEO and Founder as well as an entrepreneur, author, and TV Host, joins Yahoo Finance’s Sibile Marcellus and Jen Rogers to discuss her company, the things holding black women back as entrepreneurs, and her advice to overcoming boundaries socially, politically, and in business.

Video Transcript


SIBILE MARCELLUS: Welcome back to A Time for Change. Real talk-- natural black hair can be a hassle to manage without the right hair care product. Seriously. Now our next guest, Mahisha Dellinger, left a marketing job she had at Intel to focus 100% on developing a natural hair care brand, called Curls. Inking a deal with Target transformed it into a multimillion dollar business.

JEN ROGERS: Sibile, she has also helped other women launch their own small businesses and cross the $1 million threshold. But if you want her help, be prepared for some straight talk.

- Megan, we have a responsibility, you and I. I'm going to be harder on you because you are another Black woman, who is going to be judged on a higher scale and given less opportunity just because you're Black. So go out and be the best you can be, and show the world different.


SIBILE MARCELLUS: And joining us now is Mahisha Dellinger. Now you're the CEO and founder of Curls. Women-- roughly only 2% of women-owned businesses will actually ever reach that $1 million in revenue threshold. What are three things that are holding women back? And how did you avoid those pitfalls?

MAHISHA DELLINGER: Absolutely correct. It is really sad that that is the way that we-- the environment we're in today. But the main challenges I see in our community for Black female-based businesses-- lack of resources, lack of information, and lack of access to the right people, to the right seats at the right table, to be able to start their business off with even just supplemental funding, which I couldn't get to start my business.

We are definitely at a disadvantage. And entrepreneurs, overall, are also at a disadvantage. Think about the statistic that 80% will fail by year 5. So, if you already have that statistic standing against you, and then you're coming in as a woman of color, then you have even a double whammy.

So what I did to kind of get past those struggles and challenges is, number one, I did get a mentor. But to get past the financial hardship, I had to start small. I used my personal savings. And every bonus I got, I put back into launching the business. I did not have a luxury of getting a small business loan, despite having exceptional personal credit. So I understand the challenge, and I know that it's a real challenge.

So we have to become really creative and think outside of the box to find ways to finance your company. And maybe that's doing a GoFundMe for those in local communities. But we have to find ways to make it happen. And I think one of the biggest pieces that will take women of color over the top is to have that grit to get it done.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And in 2002, when you launched your business Curls, there weren't that many natural hair care products at major retailer stores on their shelves. Now then, and now, many women fight their natural hair, to straighten it by using sometimes damaging chemicals. Now, do you think that that's just a cosmetic choice, women choosing to take their curly hair and make it straight, or is there more to it? Is there something deeper, having to do with hair politics and the pressure to fit into office corporate culture?

MAHISHA DELLINGER: I do think it's a little of everything. For those who have issues with their self-esteem because we understand the European center of beauty is in our face. We can't escape it. So the straight, flowing locks that you see all over TV and the media, and then also the men that like and clamor to those women really can impact a young woman's self-esteem if you have the kinkier texture hair.

So I think it's a little bit of the esteem, but also feeling the need to assimilate in corporate America. And some industries don't accept natural hair. Think of someone in your position-- reporters. People can't just go in and change the norm. It's hard to actually come in and rock your afro, you know, and feel like you're going to be received and respected as much as your colleague with the straight tresses. It's unfortunate. It is unbelievable.

And I believe it is just, for me, not relatable to say that I have to look like Becky to be received and respected in my job that I do phenomenally well. What do they have to do with one another? They shouldn't have anything to do wit it. My performance in my job should be solely based on my output, not my kinks.

JEN ROGERS: Ugh, I want to keep talking about hair, and I almost want to grab Kristin and make her come and talk about hair, too. But I want to go back, actually, to that clip that we had from the show that you were doing on OWN, the "Mind Your Business." And you were tough. And studies actually do show that women overall are hard bosses, and women can be tough on each other. But in that clip, you were talking about why she-- you were going to be tough on her because of her being a Black woman. Why do you need to be even tougher, do you think?

MAHISHA DELLINGER: Well, you didn't see what happened before that. She is-- and not a very nice person. She really did her partner really dirty and took money that didn't-- she never paid back. And it destroyed her partner's credit. So I was totally livid with her because she's already in a position as a Black woman that she's going to expect to do things below bar. Her partner, by the way, was Asian-American.

So I wanted her to step aside because in that moment, she was crying because I really came down harder than what you saw just now. She was crying, and I pulled her aside to tell her why I was being that way with her. I wanted her to stop that behavior that's going to continue to cast a light on her as what people think we are. Stop it, control it. Change the narrative. Help be a positive story. So that moment, I was shifting back from being hard, because I was actually much harder, and telling her why.

And the reality is that we are going to be judged on a higher scale. We're going to be expected to perform 10 times higher and better than our colleagues, just to be considered equal. So get that in your mind and excel, and don't tarnish our reputation as Black women. Please stop. Now she has a reputation. She was on black girl-- Bad Girls Club, so go figure. But I wanted to mentor her to be and do better.

And it's just the harsh reality. And what we have to do, as women of color, is take the lemons that we were dealt and make the best tasting lemonade money can buy. That's what I did. I came from the same environment that she came from growing up. But it's all about how you stick and move and change and redirect your life. And I want her to be on that path. And that's what I was trying to get through to her, to change your behavior. And I don't want her to be a typical Black angry woman who's irresponsible.

JEN ROGERS: And talking about change, has anything changed fundamentally in the business world for you and people you talked with this year since the murder of George Floyd? And we've had tons of people on here talking about what they're doing. Has anything actually changed?

MAHISHA DELLINGER: Has anything changed? I will say that what has changed is that we're seeing more of it on media, all over social media and otherwise. I think that a lot of people that are proclaiming to be for the rights and civil rights of others are doing it just to check a box and to be a part of the movement, and just to-- not for the purpose of intention, but really for press. I don't believe that everyone that I've dealt with that have approached me after this happened is really legit, and they're really caring about it.

So I don't think we-- the people-- let's put it this way. The people that really cared and the companies that really cared before this year, before 2020, were doing things prior. They had initiatives in place prior, not jumping on the bandwagon now. Like, I got a call from the Housewives of Dallas. Never have they ever, the Real Housewives of Dallas, had a Black woman on their show.

Then when Black Lives Matter became big last year, guess who they called? Every Black friend in my community, including me, to potentially be on the show. Did they cast us? No, because the media kind of got quiet with it. So I see that, a lot of that with corporations doing it while it's cachet to do so. We're in season right now.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Well, we'll definitely have to continue the conversation. We definitely can't leave it at that. But for today, we'll have to leave it as is. Mahisha Dellinger, founder and CEO of Curls, thanks so much.