Interview: How These Black Women Raised $5M And Aim To Use AI To Disrupt The $13B Wig Market
Isoken Igbinedion was just 10 years old when she had a “very dangerous encounter” with chemical relaxers that caused her natural hair to fall out. After this experience – she then went on to spend the next 20 years using extensions to give her hair a chance to regrow and in that time, she realized how much friction there was in the hair products and services market.
Now at 30-years-old, she’s the CEO of Parfait, a Black-owned company that uses AI and facial recognition technology to provide custom wig products to consumers.
Cofounded by Igbinedion, together with her sister, Ifueko, Marlyse Reeves, and Simone Kendle, Parfait is coming out of beta with a waitlist of more than 10,000 customers.
The firm recently announced today a $5 million Seed round led by Upfront Ventures and Serena Ventures, with participation from Ulu Ventures, Unshackled Ventures, Contrary Capital, Visible Hands, TRUE Capital’s Culture Fund, Omar Johnson, Chamillionare, Tristan Walker, and Upland Workshop.
The funds will help Parfait increase production and automate its supply chain capabilities to reach new customers, scaling its innovative business model that will create a more personalized experience for wig wearers and the rapidly growing market.
Here I sat down with Isoken.
What are three words to best describe you?
Innovative, Passionate, Relentless
Age, location, and business inspiration?
30, New York City.
Our community gives us purpose and makes us possible. From the images that drive our dataset to the stylists who inform our education guides, it’s the members of our community who enable our technology and beauty experiences to exist. We’re here to recognize and serve the needs of our people in a way that only members of our community can
How do you feel having secured this amazing funding round?
It feels amazing! We are so excited to have the resources to start tackling such an important problem.
Had you always known you’d get into the tech/ business space before launching this brand?
I worked at Amazon and Microsoft prior to launching Parfait, and fell in love with the industry while watching technology improve the lives of everyday people.
What was the final straw that led you to create Parfait? (Has you personally experienced this problem before or did family members come to you with frustration?)
When I was 10, I started getting teased for the texture of my hair. My mom took me to get a chemical relaxer and those first moments felt like the happiest I had ever been. For the first time I looked in the mirror and felt beautiful.
The feeling was short lived though, as moments later I ran my hands through my hair and my face turned to dread as my hair began falling out. Since then, I have been on a journey to regrow and learn how to protect my natural hair, while searching for hairstyles that allowed me to feel confident and beautiful.
After years of bad experiences with stylists and online wig companies, and thousands of dollars wasted trying to find the right hair and wig products, I realized there had to be a better way to source, customize, and install my wigs and extensions.
What has the journey been like so far – can you tell us the challenges you experienced in the beginning stages?
The lack of people of color in AI datasets directly impacted the process of how we built out our algorithms. It takes time and trust to build the dataset we need to create the best fitting wigs on the market, which meant we had to both invest in building the tech and the standardized process flow of creating physical wigs before going to market.
Many of our algorithmic components are based on non-data-driven methods, but for data driven methods, we got around this by collecting a couple thousand images from friends, family, and beta users on the web, and designed algorithms that performed well for the majority of our users. While we rely on these algorithms for the initial build of our product, we have a customer satisfaction guarantee that allows users to tell us if our algorithm made the correct predictions, which allows us to update our models performance over time.
Customer satisfaction drives the growth of our dataset and the performance of our models.
How did you form your co-founding team? I know it’s not always to find Co-founders that truly believe in the mission but how did you know you had the right team!
While attending AfroTech 2019 a lightbulb went off, could we use technology to fix this problem? Immediately I called my sister Ifueko, then a 5th year PHD student at MIT with a focus on computer vision for drone swarm coordination and search and rescue technology.
Once Ifueko began exploring the problem, she began training Machine learning models to determine how to algorithmically size the front hairline of a wig, and after building our first app in python and re-customizing an old wig based on the sizing specifications predicted by the algorithm, we realized how easy it truly could be to get a perfectly sized wig without having to spend hours on customization.
Ifueko and Marlyse both entered the MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science PhD together in 2017, and Isoken met Simone, CMO, during their MBA program at The Wharton School.
Being Black women in these environments creates an almost immediate connection, and an openness to support one another’s endeavors. When there was a moment to join a team to build something great for their community, they each jumped at the opportunity.
What unique qualities do you all bring to the table that make you feel that you’re the best people to take on this problem that you’re trying to solve?
The strength of our team makes it all possible. Ifueko, our CTO received her bachelors and master’s in computer science and electrical engineering from Stanford, and her PHD from MIT, with experience building products for IBM and Google. Marlyse, our COO is also a Computer Science PHD at MIT, with experience building products for Waymo and Nasa. Simone Kendle, our CMO, is a Wharton MBA grad and a successful Social Media entrepreneur, with experience owning and operating her own Hair Company, and I am a Wharton MBA grad, and a former Operations and Product leader at Target, Amazon, and Microsoft.
Who would you love to one day partner with or have wearing/using your brand!
Our dream is to be the go-to company for our favorite entertainers and their amazing shows. We are manifesting “Powered by Parfait” at Rihanna’s Fenty Fashion Show, Oprah’s Favorite Things, and Beyonce’s next tour
What are your long-term goals for the future?
Our goal is to be the first to make major progress in improving product and service outcomes for marginalized communities, starting by building technology designed to serve women and people of color.
Our approach to solving the chaotic purchasing experience for the Hair Wig and Extension industry will allow us to build robust machine learning models that fill gaps reflected in today’s commercially trained datasets and create an AI-driven purchase experience that expands into other beauty and personalized products, allowing us to become a leader in equitable consumer technology. Long term, we hope to partner with other industries who face challenges with building equitable training models, to ultimately improve outcomes for black and brown people across consumer and commercial product categories.
Raising funding isn’t always easy – what advice would you give to black women trying to raise capital in this climate?
Find advocates who believe in your vision. Those advocates will know the right partners to introduce you to and It’s much easier to pitch a business model to investors who are already passionate about the space you are building in.
If you give advice to early-stage startups that are focusing on a niche problem what would you tell them?
Focus and clarity are key. Take time to deeply understand why the problem exists and attack it from the perspective of the customers you are serving across the entire value chain.
Statistics are really low when it comes to the black women getting funding – how did you ensure that you didn’t get negatively impacted by the stats? (How did you keep going even during the tough times)
I found incredible partners who were passionate about the problem we wanted to solve. We found our first major Investor, Unshackled Ventures through their online application form. Their mission to support immigrant founders as they navigate the venture capital world, often for the first time resonated with me as an immigrant myself.
They introduced us to a number of firms, where we found Upfront Ventures and Serena Ventures, both investors who believed in the power of the community we were serving, and who fully understood the depth of the problem we were trying to solve in an industry where technical innovation is often overlooked. They truly believed in the vision of the future we want to create, both in terms of manufacturing innovation, AI bias in tech and beauty, and the transformative power technology can have on underserved communities.
Is there such a thing as balance when managing a startup? I’d love to know how you’ve navigated having both personal life and keeping the business going.
For me, it’s about integration. Managing a remote team across three time zones makes it difficult to keep traditional work hours. I try to give my team the flexibility to execute on their own terms and create a schedule that works for them.