Brave Jessica McGuinty Battles Curly Hairscrimination – July 4, 2012
Jessica McGuinty’s resemblance to Brave heroine Princess Merida inspired the above homage. Photo by Terrence McNally | Arcata Photo Studios
HUMBOLDT – Jessica McGuinty is young, successful and fighting for your right to have roiling, ravishingly curly hair.
Founder and CEO of Arcata-based Jessicurl, the ginger-maned McGuinty has beaten back those who would mock the curlier among us, and in the process, built a successful company and gained thousands of fans – plus some imitators – around the world.
With her line of hair-care products custom-formulated for curly-haired people, McGuinty has led her formerly oppressed sisters and brothers out of a dark night of taunting and discrimination and into an era of pride for being different.
All of this takes persistence, innovation and no small amount of guts – even though some of those guts aren’t necessarily functioning so well.
Like so many successful entrepreneurs, McGuinty started her business at home. Not in her garage a la Jobs and Woz, but in her kitchen.
What began as a sink experiment is now a thriving international hair care business present in 10 countries on all the world’s non-frozen continents.
“It’s amazing to think that people woke up in France this morning and used my stuff,” McGuinty reflects.
And also like many who have come up with something people didn’t know they needed till she offered it, her journey to success was born of no small amount of pain and anguish.
Though known for her bountiful red curls, McGuinty was a straight-haired lass as a child. Then, at the onset of her teen years, her tresses – and the plot – took a twisty turn. At age 12 or 13, she recalls, “it started going curly.”
The summer before her freshman year in high school, she got a “super-short haircut, which she describes as “a cross between Dutch Boy and Liberace, a wavey-dollopy thing.”
But when it grew back in, it grew out – wayyyyy out.
At first, she says, “Everything was fine. I looked like Goldilocks, and who doesn’t love Goldilocks?”
Apparently the boy who sat behind her in Spanish class, who undertook the kind of mean, teasing campaign only kids are capable of mounting against those unfortunate souls who vary in any way from the “norm.”
“I don’t know what he learned that year,” McGuinty recalls. “All he did was analyze the growth pattern in my hair because it was coming towards him.”
“He started calling me egghead, not because I was smart, but because I was egg-shaped.”
Cabesa de huevos, he branded her – “head of eggs.” With that, other students picked up on his cue, and her teen-damnation was sealed. “The kids were calling me ‘mushroom,’ ‘chia pet’ and ‘Brillo pad,” McGuinty laments.
Still, she knows she wasn’t alone in being ridiculed as a teenager. “We were all mean to somebody,” she admits.
She attempted anti-curliness countermeasures, without real success.
“I figured out that when my hair was wet, it took up less space on the planet,” she remembers. “I would go into the bathroom between classes and wet it down.”
Desperate times called for desperate measures. “Maybe I can get through my day without you being mean to me,” she thought. But it was not to be – she’d only succeeded in making herself even more different.
“Who has wet hair at noon on a Tuesday?” she says. “It was wet all the time, so they called me ‘crunchy,’ ‘helmet head’ and ‘crusty.’”
Wallowing in the depths of ignominy, she directed her hatred inward.
“I hate my hair, so I must hate myself, too,” she figured at the time. “Talk about lack of confidence.”
McGuinty attempted to wrangle and wrest her loopy locks into a sort of headlock. “By the time I was a sophomore or junior, I wore it in a bun. But even my own mother would call me ‘Cousin Itt,’” referring to the heavily hirsute Addams Family character.
Bullshit begets brilliance
With her curly hair acting as a highly sensitive antenna for attracting negative signals about her self-image, the years of “otherness” finally got to McGuinty.
“When I was in my twenties, it was like, ‘this is bullshit.’ Letting this thing I can’t control have so much power over me. I’m just tired of hating myself, it takes so much energy and permeates your identity. I thought, ‘It’s time to deal with this.’”
Rethinking the whole curliness conundrum, she realized around 2001 that the curly hair which had made her life a living hell was something other people actually pay hairdressers to install on their heads.
“I Googled curly hair and found naturallycurly.com, she remembers. “I go to this message board and they’re all saying, ‘They call me mushroom head and Brillo Pad.’”
It was a revelation. She wasn’t alone. She had found her people – curly masses yearning to breathe free, or at least be free of taunts.
“There were not only other people, but they had organized into a community,” she says.
She found that she shared a lot of frustration with her sisters in curliness. For one, they had all purchased hair-care products that didn’t work for them and their meandering manes.
Emboldened by the revelation, McGuinty sprang into action in her Berkeley apartment, looking for, literally, a solution that would make her wild hair and thus her self-image more manageable.
She boiled flax seed to release hair-taming mucilage. Not only does it sound icky, but, she says, it didn’t work.
She did discover one thing, though. “I liked playing around” with potions in the kitchen.
After a week or two, she had come up with maybe 20 formulations. They didn’t work, making her hair too greasy, too dry or too stringy.
Then, the breakthrough.
“One day it was just a miracle,” she says. “I made a batch and my hair looked awesome, like I’d always wanted. Not frizzy, not all puffy.”
Best of all, she says, “It wasn’t horizontal.”
Her solution in hand, and in her hair, she leapt online to spread the good news.
“I went back to Naturally Curly, where I had this group of friends I never met and told them, ‘Hey you guys, here’s this stuff I came up with.’”
Within 24 hours, she had 30 e-mails from her fellow oppressed curlians.
“People said, ‘I’m not into making gel, can’t I just buy some?’”
They could, and did, in small batches at first.
“I would buy everything at Whole Foods, make three bottles and sell those,” McGuinty says. “They liked it.”
“It was super mellow. I printed out labels on my computer and taped them to the bottles. The ink would run off, but people would buy it anyway.”
As word spread, so did demand. “I started incrementally making more,” she says. (Read more at jessicurl.com/Articles.asp?ID=278.)
The operation didn’t stay small-scale for long. “In my first year, I added shampoos and conditioners because people asked me to,” she says.
She returned to Berkeley with a new perspective. One realization was that she needed more space to make her magical mixtures. And since she had to move her operation anyway, she figured, why not take it to Arcata?
“I was a struggling waitress in Berkeley,” she says. “I figured, ‘how much worse could it be there?’ With the cost of living reduced, she thought everything else might be easier as well.
On moving here in October of 2003, she found even more advantages to her new Humboldt home.
“I didn’t know about the amazing infrastructure and support for the small business community here,” she says. “That was the cherry on top.”
On settling in in Eureka, McGuinty immediately hooked up with the Small Business Development Corporation (SBDC) and continued to work from home. “But,” she says, “it was a bigger home.”
But it was also not to last, as demand for McGuinty’s anti-frizz alchemy was exploding. With more products on the way, Jessicurl was growing and diversifying, and needed a real factory.
In June, 2004, it got one in Aldergrove Industrial Park.
In 2010, venture capitalists Cedar Rueben and George Schmidbauer’s Humboldt Investment Capital invested in the company, allowing expansion from 2,000 sq. ft. to 6,000 sq. ft., “luckily in the same building,” McGuinty says.
Today, Jessicurl employs eight people and manufactures 11 products. The line includes shampoo, conditioner and styling products.
The giant personal care companies that had ignored the curly-haired oppressed for so long have noticed Jessicurl’s success. “Curly hair awareness has come a long way,” McGuinty says. “It’s changed a lot in 10 years. Big companies have more curly-hair products. Who knew that we were a subjugated group?”
Today, Jess McGuinty is firmly ensconced as the worldwide go-to gal for all things curly-haired. With benefit of history and experience, she has an evolving perspective as to what works, and why.
“All our growth has been organic, between me and the end user,” she says. “They tell their salons about us. This company has been customer driven from the beginning, and it still is.”
It’s even more personal than that – McGuinty is her own test subject and most demanding consumer. “I hold myself up as the hardest-to-please customer,” she says.
“Our demographic has changed a lot, and we’re hitting the radar of the African-American customers,” she says.
She frequently finds herself in Atlanta, Ga., for events like “Fro Fashion Week.”
“Usually I’m pretty much the only white girl,” she says. A question frequently posed by black women is, “What do you white girls know about our hair?”
“I get it,” she offers. “They come to our website and see big white Irish Jess. But once we start talking and they realize what I’ve gone through, they say, ‘White girls go through that too?’ They don’t realize that we have those same trials and torments, and finally we are talking about it. We are more alike than we are different.”
A broken heart
Jess McGuinty is one of Arcata’s beautiful people, literally and figuratively. She’s young, pretty, popular, successful, humble and very much a part of the town’s social scene. Basically, just about everyone loves Jess.
Part of her appeal is her non-apparent fragility – the vibrant young woman could leave us any time, breaking many hearts because of her own.
Since childhood, McGuinty has suffered from mitrovalve prolapse, causing a manageable heart murmur. In recent years, though, just as her professional life has made so many great leaps, her heart condition has become grave.
“It wasn’t a big deal till I was 19,” she says. “I was doing aerobics in the summer in my garage.” That was when she had her first brush with tachycardia – an extremely fast heart rate.
“My mom had had it, so as soon as it happened, I knew what it was,” she said.
In Dec., 2000, I had my first operation,” she says. “At the time they thought they fixed it.”
They didn’t, and that operation was followed by more, in 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2011.
“Each subsequent time they thought they fixed it,” she says with frustration.
But things only worsened, and she began experiencing atrial fibrillation. “It’s like a hummingbird vs. the paint mixer of tachycardia,” she says. “A-fib is more disturbing – it hurts more.”
Last October, she had an a-fib operation at U.C. San Francisco, and her hopes were high. “I got back and it happened again – 120 little burns per minute. Stupid heart.”
The constant need to be near an ER all the time inhibits her fun to some extent, and she’s facing still more surgery.
“It makes me more stubborn,” she says. “I come from a very Carpe Diem kind of family . There’s a element of that in the McGuinty DNA.”
“She never lets challenges with her health get her down,” says good friend David Jervis. “She handles it with great, splendid grace.”
“It’s a ‘live your life from the top of your lungs’ type of thing,” McGuinty says. “I pretty much love my life, but the heart thing would be cool to get rid of.”
One thing that did her heart considerable good was encountering in adulthood her old nemesis – the boy who had made her so miserable sitting behind her in class.
“I saw [him] in 2006, and I was having a particularly good hair day.
“I went up to him and said, ‘Hi Ron, do you remember me?’”
“He said, ‘No, but I should…’”
“I said, ‘My name is Jessica McGuinty, and you used to call me egghead.’”
She explained to him, in what she assures is a “non-snarky” way, her business success. “I just wanted to say thank you,” she told him, “because if you hadn’t been such an asshole to me in high school, I wouldn’t have started my company.”
“Check it out,” she teased him, “‘Egghead’s’ gone international.”
And with that, she said, “I’m over it.”
Message in a bottle
Today, McGuinty leverages her success with hair care products to, among other things, help prevent curly-haired kids from suffering the kinds of torments she underwent.
“I want to get the message to the kids before they have the chance to hate themselves like so many of us did,” she said. “Our tagline works in pretty well: ‘You have the right to remain curly.’”