Brazil's haircare queen: From shantytown to millionaire

Zica Assis Image copyright Rodrigo Castro
Image caption It took Zica Assis 10 years to find her winning haircare formula - but she never gave up

Zica Assis could never have imagined that her decision to stop straightening her hair would see her move from the poverty of a Rio de Janeiro favela or shantytown, to being the owner of a multi-million dollar business.

Growing up in a Rio favela in the 1970s, Ms Assis started working as a nanny when she was just nine, and later found employment as a washerwoman and cleaning lady.

In a country where 43% of people are of mixed race and 8% are black, Zica - like millions of other Brazilians - has African or "afro" hair.

But as a younger woman, she felt she had to straighten it if she wanted to get work.

"The afro hair was considered sloppy and dirty, so I had to straighten my hair to get a job as a nanny," says Ms Assis, now 54.

Image caption Zica Assis grew up in a Rio favela

"I never got used to it, I wanted my curls and my identity back."

After an unsuccessful search for a haircare professional who could help her keep her curls but make them more manageable, and in the absence of any specific products to buy - Ms Assis decided she would do something about it herself.

So aged 21 she entered a hairdressing school with the aim of understanding her hair structure, and developing a treatment that would give her the curls she had always dreamed of.

"I liked my hair when it was wet, because it became more malleable, and the curls were well defined," says Ms Assis. "That was the result I wanted with my product."

It took her 10 years and many mistakes until she found the perfect formula.

"My brother Rogerio who later became my partner was my guinea pig; I used his hair to test the products," she says. "In one of the attempts he became completely bald. I got some holes in my hair as well."

Image copyright Rodrigo Castro
Image caption Beleza Natural now has salons across five Brazilian states

Ms Assis realized that she had finally succeeded when a neighbour complimented her hair and asked what she was using.

"That was when I knew I had got it right. I always got praised for my smile, my happiness... but never for my hair."

Ms Assis officially launched her haircare product in 1993, calling it Super Relaxante.

But rather than just selling it by the bottle, she decided to open a hair salon called Beleza Natural, where trained staff could apply the treatment for customers.

Today Beleza Natural has 33 salons and 11 kiosks across five Brazilian states with 130,000 customers a month, and Super Relaxante is a well-known brand.

It also sells a number of other haircare products, such as shampoos, conditioners and gels.

Guerrilla marketing

To help launch the business Ms Assis brought in three partners; her brother Rogerio, her husband Jair Conde and her friend Leila Velez.

None of them had any previous experience of running a start-up company. Her brother and Ms Velez worked at a branch of fast-food chain McDonald's, while her husband was a taxi driver.

Image copyright Zica Assis
Image caption Zica Assis decided when she was 21 that she would do something for people with afro hair

To raise some funds to help the business get off the ground Mr Conde sold his Volkswagen Beetle taxi, the only thing of value that any of them owned.

With money too tight to pay for any advertising, the partners came up with a guerrilla marketing idea. They started to glue homemade posters inside the buses that passed by their neighbourhood.

This attracted the first customers, and then thanks to positive word-of-mouth, it was only a few weeks before a long line of women would start queuing outside the salon every day, up to two hours before it opened.

With staff often having to work until midnight to be able to keep up with the demand, the business had to move to a bigger premises, and in 1995 Beleza Natural opened its second shop.

Image caption Beleza Natural now sells a range of haircare products

By 2005 the company had five salons, and in order to maintain quality and speed of service, it put in place an assembly line system inspired by Rogerio Assis's and Leila Velez's time at McDonalds. This sees a Beleza Natural employee being responsible for one specific step of the five-step treatment.

The firm then gained both investment and advise from global entrepreneurship support organisation Endeavor. The help from Endeavor, a not-for-profit social enterprise based in New York, enabled Beleza Natural to greatly increase the speed of its expansion.

Further investment followed in 2013 from the Bermuda-based fund GP Investments. Today Beleza Natural has 4,000 employees, most of whom are young women from the shantytowns.

For 90% of these women it is the first time they have had a formal job. Strikingly, more than two out of every three of its employees was previously a Beleza Natural customer.

Walter Sabino Junior, founder of Hi Partners Capital & Work, a Brazilian investment fund that aims to spot the country's best new start-ups, says that the secret of Ms Assis's success is "passion and market demand".

"She invested with passion in area where no-one looked, and offers a quality service. That is crucial for any business to work."

'Same reality'

Although the Brazilian economy is currently struggling, Ms Assis predicts that the business will grow by 13% this year.

Image copyright Rodrigo Castro
Image caption Zica Assis now gives talks on entrepreneurship

She says that a major part of the company's success is that the four founders are all from the same lower income demographic as most of its customers.

"We see ourselves in our clients because we all come from the same reality," she says.

"We belong to a low income class, and we know what they want. We are aware of the problems that our clients face - struggling with their own hair, low self-esteem, and the issues it can cause in personal and professional life."

In 2013 Ms Assis was named by Forbes magazine as one of the 10 most powerful businesswomen in Brazil. After going to college to gain a business degree she now makes time to lecture on entrepreneurship, both in her home country, and abroad.

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