Aurelie Djoumbissie-Ntumba, Anita Olokosu, Melissa Bassa, Owners, Quality Beauty Supply Store, Grayson, Georgia
What do a Cameroonian, Bahamian and Nigerian have in common? Their love for beauty and the business they’ve built to serve the beauty needs of their community and primarily blacks, in Georgia.
Saheed Adeleye had a chat with Aurelie Djoumbissie-Ntumba and Anita Olokosu, as they shared their business journey, challenges and their projections for the future. (The third member of their trio, Melissa Bassa, was not available as at the time of the chat)
Arrival in Georgia
Aurelie and Anita met each other through their children, who attended the same school. “We kind of became friends through the kids, but we started hanging out basically from the kids’ birthday parties. Then we got to exercising and taking walks in the park together, and from there we started talking about business,” says Anita.
Anita is a Nigerian, who grew up in Lagos. She is a trained physiotherapist from the University of Ibadan. She got married in Nigeria in 1997, and moved to New Jersey in 2000 to be with her husband.
Aurelie, on the other hand, came to the United States when she was a teenager. “I grew up in Duala which happens to be the economic capital of Cameroon. I come from the French speaking part of Cameroon. I moved here with my sister, whose husband was a diplomat.”
She graduated from the City College New York, where she studied engineering. It was also in New York that she met and married her husband. When living in New York became too expensive for the couple, who by that time had a daughter, decided to move to Georgia.
After working in Corporate America for over 25 years in the legal field as a paralegal, Aurelie was laid off following a restructuring in her department, and that proved to be the final straw for her. “I was just so tired of having to work for organizations where every time they decide when they want to let go of you. So I said, okay you know what, it’s time to work for myself. What can I do? So of course I started to turn ideas.”
Melissa Bassa is originally from the commonwealth of the Bahamas. She holds degrees in finance, human resources and an MBA. Her career spans over 30 years in banking, consulting, project management, corporate training, real estate and substitute teaching. She is the mother of two and is married over 25 years. She practices Pan-Africanism, has a friendly spirit, and shares her knowledge with all whom she meets. She enjoys traveling, reading, researching African culture and helping others.
The Beauty Business Buddies
The two friends—Aurelie and Anita—started talking about different ideas. “Between the two of us, we have four girls, so we spend a lot of money in this industry. One thing I noticed in doing my research is that the beauty industry is a 20-billion-dollar industry and African-Americans make up 80% of consumers, but only 3 % of ownership,” says Aurelie. “Not a lot of us own beauty supply because it is mostly dominated by Asians, as we all know, and it makes it very difficult for us to get into the industry,” she explains further.
So they embarked on more research, and found mentors who were in the industry, because they wanted to be sure it was something they really wanted to do. “We wanted to make a difference in the community, provide a pleasant environment for our people to come and shop, and feel comfortable while shopping. That’s how we ended up with the beauty supply.” Though Aurelie is quick to add that, “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
In the beginning, she joined a Facebook community, where she connected with other beauty supply owners. “I do know we have a low network and I do know a couple that are out in Cobb county. Here in Gwinnett, I believe it’s three of us, but we are the largest. It was very strategic the way we entered the business. Not knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we decided to start small and eventually expand, and that’s exactly what we did,” Aurelie says.
They started out occupying 1300 square feet, but now occupy 2600 square feet. “After a couple years in this location, we were lucky enough that the space next to us was still available. So it was just a matter of knocking down the walls and we doubled the size of the store,” she reveals.
Their choice of location was also strategic. It didn’t make sense to open a store where they lived in Lawrenceville, because there were already a lot of Asian-owned beauty supply stores. “We knew it was out of the question so we started doing market research,” says Aurelie. Their research led them to set up shop in the heart of Grayson. “It’s between Loganville and Snellville, which is behind us. So we have four cities around us, and this was perfect when we looked for locations.”
“It helped that there weren’t so many stores around, and there is a concentration of middle-class black people who are good consumers of beauty, and that has helped a lot,” Anita adds.
How They Keep It Together
They may not have started out with foundations in the beauty industry, but the ladies did, and continue to do their homework. “We have five girls between the three of us, and between all eight of us, we have tried a lot of things in the store. We try,we test, we make sure that when we say something to the customer, it is something good and true. So that really guides the products that we put into the store,” says Anita.
They also pull from their past experiences in their professional backgrounds. “There is a lot of uniqueness in the beauty industry and coming from a background where I’m a physical therapist, it’s a lot of customer service and you always have that. In any customer service job, you have to serve the customer and our focus was truly customer based. And that really guides how we can help people to get what they need. Coming from that customer service angle helped a lot,” explains Anita.
Aurelie and Melissa also bring in their experience from Corporate America. “We have been able to put things together and stay within what we should do, and know what we shouldn’t do,and we are still learning as we go,” she adds.
What Sets Them Apart
Knowing how overwhelming shopping for beauty products can be, the ladies try to make things easy for their customers. And they do that by stocking only the best quality. “Because we use these products, we know what’s good for us. Yes, there are a zillion different shampoos, but do you need all of those shampoos? No. You need the one that really works for the issue you have and I think that’s what the community appreciates here,” says Aurelie. “The fact that they can walk in, they see exactly what they are looking for, and they have people that look just like them, and can really advise them on whatever issue they have or their concerns.”
When it comes to esthetics, they also tried something different. “We decided that when we opened something, it was going to be laid out differently. We do not have those typical tall gondolas you see in most beauty supply stores. Everything’s glass here and you can see through. It’s well laid out and clean, and people really appreciate that. They walk in here and are like, ‘wow’. It makes us feel good. All this hard work was not in vain.”
The store also has a hair salon. “We do some hair washing, braiding, and we just all around provide beauty for your body, skin, hair, and for your soul. Because we know that when you feel beautiful, you feel confident,” says Anita. They also have a loctician onsite for locs.
“We try to make it a one stop shop,” Aurelie explains.
Who Can Shop At Their Store & What You’ll Find
While the majority of their customer base comprises African-Americans, they also stock beauty products for other ethnicities, including Caucasians, Hispanics, and Asians. According to Aurelie, “What we noticed is they also use some of these products. The goal is to be able to serve everybody, but mostly our people.”
They stock products for all genders and ages. “We want it to be a family experience, where the whole family can come and shop,” says Aurelie. “Anything hair related, the braiding hair, the extensions, the human hair, all that we source from Asia. And then the wet products, which are your shampoos, your conditioners, we get from here. We do have some other things that we get from Nigeria as well.”
“We source a lot of skin supplies from Nigeria, and other things like beads and some jewelry. We do have some jewelry from Ghana also,” Anita adds.
Not Enough Support From The African Immigrant Community
Like all businesses, sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. One of the things they didn’t anticipate was the low or almost absent support from the African immigrant community. “When we originally opened, we were hoping that we would get the majority of the Africans to be our customers. It hasn’t really been the case. I think 80% of our customers are African-American. They are the ones that are really excited for us. They understand the value of keeping the money in the community,” says Aurelie.
“I don’t know how we are going to do that but I know it is going to take a lot of conversations and outreach. We try our best to really reach out, send incentives whether it’s discounts or things of that nature just to attract some of them.”
Anita chalks it down to the need for a mindset shift. “It’s just a way of people not wanting to go out of their way to support their own. It’s not a lot of Africans that have stores like this. But if you really commit to supporting them, you can reach out and support them. It’s being intentional and that is what we are lacking.”
Aurelie also supports her view. “We all know, with anything in the African community, they are always very negative about anything that you do, or they don’t trust what you do or believe in you. They don’t trust that you have the quality stuff you say you do. Why would they spend the money? They would much rather give that money to other communities. You have a higher chance of finding quality stuff here, because we have tested the products. We know what is good for us and we do not just carry anything.”
In a country where there are efficient systems in place to oversee quality control, the lack of trust in African business owners and their businesses is disheartening. This is something we must change, and are changing already, by starting with our brand.
And the ones who do come by, always ask for a discount. “They do not understand this is a business that we run and we have overhead expenses,” says Aurelie.
“It almost feels like they think they are doing you a favor coming into your store. And that you should give them a discount because they came. That’s sad, because as Africans, we should be able to support each other,” Anita says, sharing her disappointment.
Monopoly of Business From Competitors
Another challenge they face is stocking products. With the Asians dominating the market and dictating who they sell to, makes stocking the store with the products they need difficult. “You [would] think if you have the money to buy, you could just buy things to put in your store. But in the beauty sector, it does not happen that way. You can have all the money you want, especially when it comes to hair, the market is still dominated by Asians. They control everything. I’ve never seen a business where people refuse to take your money,” says Aurelie.
And in an age of social media where news travels at the speed of a click, customers want items as soon as they see them on celebrities online, not caring about the processes that the stores have to go through to get those products.
Aurelie sheds more light on the issue. “It is a very expensive industry with trends constantly changing and people hooked on social media. They see all the celebrities with the new stuff and expect you to have it right away. That’s mostly for the hair business, braids, weaves, human hair etc, and those are really the money makers, because the profit margin for shampoos and other products are really very low.”
Anita chips in, “The hair is where the Asians really try to control because it is the money maker, so you do not blame them on that. If you’re gonna buy 15, 20, 30 thousand from one merchant, can you imagine how many merchants we would have in the store? And people are going to come to the store to buy specific things. They want this specific product from this specific company. We have about 10 that we buy from. If you are going to spend 30,000-40,000 on one person, that makes it really expensive.”
Plans for The Holidays
“We only close [on] Christmas Day, because it’s retail and we are closed on Thanksgiving day. But other than that, we are open.”
On a personal level, the holidays will be spent with family, and as it is with most African families, that also means lots of food. “We just get together, sit around a table and enjoy some good food and music,” says Aurelie.
For Anita, “We’re gonna make some jollof rice, some fried chicken, and some fried turkey. We’re going to eat a lot of things that are known to us, and of course a lot of plantain. So it’s just a family get together. Sometimes people come from other states to join families here and sometimes we travel also for holidays.”
What They Miss About Africa
“I miss the social life and the food, and also family life. I am here pretty much with just my nieces. Everyone else is back home. I go home, but not as often as we love to because it’s so expensive,” says Aurelie, whose favorite local food is Ndole—a meal prepared with bitter leaves. “It’s very good. You just have to have it.”
For Anita, “I like food and I miss food a lot.” She continues, “I cook a lot of African food. I travel to Nigeria a lot and get things from back home. Besides, there are African stores here. So we both cook a lot of African food.”
Could there be the possibility of starting a food business in the near future? “It was one of the business ideas we discussed before we got into the beauty supply. Anita likes to cook, while I don’t. I can cook but I don’t enjoy doing it.”
So, if you’re ever in the Grayson area, do stop by the Quality Beauty Supply store at 1142 Athens Hwy, Ste 112, Grayson GA 30043, or call 678-691-3083 for delivery and check them out on IG and FB, @qualitybeautyzz.
“We have a lot of products and also give insights to how you could make things work for you in terms of skin type or hair type. We generally just provide for our customers. We are here to take care of our customers and we try our best to do that.”
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