Meet Meron, The Tech Entrepreneur Changing the Way You Choose a Salon!
On my natural hair journey, I could not stress enough the value in finding a trusted professional stylist. However, I know that finding a home salon is difficult for most, especially in cities or states (countries, even!) where options are extremely limited. Luckily, there is Bantu. Bantu is a free app that allows users to find stylists by location, hair styles, price and even by whether or not they make house calls. I recently spoke with Bantu Co-Founder, Meron to learn more about how Bantu started, some of her experiences she’s had as a natural and the next steps for the company.
Alicia: What inspired you to create the Bantu app and what’s your overall goal for this app?
Meron: So first, what inspired us: It’s kind of a funny story how the app started. And it starts with my partner, John. I have two co-founders by the way who are not here obviously - two guys I cherish, John and Richard.
A: I noticed that!
M: And John is a software engineer and he moved to Ottawa from Nigeria to study. And, I guess several women coming from Nigeria to Ottawa to study for school would ask him “Hey John, where do I get my hair done here?” Coming from Nigeria, where I presume it’s not hard to find a hair stylist to here [Ottawa] where there aren’t many options for the black population, he thought ‘ok, this is weird, everyone keeps asking me, they’re new, they don’t know anybody” and so then he created Bantu to solve this problem. He created it in 2014 and the first iteration of it had three hairstyles on it and it was only local to Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal at the time. These three cities probably have the most black people in Canada.
M: John and I went to university together, and were good friends, but I didn’t even know that he made an app until a year after he did so. We just happened to go for coffee and he was telling me “Hey can I download my app on your phone?” I’m like… Ya sure, what? You have an app? What does it do? He tells me and I’m like what? This is incredible. I was immediately excited about it at the time, and obviously continue to be excited about it.
M: That was about 2015, and at that point I had been a struggling natural for four years. Before I was natural, I was always texturizing and relaxing my hair. I had a regular stylist but I remember my very first hair appointment when I was natural was horrible. My hairstylist was like “Oh what did you do to yourself?” and she’s like “Ok, let’s work on this.” I went in for a trim and silk press, and what I left was this horrible, big hot poofy mess. And then I started experimenting with things on my own, looking at YouTube videos and trying everything under the sun on hair forums. I was like “man, no one knows how to deal with my hair!” And so I was so excited about Bantu when I heard about it from John, and wished I’d known about it before. .
M: In the beginning, we had about 25 hair stylists and that was in Ottawa. And I think just because I was a black woman who’s very into my hair and horrible at YouTube videos, I nudged John to broaden the scope. I felt that there were many people who could benefit, and kept saying hey, you need to get on it kind of (I think I harassed him a little bit into kind of our first social media post [more than a year ago]. I [got us] on Instagram, on Twitter, on Facebook. He was a little nervous to get onto social media so I told him “I’ll help you!”. You have to be on social media. You have an app, it’s wonderful. It works. So, that’s kind of our creation story and then in June of 2016, we released our most current iPhone app and our Android app in October. It’s all kind of new and happening fast, and it’s cool because I’m learning a lot about app development. I don’t have a technical background to say, I have a science degree and the thing is I don’t know how to code. I’m learning a lot about the process on the way and it’s definitely been interesting to say the least.
M: So ya, so that’s that! Also, I should mention my other teammate. His name is Richard and he does most of our finance and operations. I’m also learning lots about this aspect of the business. Running a start-up forces you to learn lots.
A: - and you’re the woman that makes the decisions -
M: I’m your girl! I remember we entered a pitch competition, which is kind of Richard’s avenue, if we want to be official. We did ok, we won fourth place. We planned it, got ready, we practiced. Last minute, our advisor saw me and she’s like “So, are you talking?” and I’m like oh, what are you talking about? And she says “you have to talk and present the app”. And I’m like “Oh! Okay!”
A: You have to!
M: I felt so bad cause he had practiced, planned and I’m like what? What do I say? It was a nerve-wracking experience to have a last minute switch. Ya, ever since then my face has been out there more.
A: That’s completely fine. That makes sense cause I think probably if a man had approached me with an all male team I’d be like what do you guys know about this? [Laughter]
M: What’s funny is that we’ve been to trade shows, like we went to Toronto Natural Hair Convention and other hair events and the guys will go too. They’re wearing the shirt with our logo, and a lot of girls take part [in these events] and sometimes I laugh cause at the reactions. Richard is surprisingly effective. He goes “here you need this,” while handing someone some materials. And I’m like no! don’t say that but it ends up working out. (Laughter)
M: You know, I don’t know how I’d react if a guy would tell me what I need for my hair.
A: - I think it would depend on how. If it was like “Oh girl you need your hair done. Here’s a stylist.” I’d be like oh?! (Laughter)
M: I should also mention the rest of our team members are all girls. We have interns - a lot of lovely interns - some of them are on the technical side and they’re being mentored by John – which is cool, I love that we’re able to mentor young students – and then some of them are working under me on the marketing side.
A: What’s the story behind the name “Bantu” ?
M: The name Bantu was inspired by a hairstyle whose beauty, simplicity and elegance embodies everything about the way we want to make our users feel. First and foremost, we wanted a name that our target market could relate to. Bantu is a word and style that is distinct to a Black woman's hair. It embodies the unique beauty, poise and grace of a Black woman. This app echoes the very sentiment of the word as it was made especially for Black women - to celebrate her with whatever style she pleases. We want our Bantu Beauties to feel as beautiful and confident as we feel a woman should be when wearing Bantu knots. It unites people beyond borders: it refers to a language and a group of people. And most obviously, it’s a nod to the hairstyle "bantu knots" which happens to be quite timely given the current natural hair progression.
A: That’s really rewarding! So now you have the Bantu app. It exists, it’s working and you guys are growing your database, so what are your next steps?
M: Definitely growing our user base, we have special focus on areas where we might not have too many stylists right now. As you saw, we’re well represented in the metro areas. We have considerably more stylists in New York, for example, and also there’s a lot in the Greater Toronto Area. But what I envision is for us to be able to help any girl who lives in Little Rock, AK or somewhere random and rural. Right now the app works in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and France, but what I’d like is for it to be global. Especially, as you know, with the advent of all these travel groups and platforms, it’s more of a culture now. For example, a girlfriend of mine [from the U.S], who is spending a couple months traveling to different countries for three months at a time with a big group of people, messaged me and said “I need a stylist in Prague.” (Laughter) That’s true! I don’t know anybody in Prague yet, but that’s what I envision. For Bantu to be kind of accessible for everybody. There’s also lots of improvements that I want to see, like a rating that is comment-based, we eventually want to get into bookings directly through the app and then also payment through the app so you don’t have to take money with you to the hair appointment and you know exactly what the price of your appointment is going to be. Sometimes I find prices can change when you arrive or you know obviously within some flexibility but I wanted it to be a useful tool for people and stylists.
Alicia: Speaking of the stylists, what is the process for getting a page on the app? Do the stylists make their own pages and can users make a page for salons they’ve been to? And how do you recruit stylists onto the platform and get the word out?
Meron: Either we find the stylists or they find us, mostly through social media and referrals. When you download the app as a stylist, it looks the exact same as a user. There’s a little icon on the left hand side where it says create a listing, so the stylists sign up themselves. We give them autonomy to do that and set up their pages. Everybody who’s on the app is somebody who went on there, created their profile and said yes I’m here. But ya, so that’s how they’re on the app. It’s generally a pretty quick process to sign up, and of course it is free to do so. We’re always looking to add to our community and we’re so pleased with it’s growth.
I had such a good time talking with Meron. Be sure to check out Bantu on iPhone or Android and let us know what you think of it!