Baltimore couple's handmade, natural beauty products are right on Target

It all started in the kitchen.

That's where Jamyla Bennu first mixed up batches of hair and skin products to give to friends and relatives more than 13 years ago.

Since then, Bennu has refined her creations of organic shea butter and aloe vera juice, coconut oil and honey. She and her husband, writer and filmmaker Pierre Bennu, have slowly built their company, Oyin Handmade, from the ground up, building connections on social media and wooing a loyal customer base through online sales.

Along the way, the couple moved to Baltimore, had two kids and were recognized by Ebony magazine as the "Coolest Black Family in America."

Now the Bennus have achieved another dream. Target recently picked up Oyin Handmade's line of hair care products, selling them in 140 stores around the country.

"We've always felt very lucky that this is what we get to do for a living," said Jamyla Bennu. "We feel like we're sending a little bit of happiness out, and we love that."

The Bennus spend about four days a week in their small factory in the Barclay neighborhood. The scent of honey wafts through the warehouse and offices, which seems appropriate since "oyin" means "honey" in the West African language of Yoruba.

On a recent afternoon, as Lauryn Hill played on the stereo, four workers heated, mixed and poured products. Jars of Burnt Sugar Pomade cooled on racks, waiting to be boxed and sent to Target. Vats of cocoa butter and olive oil, brightly colored product labels and pallets of boxes lined the walls of the workshop.

The couple and a few other employees have offices in the space, which was once an auto repair shop, and Pierre Bennu has a studio where he paints and works on his films. He has painted dreamy swirls on the walls with motivational messages such as "You are surrounded by realized dreams."

The couple said they want the workshop to be an inspiring place to the work — the opposite of the grim New York office buildings where both had some of their first jobs after college.

It was in New York that they first met in 1998. Friends introduced them, and then, the very next day, Jamyla was in-line skating over bumpy cobblestones in Brooklyn when she spotted the one open seat on a bench. It happened to be next to Pierre.

The couple fell in love quickly and married the next year. Jamyla Bennu was pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology at New York University and Pierre Bennu was working on Wall Street. But when his hair started falling out from the stress, the couple decided to re-evaluate their lives.

"We quit our jobs and said, 'We're going to sink or swim,' " recalled Pierre Bennu, now 40.

They moved into a basement apartment in his mother's home and started following their creative passions. They taught writing and performance classes in their living room. He wrote books, worked as a DJ and taught a photography class. She designed websites and wrote grants — and started to become more serious about the beauty products she made by hand.

Jamyla Bennu realized that like her, many African-American women were seeking natural and organic products to wash, condition and style their hair. Women were increasingly eschewing harsh chemical straigteners and were instead reveling in their hair's natural texture.

Bennu spent time on natural hair bulletin boards — those early 2000s precursors to Facebook groups — and began tailoring her products to meet the needs that women expressed there.

She started selling her products online through her husband's website, accepting payments through PayPal and relying on word of mouth for marketing. The business took off.

"We kind of just looked up and realized we'd been doing this for three years," said Jamyla Bennu.

In 2005, the couple started looking for a new home. They wanted to move to a city that prized the arts and that would enable them to develop their business without the high prices of New York real estate. They fell for Baltimore after one of Pierre Bennu's films screened here.

"There's so much love and history and warmth in Baltimore," said Jamyla Bennu.

They bought a home in Lake Walker that backs up to Chinquapin Run Park. Initially, the first two floors of their home were a workshop for Oyin, but as demand grew — and the first of the couple's sons arrived — they realized they needed a dedicated workspace.

The couple moved to their current production space about three years ago. They also have a storefront in the 2100 block of N. Charles St. that is open on Saturdays.

After years of selling their products exclusively online, the Bennus struck deals with some Whole Foods stores and small boutiques over the past couple of years. But until recently, more than 90 percent of their business was online, they said.

Among their dedicated online customers is Tamika Wilkerson, 26, a homemaker from northern Utah. She first heard about the products online, and uses items such as Hair Dew, a leave-in conditioner, and Frank Juice, a hair tonic, to protect her hair from the dry desert air.

"They're all organic, there are no ingredients that make me question whether it's good for me," she said.

Target first approached the Bennus about selling the products in 2009, but the couple said they needed more time to ramp up production. They sought the kind of employees Pierre Bennu calls "spiritually ambidextrous," people who could adhere to their recipes and follow each step in the production process.

"It was very important to us to continue to make the products by hand," he said.

The couple finalized the deal with Target last year and six of their products appeared on shelves at 140 of the chain's locations last month.

Stephan Kanlian, chair of the cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management program at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology, said it was "very strategic" of the Bennus to move cautiously as they expanded.

The greatest risk as small businesses ramp up "is supply chain fulfillment," he said. "It's hard to get enough product there at key retail times."

Target has aggressively sought to include more independent cosmetics brands on its shelves, Kanlian said, striking deals with companies such as Sonia Kashuk, Burt's Bees and Carol's Daughter.

"Target has an eye for indy brands," he said. "They know their customers, know their clients in the store, know their trends."

Patrice Grell Yursik, who writes about African-American beauty at her website, Afrobella, said Oyin products have long had a reputation for being high-quality. But part of Oyin's draw is the story behind the product, she said. A small cameo of the Bennus with their two young sons adorns each item.

"They're such a cool family," she said. "There's a great deal of knowledge and love and devotion to family."

Yursik is a member of Target's "Inner Circle," a group of bloggers and social media users who get early information on new product lines. She included Oyin on a list of brands to watch that she shared with Target executives last year, she said.

Yursik said she believes that Oyin's story will inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs, much as the success of Carol's Daughter, a line of natural hair care products introduced in the 1980s, has influenced today's cosmetics creators.

Longtime customers say that they're delighted that Oyin will be easier to buy.

Althea Kitchens, a 33-year-old events marketer from the Bronx, first heard about Oyin by watching natural hair care product reviews on YouTube. While she loves the experience of getting a box of Oyin products in the mail — candies and little bottles of bubble solution are tucked in the boxes — she's excited to be able to be able to find them at Target.

The Bennus say they hope to continue to slowly develop their business, moving into more Whole Foods stores and small retailers, without sacrificing the quality of their products or their time with their family.

The couple said their sons, 5 and 3, are nonplussed about the Target deal.

Jamyla Bennu said on a recent trip to Target she proposed stopping by the cosmetic aisle to see how Oyin products looked on the shelf.

"But Mommy," said the 5-year-old, "we already have them at home."

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