Karen Coffey opened Bella Beauty and Hair in January with lots of optimism and a stylist’s eye for hair extensions and other products tailored to Black women. She thought that would be enough to succeed.
She didn’t realize the game would be stacked against her before she even opened her door.
Like Black entrepreneurs before her, Coffey quickly discovered that behind the beauty supply storefronts that dot the nation’s urban neighborhoods and suburban shopping plazas sits a multibillion-dollar industry for black hair products that’s run largely by South Koreans and does not cede its power or market share without a fight.
Korean-Americans cornered the market decades ago by controlling the manufacturing, distribution and retail sale of hair extensions — the moneymaker of the industry. Black owners believe Korean wholesalers shut them out and only supply Korean retailers.
Coffey says she’s seen that firsthand. Some Korean wholesalers, she said, have denied or ignored her requests for products. Meanwhile, a new Korean-owned store that opened across the street a month before her has some brands she can’t get.
“All of it is run by Koreans,” said Coffey, 32. “A lot of them don’t make it easy for Blacks to get in. I didn’t know it would be this challenging.”
Korean wholesalers deny any preferential treatment. Shake-N-Go, which supplies Coffey’s nearby competitors, said it works with retailers based on local competition and other exclusively economic factors, and the choices are “far from being discriminatory.”
Coffey, though, says those statements run contrary to what she and other Black beauty supply owners experience daily.
Coffey’s part of a growing number of Black women here and around the country determined to persevere even if it means bypassing the Korean supply chain. They’re going to extreme lengths, employing innovation and grit, to do so.
“There’s been a really concerted effort to get Black people to enter the retail side of this business,” said Lori Tharps, Temple University journalism professor and co-author of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.”
“There are success stories,” she added. “Somehow black people are finding alternative suppliers and moving past this idea that Koreans are keeping them out of this very lucrative space.”
Read full article by Emma Sapong at MPR News