“Take a single strand of your hair and roll it between your fingers with your eyes closed.”
Can you feel it? Is it thin or thick? Is it straight or curly? Odds are, if it’s straight, you’ve never had to think about this before.
But Curlē founder Mona El-Gharby has.
The Egyptian American Dallas native says her classmates used to bully her growing up over her natural hair texture. Her parents had raised her to be confident and elegant, but it was hard to feel that way about her curly hair. Like many other women, she felt her hair wasn’t “professional” or fit European beauty ideals.
And when her peers teased her, El-Gharby didn’t have any celebrities or television characters to point to and say, “these people have beautiful hair, they’re doing great things, they’re representing me.”
She explains, “if there was a natural-haired character on a TV show, they’d straighten their hair for a wedding, or they’d straighten their hair to look more professional. It was always the same case.”
El-Gharby kept her curls in braids 24/7. But by middle school, she was tired of it. She turned to YouTube tutorials and bloggers to learn how to do her hair and keep it healthy. In high school, she wasn’t liking the hair products she found at the store, so she started making her own oils and masks. She found recipes online and tweaked them for the different hair issues she had.
Then, when she was a sophomore at SMU, her friend participated in a startup pitch competition on campus. El-Gharby decided to turn her concoctions into her own pitch: a luxury, custom curly hair product business, which was eventually became Curlē.
“I know how to make the products and I know how to do a lot of things,” she says. “Why don’t I pitch to a competition?”
El-Gharby pitched to several, including SMU’s Big iDeas competition, which provides seed money and business coaching to entrepreneurial undergraduate students. She won it three years in a row, beginning in 2019. She spent the rest of her college career—she graduated in 2021—building out her business plan and developing Curlē’s products.
She held weekly focus groups, beginning with just family and friends, to test her products. She wanted to know how they worked on with various curl types, porosities, and oil levels.
“I would basically have a variety of different products and see what works best for them,” El-Gharby says. “Okay, so when I tweak it this way, it works better for someone with wavy hair versus someone with super oily hair.”
Those focus groups resulted in four products: a styling cream, a deep conditioner, hair oil, and a beard oil for men. Customizing these was key for El-Gharby.
On Curlē’s website, customers fill out an extensive natural hair profile quiz. They’re asked about curl type, how often they wash their hair, whether they can see their part, what a single strand feels like between their fingers, and more.
“The holistic quiz allows us to get a really thorough understanding of people’s hair issues, their hair type, what their hair is, without actually seeing the person,” she says.
El-Gharby then makes the products, customizing each solution to that customer’s hair profile and needs. Her hope is that by formulating products uniquely suited to each customer, they’ll be more empowered to embrace their natural hair as part of their identities and as “something that’s elegant in all contexts.”
She says she built Curlē “to put natural hair in a space where it was consistently luxurious, it was consistently professional, and to just share people’s stories that have slowly but surely embrace their natural hair in the workplace.”
She wants to change the narrative, so that women like her don’t have to change their hair.