A simple hair care question — “Why does my scalp itch when I wear braids?” — was the inspiration behind Ciara Imani May’s beauty brand, Rebundle.
The company, founded in June 2019, manufactures non-toxic, biodegradable braiding hair made from extracted banana fiber. That means it’s free from harmful chemicals that can irritate the scalp and can be disposed of through composting. According to Rebundle, one in three women experience scalp irritation from plastic, synthetic hair.
Braids had become May’s go-to protective style as she grew out her fade that June. But the resulting scalp inflammation was causing serious discomfort, and she wanted more information about the chemicals used in synthetic hair. Searching online led to more unanswered questions.
At the time, May was a program coordinator in the Smith Tech-Innovation Center at Johnson C. Smith University. She got the gig months after earning her master’s degree in social entrepreneurship from the University of Southern California. She was looking for inspiration to start a company while she helped students think through their own business ideas.
Black Business Matters
The Missouri native had also taken an interest in sustainability. She was trying to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle by exploring a circular economy and minimizing waste.
Her original question about scalp irritation now included thoughts about what happened to synthetic hair extensions after they were discarded. Ordinarily, the chemically-treated materials in synthetic hair — such as acrylic and PVC — aren’t biodegradable and ultimately end up in landfills.
“I started to learn what it means to be truly sustainable,” said the 26-year-old. “I couldn’t do that when I realized that my hair was made out of plastic that was not good for the environment or good for my body.”
She thought, what if there was an Earth-friendly alternative?
In that moment, Rebundle was born.
She says it was nearly impossible to break into the supply chain of plastic, synthetic hair. Before landing on the Rebundle concept, May was looking for a way to improve the plastic used in hair weaves.
“I wanted to provide something that was clean, but I couldn’t speak to any suppliers who could assure me that their products were free of PVC and toxins and that they were made ethically,” she said.
May walked away from that idea, in part, because she didn’t want to build a brand without enough information on the product make-up.
She says lack of access to information has long been a barrier for Black beauty suppliers in the hair-care industry.
Korean Americans control the most profitable sector in the market — hair extensions — along with the manufacturing, distribution and retail sale of it, according to a Minneapolis Public Radio report. The Black hair market brings in more than $9 billion annually, with Black women making up 70% of the market.
With her mind set on weaving environmentalism into Black hair care, she sought out opportunities for funding and support for startups.
“I started the company in 2019, but I didn’t win my first grant until 2020,” said May, who became a full-time entrepreneur last March. “There was a long period when I was spending money out of my own pocket to get things going. NC IDEA was the first organization to write me a check.”
The Durham-based private foundation supports North Carolina entrepreneurs through grants, programs and access to a resource network to accelerate their growth.
NC IDEA identified Rebundle as a promising, young startup and awarded May a $10,000 grant in April 2020.
She joined business accelerators like UNC Charlotte’s Ventureprise Launch, a six-week program that helps early-stage entrepreneurs discover the right customers for their business, and completed a fellowship with Venture for America.
In October, May’s company was one of 19 recipients awarded a $50,000 equity-free Arch Grant to help grow and scale her business. As a condition of the grant, cohort members must relocate to St. Louis, Missouri, for at least one year. According to May, half of the company is operated in Charlotte while the manufacturing is done in Missouri.
To help with the chemistry behind the products, May brought on Jessica Sanders as the company’s chief science officer. Danielle Washington serves as chief marketing officer.
Rebundle also runs a recycling program for used synthetic hair made of plastic. After taking down braided hair, users can ship it to Rebundle, where it’s shredded and repurposed into outdoor furniture and garden tools.
Since Rebundle’s hair extensions are biodegradable, they don’t need to be recycled. They can be added with brown material in home compost or included in yard waste pickups collected by city governments, according to the website.
After a year of fundraising and months of beta testing, Rebundle went live on Jan. 17. Customers now can pre-order “braid better” in 3.5-ounce bundles of black, brown or blonde hair at $20 each. Hair length is 28 inches.
Soon, customers also will be able to locate braiding stylists who work with Rebundle’s products through a company directory because, as May puts it, “We know what can happen if you show up to a braider with the wrong hair.”
May says she’s at the intersection of spaces — beauty and sustainability — and wants to continue representing where Black women fall into that.
“It’s been a general validation that people wanted better,” she said, “but maybe didn’t know what better looks like or that it was possible.”