Miko Branch along with her sister Titi Branch successfully launched Miss Jessie’s to cater to women with curly hair. We know them today as pioneers in the natural hair movement. In her new book titled “Miss Jessie’s: Creating A Successful Business From Scratch–Naturally” she details how she and her sister did it. She and her sister Titi built a company that essentially evolved from their kitchen table into a multimillion-dollar company.
Miko wants this book to serve as a blueprint for entrepreneurs to “make waves in any industry.” She opens the book with the idea that “you don’t need money to transform an industry. You don’t even need privileges or contacts.” On May 14th, 2015 Miko Branch sat down with Her Agenda at AlleyNYC to discuss the book, the business and her sister Titi, who passed away. Read on to learn more about Miko and Titi’s journey and to get insight into how Miko finds the strength to continue each day despite the loss of her beloved sister and business partner.
[Editor’s note: This feature was originally published on May 19th, 2015. We are republishing this in honor of Black Business Month.]
You can also watch our entire conversation in the video above.
Her Agenda: What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
Miko Branch: It went in stages. While we were writing the book we were running Miss Jessie’s. We don’t have any partners, we don’t have any investors, so Titi and I were really running our own business, so finding the time to get our story down was at first the most challenging. But then it was after my sister died on December 4th, the book still hadn’t been finished and I had to do the finishing touches on the book but before I did that I needed to decide if it made sense for me to come out with our story. Honestly, when my sister died I didn’t want to talk to nobody. I didn’t want to talk about our story. I couldn’t see myself having an interview, it was just devastating. I talked with my family about it and we decided that it was so important that I come out and publish this book because Titi’s story is so important. In addition to history, history that we’ve made together. We decided don’t stop, keep moving forward and I’m so glad I did.
Her Agenda: You’re very honest in your book about the fall out and tension between you and your sister that happened as you built the company. Your sister even sued you once icing you out the company — which is quite frankly something that was new to me — was that hard?
Miko Branch: Well when Titi and I decided to write the book we decided we wanted to give real stores, true stories of what happened and what a partnership looks like….what it really means to go into business with your sibling. I know when a lot of you guys see Titi and I, maybe some of you know our personal story but maybe many of you don’t and I think at the end of the day you see a really cute jar of curly pudding and you may not understand what it took to get there and when Titi and I decided we wanted to write the book we wanted to be as transparent as possible. So because she died that didn’t change what the intention was and I wanted to stay true to that intention. Titi and I actually wanted to get into it a bit further about our dispute and what it entailed and how it really affected us, but we were able to touch on it in a nice way without us getting into too much detail. But I’m glad we did because it’s people like you who read it, and I’m sure there’s some lessons in there.
Her Agenda: In the book, you say that this is a blueprint essentially to ‘make waves in any industry you choose’ what’s the most important skill you believe is necessary to disrupt an industry?
Miko Branch: I really have to reference Titi and I, if there was one thing that held true was ‘no fear.’ No fear and I think Titi and I had, and particularly Titi, she had a healthy distance from the beauty industry. She was exposed to it through me, but she had a healthy enough distance to it where she was able to come up with new ideas and come up new approaches instead of doing things the standardized way…the stale way in which many people had done business in the beauty industry. She didn’t really experience any fear and through that partnership with her I was able to do things my way. There were times where we made mistakes and we paid for them dearly but I would definitely say no fear when you’re trying to do whatever it is you want to do. That’s one of the things that really set me and Titi up in this business — we just did it, we didn’t think about what the consequences were.
Her Agenda: You also talk about how ‘the fear of trying was never there’ for you when it came to your business. Even in moments when you were nervous or unsure, you acted as if you were fearless. How did you tap into your courage during scary moments?
Miko Branch: Well, Titi and I had many scary moments together and separately but what happens is when those scary moments happened we didn’t really have the luxury to be scared. The mortgage was due, my son was cold, there was no heat in our brownstone. We had just bought a brownstone in Bedford Stuyvesant but we had made some really bad moves in our business, we had a salon in Boerum Hill Brooklyn but we made some bad decisions so we had to move our business to our brownstone. We didn’t really have the luxury to let fear set in, and we had to plunge ahead because my son was hungry– we just had things to do, so we didn’t have time to let it set in.
Her Agenda: Another good example is the Target story, if you could touch on that a little that would be the perfect example of what we’re talking about here.
Miko Branch: When Target called us, which is a huge deal because Target doesn’t usually make that call to two girls in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn to tell us that they want us to be in their mass channel, mass chain. So when we got that call we were so geeked up and we were so green.
But you have to understand Titi’s extremely smart, I’m an extremely good hair stylist, but we had had no practice in dealing with mass channels. But we knew it was an opportunity, we knew we wanted Miss Jessie’s in Target so we went with it. But we also understood that we didn’t understand this game. Target (and Target is a metaphor, I’m talking about mass channels) they have all kind of games that they play, and it usually costs the vendor. So Titi and I if you want to use color, we were green. We signed every single contract that this mass channel put in front of us, because we were just so excited that our product from Bedford Stuyvesant had made it into Target. There were some lessons that we needed to learn. We needed to learn that you don’t sign contracts without your attorney. We needed to learn that those percentages that they want to charge us that didn’t make sense shouldn’t stick. We learned so many lessons but it was all very concentrated and at a certain point, we needed to make a decision. We needed to make a decision about staying in mass — was this new partner the right partner for us? At one point we really had to let our partner know what our principles were and we made a really big move and we made a really big stand with Target. It was probably one of the scariest things we’ve ever done. We found ourself having to stand up to our most profitable partner. You have to understand we are two girls from Brooklyn, our family was so proud of us, we didn’t want to disappoint all of the natural heads out there who were really rooting for us. Just to be in Target and for us to any way jeopardize that because we wanted to stand by our principles we felt like what we were doing was crazy but we did it anyway so that was a very scary moment.
Her Agenda: So much of your discovery, and key aha moments as you and your sister built Miss Jessie’s centers around something you can’t quite teach – listening to your gut, and honing in on your instincts. Throughout your journey, how have you developed that sense?
Miko Branch: I think at the end of the day, listening to your gut is probably the best thing you can do. The most important relationship that probably any of us will have is that we hopefully have a wonderful relationship with God, but another very important relationship you’re going to have is the one that you have with yourself. So if you’re doing things and you’re going against your own gut you still have to deal with yourself because you have that voice in your head that says ‘you didn’t do that right.’ So really staying level with that voice in your head is everything and trusting your gut is everything.
Her Agenda: Her Agenda is all about career development and inspiring women to go for their goals and do what they want in their career. Your goals growing up weren’t exactly 100 percent clear and they changed. Can you talk about those career decisions you had to make from deciding to leave college, then enrolling in FIT to get a Fashion degree and ultimately pivoting to pursue doing hair…those were all decisions that went against the grain and yet here you are.
Miko Branch: Even as a younger Miko I was always listening to my gut. I was paying attention to not only the things that I wanted to do, I was also paying attention to the things I did not want to do. It was 50/50. I used to create a list for myself. In fashion school, these projects take too long, and I’m going to need an investor if I’m going to have my own line, so the day I graduated from FIT guess what? Miko is not going into a career for fashion design. I made a decision to enroll in hair school, why? — because it was easy and I was so good at it. A lot of us, particularly in my family, my parents put a lot of emphasis on traditional education although my mother was an artist, and I just found that traditional approach of university, it was so boring to me. I couldn’t imagine having a career doing what, an extension of this? I just wanted to be happy. I wanted to be good and I wanted to be confident at what I did. I always knew I wanted to be my own boss so I knew I had to do things my way, and I had to do things the right way, and I was always good at doing hair. I graduated from FIT because I needed to graduate because I didn’t want to hear my dad talking about me. So I finished that and I decided I was going to do something that I was good at. That was a really important decision. That was me trusting my gut, still as a younger Miko.
Her Agenda: As Black woman in business, the odds are stacked against us — [nearly half of all single Black women have zero or negative wealth, and their median wealth is $100—compared with just over $41,000 for single white American women.] So, for a lot of people going after their dream is a luxury they can’t afford because bills need to be paid and they need someplace to live. But even though that was also your reality that never stopped you. How did you maintain your energy and your drive to stay focused on your main goals, while also having to still worry about how you were going to pay your bills, needing to take side jobs, and having to handle more and more responsibilities?
Miko Branch: Titi and I were no strangers to hard work. When we were kids around 7 and 8, my dad put us to work. He raised us as boys so Titi and I would do everything from sand floors to spackle walls to help my dad. So we had a work ethic already instilled in us. So when it came time do things to supplement maybe a home hair salon that wasn’t really cutting it in terms of I didn’t have a whole bunch of customers, I would have to do things to make rent. Titi and I were not too fly to get out there and try something else in order for us to cover our bills.
You also have to understand, Titi and I never used our looks and we never used men to get money. At the end of the day, our father told us that there was an exchange and there was a trade off, so whatever we wanted my dad raised us to believe that we had to work hard to get it. So if whatever business we were in didn’t make enough money so we could do things like cover rent, we would get second jobs.
Titi was also no stranger to a second job and we did what we had to do to make ends meet. One other thing that Titi and I did was, we pulled our resources together. Titi and I wore [the same] clothes for many years, probably up to 2010. We lived together. We shared food, we drove the same car, and while many of our friends were hanging out and spending a lot of money hanging out, and they were having so much fun, we weren’t. We were saving our money and making sure we had a roof over our head and making sure we had operating money to do the next venture that we wanted to get into. We were able to build money slowly by using our talent to gain capital.
Her Agenda: But how do you maintain the energy and the focus towards your main goal when you constantly have to worry about covering your bills?
Miko Branch: I don’t know. But you know what, I don’t like people telling me what to do and I worked for other people and it just really bothers me when people tell me what to do. I thought that there was nothing more horrible than that. So everything else that I had to do in order to avoid that scenario where people are telling me what to do I was willing to do that because I didn’t want to go to work and have a boss because it just didn’t rest with my spirit.
Her Agenda: One of our favorite lessons from the book is: “Be bold. It is always possible to rewrite the rules if you dare to ask.” What are some of the rules you and sister had to break to get to where you are today?
Miko Branch: So many, we’re pioneers in the natural hair movement. This is two girls, we didn’t get the blueprint, we didn’t know that there was an industry that we could impact but just simply by taking a moment that I had a bath time and turning that into a million dollar business was huge.
Her Agenda: What would you say is the key moment or key thing you and your sister did to get your company from the brownstone to the boardroom?
Miko Branch: First of all we purchased a brownstone in Bedford Stuyvesant in ‘99 that’s when Bed Stuy was the hood. It wasn’t the Bed Stuy you guys know now. That was when nobody wanted to come to get their hair done in Bed Stuy. But we bought our brownstone in ‘99, and we bought our brownstone before we made some bad decisions and we got kicked out of a salon in Boerum Hill, it was a salon on Bond Street, we had to move our business and we ran an illegal operation in Bedford Stuyvesant.
We’re in Bedford Stuyvesant and now I’m a pregnant Miko and I’m about to have a baby. I knew my son’s dad was not going to be involved in our lives in any way so I knew I was not going to have a baby’s daddy. So that was another factor that was going on. It was bath time, and if you wanted to get your hair done by me you had to come to the hood because I knew that I did not want to send my son to a daycare because I knew his dad wasn’t going to be around so it was really important that me and my son had a very close connection.
I did hair in the house and I cared for my son on the upper floor. During bath time I used to like to wear my hair straight. I used to like to look like Kimora Lee Simmons, but at bathtime, my son splashing all over the place I could no longer keep my straight hair straight, so my hair would shrink up. At the time, I had some relaxer still in it. So when my hair turned from straight and went back to some kind of texture my clients had to see me with hair that looked similar to this (points to her head), and that started a conversation. That conversation was everything because quickly Titi and I refocused our business.
You also have to understand our main focus in our prior salon business was straight hair. Once we refocused our whole format in the business and I got really good at doing curly hair, and it would be women like Dominga (their first Miss Jessie’s model who was in the audience during this talk) that would come to our salon and I would turn kinks to curls — that was my specialty. I discovered that women of color, we don’t have just kinky hair, many of us have curly hair. That was a huge discovery and I needed product to support everything that I wanted to do but at the time there wasn’t any Curly Pudding, any Curly Buttercreme, there were no competitors, there was nothing. There was black gel, there was Pink Oil, there was afro sheen. There was hard gel, those were the things that were available, but at the time those things were not marketed to women who wanted to wear their hair curly, why? Many women of color didn’t even know they had curly hair. We always believed we had kinky hair. Some of us believed we had bad hair. So you have to understand this point too. Not only were Titi and I trying to do curls and kinks and waves, we had to also change the mindset. We also had to tell our customer what they had because when they walked in our brownstone they didn’t understand that they had gold on top of their head. That desire to really support all that we needed to do, it really took concentration and it took a lot of dedication from Titi and I.
We took it back to what we knew. When we grew up and we saw that there wasn’t anything available we saw our grandmother (Miss Jessie) whip things up at her kitchen table from scratch. What was she whipping up? She was whipping up her own icing, she was whipping up her own mayonnaise, she was doing everything. We saw this resourceful woman whip things up at her kitchen table. We were in the same situation that she was in when a local store didn’t carry the things that she wanted. We had this market, we had this hair type that we wanted to support but there was nothing out there. So guess what? We whipped it up at our kitchen table. We took a little bit of this, mixed it with a little bit of that. We just kept mixing and mixing and mixing until we came up with something. That we was Titi, it was 3 in the morning and Titi came in my room and said ‘oh my god, Miko wake up!’ And what she was holding was Curly Pudding. When I saw that Curly Pudding I knew we had it.
Her Agenda: Mistakes that you made were the building blocks, for you success. People says this all the time to the point where it almost seems cliche but it is really and truly apparent through your journey that this is absolutely true. Can you touch upon one mistake or one failure that actually turned out to be a set up for your ultimate success?
Miko Branch: So most of our career had been a bunch of trial and error that’s why it’s taken us so long to build Miss Jessie’s. But one set back was we grew too quickly. Titi and I got really gassed up that our salon was busy, this was when we had a two chair salon downtown Brooklyn, and we lost that salon. That was the first setback. Thank God that happened because had we not been in the position to move our business to the brownstone we wouldn’t have never had any reason to be innovative and think outside of the box and come up with a new format like curls, kinks and waves, and never having to come up with the Curly Pudding.
Another one was, Titi and I had always been sisters, partners, friends, roommates, and Titi had always been my big sister and we were known — we were raised in New York, Queens and Brooklyn — anyone who knows Titi and I knows us as Titi and Miko or Miko and Titi because we were always together. But it was in 2006 when my sister decided she wanted to be mad at me and she wanted to sue me and have a fight with me and have a dispute with me, that was probably one of the best things that ever happened for our business. It was during that time that I really had to grow up. I really had to understand what it feels like to not have my sister. I had to understand what it took to run a business by myself. Before that I had always had my sister. Titi learned lessons. What it’s like to be in business without me. So we learned things separate apart from one another but that experience was very very painful and it was very hard on us as sisters and friends. But it was really good for the business because when we reunited back in 2008 we had new experiences to bring to our business and to our sisterhood that when something like a mass channel came along later, we had less fear because we had some experiences and we weren’t too fearful of many people. We had these independent experiences that made our stomachs stronger. That was one of the best things that happened to Titi and I as sisters and as business partners. Those uncomfortable moments, you learn from [them]…then when you get a chance to do it all over again you do it bigger stronger better and faster. When we got back together in 2008 we had to make up for some lost time. During the time Titi and I were apart the competitors started coming.
Her Agenda: How has losing your sister and business partner Titi impacted the business? And how do you find the strength to push forward so soon after losing her?
Miko Branch: Titi just passed on December 4th. The good news is that because we built our business together from scratch there’s not any area in the business that she or I don’t know. So in the event years prior when Titi and I were separated we had to do things by ourselves, that was kind of like training for this time now. Knowing what it feels like to not be with my sister, running a business independently of her, and then to bring that expertise and skillset for me back to a business that Titi and I created together — Thank God we had those prior lessons together and separate and apart so when something like this happens where my sister is not here anymore, I’m prepared. Between the business and me personally, the business is fine. It’s just me, because my mornings are tough.
So how do I carry on? It’s tough. Titi wasn’t just my business partner, she was everything. Titi — she was so extraordinary. She was an extraordinary beauty. She was extraordinarily smart, she was extraordinarily innovative. You met her in person, to be around her she was so dynamic. Her not being her, I feel it. My family feels it. To this day we still get flowers, to this day we still get condolences for Titi. On a personal note, Titi comes in forms of heat. When Titi comes I feel heat, and then that’s when the tears come. I realize that it’s more important for me to tell Titi’s story. It’s more important for me to carry the business on where Titi invested so much time and genius. For me to just cry all day and not keep this ball rolling would be such a disservice to Titi. We’re not built that way. Titi passed away. We borrowed Titi. She was here. Titi came here to do a job. Titi did that job well. I don’t know too many people who execute like Titi. Titi also raised me. I’m an extension of her, so I am Titi so I gotta go on.
Her Agenda: What lesson do you want people to take away from your journey?
Miko Branch: That all your failures are your successes. All your failures are your stepping stones. You become bigger stronger and faster with that wisdom. Don’t be afraid to learn the lesson. Pay attention to them. This way the next time around you won’t do it that way again. That’s how Titi and I built our business. We didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the business school, we didn’t have the mentor in the traditional sense so we really had to learn from our mistakes, from our failures in order to do it right the next time. Every time there was a next time I really believed that we got better because our school was experience.
Editor’s note: This feature was originally published on May 19th, 2015. It has been edited for length and clarity. For the full conversation, please watch the video above. To purchase a copy of Miko’s book, click here.