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From idea to startup

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UNCC student launches hair-products company

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    From idea to startup



Ashleigh Thornton went through about 30 hair products before she found the perfect formula: her own.

Thornton is a senior business major at UNC Charlotte and entrepreneur whose all-natural hair products are now produced by High Point-based Dudley Beauty Corp. LLC, an international hair care and beauty products company.

Thornton’s company, NoireNaturals LLC, offers three hair products: a cleanser ($11.99) conditioner ($13.99) and curl-defining gel ($14.99).

In less than two years, the 22-year-old says she has sold thousands of bottles to customers across the U.S. and world, from Turkey to Italy, France to the United Kingdom. She says everything in her products is natural – from the fragrance to the preservatives.

“There’s not a lot of junk in (them), just key ingredients your hair really needs,” Thornton says. “And I truly believe that’s why we’ve got so much interest.”

The company name was inspired by Thornton’s Louisiana French-Creole heritage. “Noire,” the French feminine form of the word “black,” is also Thornton’s favorite color.

Inception to experimentation: For 10 years, Thornton had her hair chemically straightened, an expensive process ($100 every four to six weeks, not counting hair cuts and conditioning treatments), which she said made her hair brittle.

But after she stopped straightening her hair in 2009, she couldn’t find all-natural products that made her hair look healthy. So she started researching ingredients in popular brands, only to find that many products masquerading as “all natural” were far from it. So she resolved to make her own.

First she compiled a list of natural ingredients she liked in other products. Then, she made a trip to Earth Fare and started experimenting.

Guinea pigs and first customers: Her first batches were a hodgepodge of all the ingredients she loved. “They were really bad,” says Thornton. “I realized you can’t just put it all in there at once.”

After trial and error, however, she developed a few formulas that worked well. She and her two younger sisters tested them out. She got her first customers from word of mouth and was soon going home to Greensboro every weekend to make more.

“So many of my friends and family had the same problem,” Thornton says. “And when you have a quality product, you tell your friends.”

Big breaks: Last year, Seventeen Magazine selected Thornton as one of three winners in its “Make Your Own Money” contest for young entrepreneurs. She got a cash prize of $2,000 and was featured in the November issue.

It was a major breakthrough, Thornton says, one that generated a new flood of demand for her products – and an even bigger mess in her mom’s kitchen. “It was a lot going on: hundreds of bottles lined up, tons of pots, the fan over the stove and ingredients in one corner, labels in another,” Thornton says.

But her biggest coup yet was her recent connection with Joe Dudley, founder of Dudley Cosmetics. Dudley knew one of her mentors during her internship at McGuire Woods Consulting and started manufacturing NoireNaturals in January. Thornton’s products are now selling at salons and boutiques, and online at noirenaturals.com.

Turning a profit: For Thornton’s startup costs – nearly $8,000 – she used her savings from summer internships and her high school job at a grocery store. She hired a Web developer, and using her marketing training at UNCC’s Belk College of Business, Thornton designed her logo and labels.

Last year she did $9,000 in sales and netted $1,000. Since connecting with Dudley Manufacturing in January, she’s more than doubled last year’s revenue with $21,000 in sales already this year, she said.

She said she tithes 10 percent of her earnings and reinvests 85 percent. “I started my company debt-free,” Thornton says, “and I want to keep it that way.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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