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Uzima: The Laser-Focused Side Hustle Flipping Haircare on Its Head

Published April 30, 2024
Published April 30, 2024

Leona Dondi is laser-focused on her vision to fill a gap in the market for scalp care solutions for textured hair, specifically for Black women with Type 4 hair. She set out to develop products, targeting those most affected while creating solutions that work for a broader audience.

The result is Uzima, which means “full of life” in Swahili. Her approach is flipping the industry on its head with its focus on tightly textured hair. Her better-for-your-scalp products nurture, protect, and beautify without compromising health or safety. The formulas leverage biotechnology for its sustainable potential and incorporate rare oils from Africa, South America, and India to modernize ancient haircare rituals.

The business is built on Dondi's diverse career in tech-focused product innovation, blending expertise in research and business strategy with her passion for cosmetic formulation. Her journey began in academia, studying neuroscience and implicit anti-Black bias. She then pivoted to industry research, exploring sectors ranging from transportation to healthcare, contributing to Google X Moonshot lab, leading research efforts at Dropbox, and currently product innovation at Netflix.

Dondi said, "As a researcher myself, when faced with various observations, I look for what's common among the observations, and that's where the insight is born. The reason why I focused on the scalp microbiome is because we can look at some of these issues as a result of dysbiosis in the scalp. So rather than look at how to address each one individually, the root cause analysis helped me determine the single most common factor among them, in order to devise a solution that can deliver lasting relief, no matter the condition."

A scalp that was "on fire" and an allergy to castor oil sent her on a search for skincare actives that could be applied to the scalp to calm itchiness. Hyaluronic acid dervived from snow mushroom, ceramides, post-biotics, procollagen, antioxidants, zinc, and peptides are all ingredients that help hydrate, balance, repair, purify, and protect the skin, but there were no products in Black haircare that contained these ingredients.

She continued, "If we are able to harmonize the biology on the scalp, we may be able to help the scalp become more resilient to insults of daily care practices and the environment. It was in the context of understanding the haircare rituals of my community, paired with my scientific knowledge of the scalp, that I was able to determine how to resolve these issues."

The result was a range consisting of four products: Ukuaji Blooming Serum, Usawa Fermented Rice Essence, Unyevu Lightweight Silk Leave-In, and Nishati Nourishing Oil—all currently sold at Moda Operandi and Beauty Heros.

"The lack of clinically effective scalp solutions in the market for Black individuals with tightly textured hair was why I knew I needed to invest in clinical studies."
By Leona Dondi, founder, Uzima

The self-funded business recently doubled down on its commitment to create a transparent and scientifically sound brand that its community can trust. Dondi shared, "The lack of clinically effective scalp solutions in the market for Black individuals with tightly textured hair was why I knew I needed to invest in clinical studies. The market is searching for brands it can trust to deliver a product that works to solve its problems, and the pendulum is swinging in the direction of science and away from surface marketing claims that dominate the natural and clean beauty market."

Dermatological research tells us that Black individuals are disproportionately affected by chronic scalp issues: seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, itchy scalp, scalp psoriasis, hair loss (traction alopecia, and central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA)) are more common in Black individuals than the rest of the population, and they often co-occur.

Looking further to differentiate her hero product in a crowded marketplace, she engaged HelloBiome to test her Ukuaji Blooming Serum. The demographic breakdown for the test targeted her core audience of African American/Black and Mixed (Black + another race).

She said, "We focus on Black people because research indicates that we struggle disproportionately with a variety of scalp issues, yet lack effective, clinically backed natural solutions that address these concerns and also are mindful of our hair type and styling practices (some of which exacerbate scalp issues and can lead to hair loss). Our treatment is the first-ever scalp serum that's designed for tightly textured hair and is tested on the scalp microbiome."

The ratio of bacteria to fungi is 10:1 for healthy skin. However, the scalp ratio is understudied and usually focuses on the  the Malassezia species (partly responsible for dandruff). In HelloBiome's data set, they observed a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 for a healthy scalp. In the Uzima study, the panelists had a ratio of 2:1 both at the beginning and the end of the study after using the serum for the duration of the study. All participants were instructed not to use any other scalp product but continued their usual routine.

Dondi said, "The serum was shown to maintain this balance in all scalp types (dry, oily, balanced). While the serum keeps things serene over time, we still did observe consumer perceived benefits like reduction of itching and dryness and improved overall appearance of the scalp. We also got some anecdotal evidence that our scalp serum is helping with hair growth, but we'd need a longer study to show this with before and after images.

"We need more education about healthy, culturally relevant, haircare rituals that start to eliminate the causes of scalp issues by incorporating skincare practices like scalp exfoliation, which can make a huge difference in the health of the scalp too."

Uzima's meticulously formulated products are created specifically to honor and beautify tightly textured hair, pioneering a luxury position with products backed by science and laser-focused on community.


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