Stateside Podcast: Finding Black beauty supplies on campus
“That has just made me happy that a lot of other students are just like, ‘Oh my god, I need this machine in my school,’” said Wilson.
When Mia Wilson started school at the University of Michigan, one of the first difficulties she encountered was finding products for Black hair. She had grown up in Clinton Township with a beauty supply store just around the corner, but she couldn't find a single place in Ann Arbor to buy what she needed.
“We had to either, you know, travel to Ypsilanti to get these products, ask around and see if someone had extra products on campus or order them online and get them sent directly to us, which was sort of a hassle,” Wilson said.
Rico Ozuna-Harrison ran into the same problem when he wanted to change up his hair. “I wanted waves and I remember I was searching for a durag, searching for a pomade or grease or some sort of things to put in my hair, and I couldn't find anything.”
Wilson and Ozuna-Harrison realized that other Black students were dealing with a lack of product access, too. Their peers were splitting rideshare fares to make a 40 minute round trip carpool to the closest beauty supply store in Ypsilanti, stocking up in bigger cities over winter break, asking around in Black student chat groups for spare products, or simply doing without.
The pair of friends had already been looking for a way to make a difference for Black students at U of M, so they decided to tackle the hair care problem.
The Youniversity Beauty Supply vending machine began operation in the Michigan Union building last month. Now, Black students can get things like bonnets, durags, detangling combs, and hair glue when they need them, without having to drive to another city.
It took two years for Ozuna-Harrison and Wilson to bring the concept to fruition. The pair surveyed Black students to choose what products to stock, obtained $10,000 in grant funding from a campus organization called optiMize, and coordinated with campus administrators to implement their business plan.
“We got a ton of help from the building managers,” said Ozuna-Harrison. “They were disappointed that this had been a problem for so long, and that no one had thought to change it.”
Lack of access to appropriate personal care products isn’t just a hassle, Wilson and Ozuna-Harrison noted. It’s just one among many factors that can make students feel like they don’t belong at a predominantly white institution like U of M.
“A lot of times you can go three weeks, a month, you know, feeling like you just don't look good. You know, if you have those feelings and you're already a minority, you might feel down,” said Ozuna-Harrison.
“College is a really important time. You know, that’s the time in your life when you’re supposed to be taking risks, taking chances. You know, going and introducing yourself to people. Doing interviews, things of that sort. And if you don’t feel confident in your appearance, a lot of times, you’re going to miss out. So I think this is a reminder of things that other students have to go through.”
Ozuna-Harrison and Wilson said they are tweaking their product lineup and restocking frequencies, but that the machine has been immediately successful. They also said that they’ve gotten questions from other entrepreneurs hoping to recreate the concept elsewhere.
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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.
Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.