McBride Sr.’s roots in the haircare industry go back to 1973 when he co-invented Sta-Sof-Fro, the very first product designed and marketed to moisturize and soften the Afro. Before Sta-Sof-Fro hit the market, other products were only designed to make the Afro shine. But Sta-Sof-Fro was the first product to make it more manageable and easier to comb. During the seventies — the age of the ‘fro — Sta Sof Fro was a booming success and McBride Sr. left his pharmacist job at the Revco drug store.
The immense popularity of McBride Sr.’s Sta Sof Fro product accelerated in the eighties when jheri curl hairstyles, which needed a copious amount of moisture, were popular. McBride Sr., and his business partner, a friend from pharmacy school, formulated a ‘Sof and Free’ relaxer too. Both Sta Sof Fro and the Sof and Free relaxer are still available in stores today. But in 1989, after the company had grown to over 40 million dollars in sales, the two friends decided to dissolve their partnership and sell the company to Chicago-based, black-owned, Johnson Products.
When Cornell McBride Sr.’s Sta-Sof-Fro company was sold, he also owned a chain of beauty supply stores in Atlanta. But McBride Sr., sold all the beauty supply stores and in 1990, decided to focus exclusively on building the Design Essentials products he formulated at McBride Research Laboratory. Now, 23 years later, Design Essentials’ average growth rate is double digit. They’ve never had a negative sales growth even through the recession. Sales have continued to grow and they’ve continued to expand, with distributorships in the Caribbean and Europe and Africa.
Since that time, all of McBride’s children, his two sons — Andre and Cornell Jr. and daughter Sholanda, have joined the company to make it one of the few businesses in the hair care industry that is owned, operated and managed by an African-American family.
At “Curls and Conversation” in Brooklyn, co-host and Kinky Curly Coily Me! blogger Janell Stewart, raved about Design Essentials’ Curl Stretching Cream, a product she said will be sure to induce “curl envy.” Women around the room took turns sharing how and why they went natural and how it’s impacted their lives.
One woman named Veronica said: “I did the big chop two weeks ago.” The room erupted into cheers. “It was kind of nerve racking for me,” Veronica said. “I cried for like an hour. ”
“My name is April,” said one transitioner/ big chopper. “I did kinky twists and long braids for a really long time because I liked the “Freddie” look from A Different World. And then I watched the Cosby Show; “Vanessa” had a nice asymmetrical Afro her last year of high school, and I was like “That’s it!” So I did The Big Chop and now a year later I love it and I don’t ever see myself going back to a relaxer because this is so versatile and I love the fact that I can do my hair myself. Now, when I do my twist outs I’m like ooooo! And even when it’s a bad hair day, it’s not really a bad hair day.” Everyone laughed.
Jasmine commented that you have to “have really thick skin” when you decide to go natural because “everybody is not as receptive as you want them to be,” she said. “They have just a whole set of negative opinions.”
In regard to men, one attendee was told by her then-boyfriend that being natural took her “down a couple of notches.” Another attendee’s husband stated that “he didn’t marry that” when referring to her natural hair. The group decides that most black men don’t like natural hair all that much, but particularly have a problem with the Afro hair style. However, when black men like it, they really like it and when approached by men, ‘naturalistas’ say they are regarded more respectfully. Some say men now addressed them with, “Hi, my queen or beautiful sista.”
Additionally, most of the women at the conversation think going natural has been good for their health. Being natural they feel creates a sense of self-confidence and an unspoken sisterhood. One attendee had chased down a fellow naturalista to tell her how much she loved her hair. Natural hair translates to good care in other parts of the women’s lives and makes them conscious of the ingredients they consume and use on their bodies, they say. And working out has become more of a priority, now that they aren’t concerned about their hair ‘going back’.
Cornell McBride Jr., remembers those days when his father first started making the products. Everyday when he came home from school he would go down to the basement and fill the bottles of products his dad had made. His mom and siblings helped. They filled the bottles, packed them up and prepared the boxes for his father to take out and sell; his dad sold the products out of his car.
From those very humble beginnings to the millions in revenue Design Essentials directs today, McBride Sr., says he’s learned a few things about running a business and building a brand — chief among them is this: “You never do it for the money,” McBride Jr., says. “There must be a reason for you to build a business other than financial. There must be some type of impact you want to make on people’s lives.”