By Sarah Kelsey
People have been trying to get Vivian Kaye to conform to preconceived societal standards since she was a kid. As a Ghanaian immigrant and one of four sisters, it was expected she would attend school, get a degree, and settle into a solid and stable career. But spend just a few minutes chatting with the effervescent and empowering entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of KinkyCurlyYaki — a first-of-its-kind, premium hair extension company for Black women — and you know fitting into a mould was something she was never going to let happen.
“People have always tried to fit me into a shape, but I’m a rhombus or parallelogram,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the black sheep. I’m the queen of the pivot, the queen of solving problems, and the queen of being me!”
Vivian says her entrepreneurial spirit likely developed as a young girl, watching her mother selling wares at Ghanaian markets to feed her family. “She did it all with me strapped to her back,” she says. Her family eventually immigrated to Canada with the help of her father, and she went on to graduate high school. By university, Vivian realized school wasn’t really her thing, and that she would rather find work by capitalizing on her “superpowers” — namely confidence, curiosity, innovative thinking, and the ability to speak two languages.
It was a gamble that paid off. Vivian immediately found work in call centres, which evolved into roles in medtech and fintech. This led to a job at a company supporting entrepreneurs, working for a boss who pushed her to try new things. “Even though he was the most random white guy, he helped me to see myself and to be who I am today,” she says.
With that encouragement, Vivian started a wedding business as a side hustle. “I saw an opportunity to help brides find better wedding decor without spending millions,” she explains, and her instinct was right — it grew to six figures.
“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed. I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad.”
And then a chance meeting with a woman in 2012 changed her career trajectory forever. “I had been looking for protective hair in the form of a wig, weave, or braid, but there weren’t a lot of options for women on the market — everything was based on white, European hair textures,” she says. “I really wanted to solve my own problem, so I joined social media groups with people like me.” They shared specifics about vendors who sold the kinds of hair Vivian was looking for, from curly to braided.
“Then one day I wore some hair to an event, and a Black woman pulled me aside and said, ‘who does your hair?’ I was like ‘girl, this is a weave.’ And I thought, if she would buy my hair, a ton of other women would, too.”
So, with the help of some human hair sourced from India, a Rubbermaid bin, and the support of the Internet, Vivian launched KinkyCurlyYaki. It immediately took off. Today, the company stands as the originator of an entire niche in the hair industry and has become so popular that companies have begun trying to replicate its business model.
“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed,” Vivian says. “I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad. It was all about influencer marketing on social media before influencer marketing was a thing, and using social media groups to talk about my products. I also hit the jackpot with online shopping. KinkyCurlyYaki started when people were becoming more comfortable with spending money online.”
Vivan says learning the ins and outs of doing business in a digital world has been paramount to her success, but she openly states her company wouldn’t have become successful if she wasn’t the person running it.
“I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me.”
“What no one can compete with is me. I get high on my own supply, and I resonate with customers because I’m not afraid to go to work with my afro. I know what it feels like to be judged by others because of my hair, so I can communicate with my customers in a way no one else can.”
She also attributes part of her success to her approach to business in general. “I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me,” she explains.
And from there, Vivian defined success on her own terms — which she recommends all entrepreneurs do. “If you’re worried about ‘making it,’ you have to define what that means for you. For me, it was about flexibility, especially after my son was born, because as a single mother, I wanted to stay home and raise him. I wanted a business I could do at 2 a.m. while he was sleeping,” she says. “If money is your number one driver, you are going to be sorely disappointed in anything you do.”
Vivian also has advice for anyone who doubts themselves: sit back and ask, “What would Chad do?”
“There are some mediocre men out there who don’t have any idea what they’re doing, but they walk into roles because they know they might not know B, but they have A and C figured out. You, as a woman, can figure it out. Stop looking for someone to give you permission to be you and be successful. Don’t be the damper to your own light. If someone doesn’t like the path you’ve taken? Well, they can kick rocks with flip-flops.”
Vivian adds that everyone will face challenges when building a business, but it’s the ability to push through difficult times that will make the impossible possible.
“The past 18 months of the COVID pandemic have been difficult — as a business person and a mother,” she says. “But shit transforms into manure. Manure helps things grow, it fertilizes. In order to grow, you sometimes have to wade through the shit to get to the place where success happens.”