When Michelle Ntalami’s dad died from prostate cancer last year, she cut her hair. Whether it was borne out of catharsis or grief, that one event set rolling the founding of Marini Naturals – an all-natural hair care product line that now runs on a staff of eight.
They run a modest outpost off Muthangari Drive (they are moving in a week’s time) where Michelle, a designer by profession, struggles to have her ducks in a row as the brand grapples with the growth and challenges that all startups face.
Two months to marking their first anniversary, they are currently up scaling operations – trying to meet rising demand and looking at diversifying their market beyond Nairobi. We met at their offices.
Nkatha. Ntalami. That’s Meru and Maasai, if I’m not wrong…
Yes. Dad was Meru and mom was Maasai.
So how does a Meru guy meet a Maasai girl?
(Laughs) So mom saw a picture of dad in the newspaper on a list of students who were offered scholarships to go study abroad. My dad was the only Meru in that nationwide list and she thought, “who is this handsome guy who made the list?”
So she cut the picture of my dad and kept it. She still has it by the way. (Laughs) Anyway she used to live in Meru at the time and so she starts asking around who my dad was. She finally found out but he had already left the country. So anyway, she waits for him to get back...
How long was he gone?
Your mom is a bulldog!
(Laughs) I’m telling you! So he gets back and he is told there is a lady who has been looking and asking for you. And when he finally meets her, he is star-struck; completely smitten.
Because your mom is hot...
She is pretty. Very pretty. I am always sharing her picture on Instagram. Here, let me show you. [Shows me a picture on her phone]
Oh, she’s a looker alright. Listen, I could be wrong but is there some sort of weave revolution going on? I feel like if I threw a stone, it would hit a woman in a weave. How does your brand of natural hair play into this scenario?
Funny thing is, a lot of weave-wearers are actually looking to go natural as well. It’s not that women wear weaves all the time because they hate their hair. Sometimes they are doing it to grow their hair.
We have gotten a lot of ladies who say, “actually Michelle, I’m wearing a weave for like six months, and I wanna go natural. What would you recommend?” In all honesty, I haven’t found like it’s some kind of clash between naturalisters – as we are called – and those who like to wear weaves. It’s actually a blend. It’s working out pretty well. We even have products to maintain those weaves.
We have an excellent shampoo; you can shampoo while you have your weave on. We are releasing a hair-growth oil in about two months that you can use under your weave. So I just like to look at it like we are actually complementing each other…let’s all be happy and have amazing hair, you know.
Do you mind talking about your dad’s death and how it started all this?
Not at all. I thought my dad would live to be 100; he ate right, exercised, prayed, believed in inner harmony and all that. Basically he did everything by the book and yet he got cancer. I realised that the body is just flesh; we can have the will to live but the body is just flesh.
After his diagnosis three years ago, it made me look at my life because I wasn’t living healthy. I had a deep conversation with his doctor and he said sometimes these things happen.
I cut my hair. I started working out, lost weight, and decided to go natural. I used to order natural hair products on Amazon, from the US, but they were too expensive.
I started wondering, “how hard can it be to make my own products?” And mom said, “why not?” My dad was bedridden at that time, undergoing therapy, and I remember going to his bed and asking him what he thought of the name ‘Marini’. He said in that groggy voice, “I don’t know what Marini means, but it sounds like if you use it your hair will be really long.” (Laughs)
Yes. So I started researching on products. Then I went to Italy to do my Master’s in Interior Design. I used the opportunity to look up the cosmetics market in Europe. I visited this perfumery in France, I forget its name, but it really opened my eyes to production.
Would you say this is the most important thing you have done in your life?
(Pause) It’s definitely the most fulfilling. I started my branding agency – Brandvine Group – six years ago and it didn’t fulfil me as this has. I love advertising, creativity and design, but the truth is I didn’t feel like my work was appreciated as it is now.
I put in many late hours, often until 3am in the morning, putting my health at risk only to be insulted by clients, my work trashed. That really hurt. Marini is different; it feels like a budding flower which everyone should see for its beauty and spirit. So yes, this is fulfilling.
Has it changed you as a person?
Definitely. I’ve become a genius in ingredients and chemicals. (Hearty laughter) No really, I think I can formulate chemicals now. I’m also learning how to deal with people and also how to say no and how to think on my feet. For example, we have had to escalate operations based on demand that we had not anticipated. We are even thinking of stocking in Mombasa given the kind of feedback we are getting.
How much was your capital?
Initially my plan was to sink Sh8 million in this but I couldn’t raise the funds, so I only managed to get some funds... I think I have spent almost Sh4 million so far. We did a financial analysis and anticipate to break-even next year.
What’s your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur?
(Chuckles) Oh boy, should I really say?
I think you should, it’s harmless.
I tend to take on so many things in a day. I look at my day as having 48 hours and just cram everything in it. I should trust to delegate more.
What is the most overrated thing you have realised being an entrepreneur?
To be honest, how people make you feel like you have made it. It’s completely false. I mean people will read me in the Business Daily and think I have made it. I haven’t. I mean you have seen my humble beginnings; we are selling from a tent! This is not glam. This is how it starts and so much goes into it, but people see you in the media and they think this is it. It can’t be that easy, surely.
Dinner, one person, dead or alive, who would that be?
Would I be a child if I said Walt Disney? (Laughs)
Of course not. That’s actually cool. Why Walt?
He’s an artist. Here was a guy who started drawing mice while in prison and out was born the famous Mickey Mouse! How incredible is that! It’s been like one of my childhood dreams to work with Disney and Pixar. So I’ve read a lot about Walt Disney. You know, my dad used to say, “everyone has a talent, right? You could be the best shoe shiner, if that’s your talent. You can make money out of it, you just need to be smart about it.” So for him, he was just like…an artist, an opportunist, and look what Walt Disney is now.
What’s your New Year resolution?
To only do things that make me happy. If it doesn’t make me happy, it’s out the door.
What makes you the happiest right now?
The closeness I’m sharing with my family, and the fact that I’m growing and coming into my own as a woman.
How can you tell you are coming into your own? Are there any stark indicators?
Yes, I’m more decisive about things. I know what I want, what I don’t want and where I want to be. My path is clearer now.
I checked out your CV; First Class Honours BA Design Communication UoN; top overall student globally in chartered post-graduate diploma, CIM, UK; top overall student in Kenya for post-graduate diploma in marketing, CIM 2007/2008 and in 2010; and all these certifications of excellence. Are people actually surprised that you are smart?
(Laughs aloud) You know, I get this sometimes. I’m sure some people imagine that perhaps I’m being bank-rolled by someone else. You know, that I can’t build something on my own, using my head and hands.
Does that piss you off?
Oh no! Why should it? People will always think what they want to think of you. I can’t let that control my emotions. It’s distracting.