Meet the Women Who Are Changing How You Lay Your Baby Hairs
The founders of Baby Tress on hair care, self-care, and starting their own company.
The marketplace for hair-care products is a crowded one, with a new dryer, flat iron, curl cream, or styling spray launching at least once a month. But for women with textured hair, there has been a noticeable gap in one particular area for a very long time—baby hairs. If you’re not familiar, those are the short downy hairs around the edges of the hairline for many women of color, and they require a little more attention than a simple wash-and-go.
A quick primer on the history of baby hairs: Dancer and actress Josephine Baker is credited with popularizing the kiss curl in the 1920s flapper scene. In the 1970s, La Toya Jackson always made sure her edges were laid just so, whereas Chilli from TLC was the queen of baby-hair styling in the ’90s. And now celebrities like Zendaya, Rihanna, and Yara Shahidi are reviving their popularity by styling theirs in a variety of swoops and tendrils. But despite this surge of women who are interested in laying their edges in a fashion-forward style, there has been little to no advancement in the tools to do so, save for a simple toothbrush. That’s exactly the problem Baby Tress is designed to solve.
Co-founders Shannon Kennard and Hannah Choi, who also started creative communications agency Mama Tress, recognized the lack of innovation around edge-styling tools over two years ago. “I was asking myself, ‘Why is there every single type of makeup brush for every little part of your face, and yet there [is] no specific tool that [is] designed for this particular hairstyling technique?’ Choi said when we stopped by Mama Tress HQ. “Even hairstylists had been using a toothbrush for all these years.” And although her agency had just recently launched, she felt that she and her team could develop this product the way it needed to be done. “I was telling Shannon earlier today, ‘If not us, then who, and if not now, then when?’ I didn’t want to wait around for someone to actually do this when we had the capability to do it ourselves.”
More on the development process for the Baby Tress tool (which retails for $15), plus Choi’s and Kennard’s thoughts on hair care and self-care, and the most pinch-me moment of their careers so far, below.
To start, how did the two of you meet?
Shannon Kennard: “We met through my best friend, who also works with the Mama Tress agency. About three years ago, they were creating content here in the office, and they needed someone to model, and I walked in with my hair looking pretty, so why not? We were talking about what Hannah wanted to do and their brands, and they needed help with some different campaign ideas and how to reach the consumer.”
Hannah Choi: “I knew that Shannon had experience in social, and I was approached by a second client who was looking for help. At first I was just going to introduce them to work together, but it turned into Shannon joining Mama Tress and managing that client.”
Tell me more about how you decided to create the Baby Tress product:
SK: “As the conversation kept coming up, I remember at one point we were just throwing out, ‘What does this brush look like? Maybe it has this, it should have a pointed tip.’ It was a collective brain dump, and then Hannah came up with the sketch.”
HC: “I don’t even draw, [but] I was visualizing something based on what people were talking about. Kind of like those Christian Louboutin nail polishes. It’s so dramatic and sexy, and it kind of worked with the functionality of an edge styler.”
So then you moved on to a prototype?
HC: “One of my girlfriends develops products at Tiffany’s, and she was like, ‘If you really want to do this, get it 3-D printed.’ And I was like, ‘Cool! I don’t know how to do that.’ Long story short, I ended up meeting someone who worked at a 3-D printing company. From there, one person led me to another person. I found a product designer [after] going through 17 pages of profiles. I wanted someone who would have an aesthetic, because a lot of product designers are engineer-focused, so they can develop things, but they don’t know how to make it visually beautiful. Shannon wrote all the copy, and she was the one who articulated the messaging.”
SK: “We set out to make something that you want to reach for on your vanity and pull out of your makeup bag that still works really well and it makes you think about your rituals and the things you’re putting time into and the things specifically in beauty that you’re investing in to use. It’s so outward-facing—you’re presenting yourself for the world. That may sound very trivial to some people, but there are girls who have been doing their baby hairs every day since they can remember, and they’re using toothbrushes, and they’re not even thinking about it; it’s just what [they] do. We wanted to show them that they deserve something functional and beautiful.”
Can you speak to some of the design components of the Baby Tress?
HC: “[It] is designed to be an edge-styling tool; it is also a three-in-one product, [because] most women have been using a toothbrush and a rat-tail comb. We designed it with a pointed brush head for precision, and if you look at the neck of the brush, it’s dipped for your fingertips. And it comes with a case, because I know a lot of women throw their toothbrush in their makeup bag, and then if there’s some gel left on it, then your eyeshadow or your foundation will get all over the brush head. Or it would smush the bristles, so we created a cap to protect the brush. All that is to encourage women to take care of your baby [laughs].”
SK: “Aside from the product itself, I think there was a collective frustration with our niche in the beauty supply store. We were trying to fill that void, and we wanted to create experiences, beautiful imagery, copy, and cultivate community, because that was missing in the space. And as a consumer myself, I kind of accepted that going to the beauty supply store for the products that I need, that’s just how it was. It wasn’t really until this team came together that I was like, ‘Actually, why is it like that?’ or ‘Why does it not feel like going to Sephora?’ So this brush, aside from the function, we just wanted for our consumers to feel like they deserve better.”
How do you both feel that hair and hairstyling relates to self-care?
SK: “Again, it’s your outward presentation. I think it’s how you want to be received in a lot of ways. It’s also self-care, because I believe that when you look good, you feel good. I mean that’s cliché, but I do believe it. And when you make time for yourself in the morning or before going out, and make time to fine-tune these little details, I believe what you’re saying is that you care about yourself and you care about how you feel about yourself.”
HC: “We were talking with our design agency last week, and the CEO of the agency, she was saying, ‘I call my hair my babies!’ She is a black woman, and my hair experience is obviously different, but she was saying, ‘Once I went natural, I really had to be gentle with my babies, because it requires a lot of love and attention.’ And when she said [that], I was like, I envision women using this tool almost like a meditation.
“Some women say ‘Makeup is my meditation’ because when they’re doing their makeup, they have to be hyper-focused. When you’re doing your edges, you can’t be talking to a million different people or looking elsewhere; you have to be focused. This is a perfect moment to remind yourself, ‘I’m doing something nice for myself. I’m taking care of my little babies! I see this product as only encouraging this trend to evolve and ushering in the next era of edge styling and more beautiful beauty tools.”
What have been some other major brand highlights since launching?
SK: “We designed a booth for Afropunk. The theme was [Bethune–Cookman University], and I was very inspired by Hype Williams, so I chose the early 2000s, late ’90s era of music—I feel like that was the last great era of baby hairstyling before the current times. I wanted the booth to feel like you’re walking into this Afro-futuristic world where edge styling is the highlight and show that baby hairs could be a part of your future as well. It doesn’t have to be something you think about in the past when you were using your toothbrush—you can still do it.”
HC: “We were one of seven brands selected to be a part of Shopify’s pop-up experience at Showfields, and Tyra Banks bought our brush.”
SK: “Also, Rico Nasty uses our brush. I’m a fan.”
What’s next for Baby Tress in the coming months and years?
HC: “Innovative new products!”
SK: “And building our community.”
HC: “We’ve met a lot of people in person, and whenever we meet people, that kind of connection is instant—they get it, they love it, they want it, and we want to replicate that online. And we’re in the works to get our products abroad—UK, Europe, Canada. So hopefully all of that happens as well.”
What advice do you have for other aspiring female entrepreneurs?
HC: “My advice is, one, surround yourself with smart people that you respect. Also, once you have the vision, be persistent. I mean, every few months I’m like, ‘Why did I do this? Hannah, why did you start this?’ And then something happens and everything seems to fall into place. My mother, who’s also an entrepreneur, she’s always like, ‘All you have to do is never give up; just don’t stop.’ [laughs]”
SK: “I’m still coming to terms with seeing myself as a leader and entrepreneur, so I think really good advice is to trust your intuition. It always goes back to that gut feeling. And patience. Taking a second and being like, ‘All right, what actionable steps can we take right now in the midst of all these things we can’t control?’”
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