Ceata Lash of The PuffCuff: “Don’t be shy”

Don’t be shy — Building your network is invaluable. You must put yourself out there! There are people out there who are doing or have done the same thing as you. You’ll find they’re often willing to help you not make the same mistakes they did. Plus, if they believe in you, they may help you make […]

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Don’t be shy — Building your network is invaluable. You must put yourself out there! There are people out there who are doing or have done the same thing as you. You’ll find they’re often willing to help you not make the same mistakes they did. Plus, if they believe in you, they may help you make connections you usually wouldn’t have.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ceata Lash.

Ceata Lash is the only black woman in history to hold three U.S. patents for hair care tools (with a fourth pending). In 2013, she launched The PuffCuff, a company founded on self-love and self-acceptance that provides tools and products for those with curly, thick and textured hair. Since then, the company has grown to exceed 2M dollars in annual revenue with loyal ‘curlfriends’ across the world — from India, the U.K. and Brazil to Atlanta, Los Angeles and everywhere in between.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?” What led you to this particular career path?

The PuffCuff is the only patented hair clamp for thick, curly, and textured hair. I created the PuffCuff after struggling with pain and damage caused by elastic bands putting tension on my hair when I’d put my hair into a puff. It became apparent the hair accessory industry only catered to straight, fine hair needs, so I created my own solution. I created a hair clamp that works with the fullness of curls instead of restraining them, resulting in the birth of the PuffCuff!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I was awarded the Sally Beauty President’s Innovation Award, I was not expecting to win and initially thought the email was yet another rejection. Thank God I checked that email! Things became interesting when I later found out the President’s Innovation Award was created specifically for the PuffCuff. Our products were onboarded to Sally Beauty (and are now offered in stores), without me having to pitch my idea!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t recall any “funny” mistakes. Most of my mistakes made me go “uh, Sh*t,” and I think those are the ones you learn from. My most significant learning moment was when I realized the PuffCuff could serve everyone with curly hair. I initially thought the struggles I experienced were unique to Black women. As I spoke to others with curls, I realized we all share similar difficulties, we just have different ways of talking about them. I realized the PuffCuff’s potential was much more significant than I initially thought.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Although many people dropped nuggets and gems throughout this journey, there’s one other person besides my husband who helped me significantly. I am incredibly grateful for my first SCORE mentor, Captain Edward M. Davidson, FRAeS. He helped me see that the PuffCuff was a viable business and a natural solution for those with curls. He also taught me it was ok to make mistakes; you just have to recover from them and do better next time.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Women are founding companies all the time, but they don’t have the same access to female mentors or working capital as their male counterparts. In a February 2021 report by Forbes, quarterly venture funding for female founders dropped to a three-year low, with women accounting for only 2.7% of venture capital dollars, despite a 68% increase in revenue generated by women-owned businesses. That number is even lower for Black female founders. In June of this year, Fortune.com reported Black women received only .27% of total venture capital investments between 2018 and 2019, many of whom had similar or better credentials than their male counterparts. Until we acknowledge and balance these baseless inequalities, there will continue to be a glass ceiling for women.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

On an individual level, we can intentionally spend our money with women-owned businesses and actively support the type of business owners we’d like to see on the market. However, all the responsibility can’t be placed on the consumer. Companies need to catch up with the current state of the world, which is growing more and more diverse. I challenge companies everywhere to look at who is around them. Is your table full of people who look alike and share similar backgrounds? We all — at the individual, societal, and business levels — must hold ourselves accountable to unlearn biased conditioning.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Because we have excellent peripheral vision! As women, we’re always juggling multiple responsibilities while at the same time looking out for what’s coming next. Women offer a new perspective in the male-dominated industry, which allows for fresh ideas and invaluable market insight. We have a certain amount of drive and dedication because we know we are worth it!

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

One myth I want to dispel is that women have “made it” beyond the glass ceiling, which is not the case. Women must work twice as hard to be taken seriously and even harder not to be labeled as angry, bossy, rude, sassy…the list goes on. We must be aware that we still have a lot of improvement ahead of us and not become complacent with “good enough.”

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I don’t believe you can solidly define who can or cannot be a founder because there are so many factors, including ones not in our control. I will say this path is not for the weak or faint of heart. It’s not only about having tenacity or drive but knowing your strengths and limits. Know how much stress you can take. Learn how to work with and hire others who complement your skillset.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Don’t be shy — Building your network is invaluable. You must put yourself out there! There are people out there who are doing or have done the same thing as you. You’ll find they’re often willing to help you not make the same mistakes they did. Plus, if they believe in you, they may help you make connections you usually wouldn’t have.

You can’t do everything — Don’t try to do it all yourself. Collaborate with and hire people for what they do best, then let them do it! Always support their work and allow them to cover your weak spots.

Order the big plate — Don’t overwhelm yourself by concentrating on every detail; that’s a recipe for a panic attack. Order the big plate and dream big. Take small bites and focus on things one at a time. Give yourself time so you can take things in stride.

You will get “no’s” for being a woman, but focus on finding your yes — Unfortunately, women are still turned down simply because of their gender. It’s tough, I know, but keep moving forward with your vision until you find your yes.

Things take time, it’s not an add water and stir type of gig — We’ve all seen it on TV: a business gets a considerable investment or explodes overnight, seemingly having struck gold. It’s easy to get caught up and compare yourself to those companies, but that is not the reality for an overwhelming majority of businesses. Don’t let those stories dilute your view of what success looks like.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I mentor aspiring entrepreneurs in addition to using the PuffCuff platform to support my community by donating to an adoption agency that focuses on African American adoption, the Atlanta Public School System, voter empowerment campaigns, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to see and encourage diversity in the workplace that represents how diverse our population is. Not only does this create opportunities for individuals who may be unjustly passed over, but it also helps businesses understand their consumers and fills in cultural blind spots. Eventually, a dream of mine would be to open a customer service call center whose agents are representative of their market audience. I want people to feel genuinely understood by bridging the cultural divide.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, V.C. funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’m going to have to mention two, Serena Williams and Oprah. Serena Williams exudes confidence in herself, her look, and in her profession. She doesn’t apologize for who she is, no matter how hard the media tries to tear her down. Oprah is the ultimate influencer, businesswoman, and mentor. I would love to tap her mind.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Thank you for the opportunity. Take care, be blessed, and be a blessing.

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