Gwen Jimmere: Entrepreneur, Patent History Maker

Gwen-captionHow Owning a Patent Helped One Woman and Minority Entrepreneur to “Own Her Beauty.”

As the first black woman to own a patent for a natural hair care product, Gwen Jimmere, founder of “beauty innovation company” NATURALICIOUS says that it took some time for her to gain the confidence to file for her patent. “I had no problem getting trademarks and I had copyrights, but patenting is a whole other beast,” she explains. If not for her mother’s cheeky, yet encouraging threat to ban her from visiting again until she had applied for one, Ms. Jimmere says she may not even have tried. But many women and minority entrepreneurs set such limitations on themselves, says Ms. Jimmere. “[Owning patents like the one I have for a beauty product] is similar to literally owning our beauty from a legal and financial perspective, [which] is so important for women and minority-owned businesses,” she says.

Ms. Jimmere’s road to becoming a patent owner and entrepreneur was at first bumpy. After a few failed attempts at starting businesses for which she did not truly have a passion, she found her calling when she stumbled upon the solution to a problem that plagues many women with coarse or curly hair who wear their hair naturally. Having written off chemical relaxers when the documentary Good Hair opened her eyes to their toxic effects, Ms. Jimmere found herself spending two to four hours washing, conditioning and deep conditioning her hair each week to wear it naturally—a process known as “wash day” in many circles. “I was finding that all of my friends and family members were spending this amount of time on their hair. I asked, ‘Who has time for that?’”

Being solution-driven, Ms. Jimmere began researching and mixing ingredients in her kitchen, with the goal of getting her wash day down to one hour or less. Once she found the right formula, friends and family became curious, and soon she was selling her product via word of mouth. But when she lost her full time job just one month before her divorce was about to be finalized, she almost gave up. “I literally had $32.00 in the bank. I [decided] I could sit here and cry about this, or I could see it as an opportunity to start something new.” With that, Ms. Jimmere scored a meeting with her local Whole Foods Market, successfully pitched them her product and taught herself enough patent law to apply for her own patent. The rest is—literally—history.

In this latest addition to Innovator Insights, Ms. Jimmere shares more about the role of patents in her success, and her advice to other small business owners and entrepreneurs who may not think protecting their ideas is important, or even possible.

Can you describe your invention?

The patent I have is on my Moroccan Rhassoul 5-1 Clay Treatment, which is part of our OooLaLocks Hair Box. It’s a cleanser, a conditioner, a deep conditioner, a leave-in conditioner and a detangler all at once. It’s also the first hair care product made from Rhassoul clay, and does the work of all those different things. All four products in the OooLaLocks Hair Box do the work of 13 different products in just four steps.

Rhassoul clay comes from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco—Cleopatra is known to have used Rhassoul clay to cleanse her hair. There are other clays around, but this is one of the only clays that actually removes all the bad stuff, but leaves all the good stuff and adds more good stuff. Other clays remove everything, including the much-needed moisture that your hair needs to look its best. Those who are familiar with Rhassoul clay, have to buy it dry and then mix it up themselves, which can take hours and is very, very messy. If they don’t get the proportions right, they’ve ruined an entire batch. But ours is the first ready-to-use Rhassoul clay-based product; you just squeeze it out of the bottle like any other shampoo and it’s already mixed with high quality oils, deionized water and other vital ingredients for healthy hair.

How did you progress from coming up with the formula for this product in your kitchen and selling it to friends and family to starting your own business?

I was in the process of getting a divorce and then ended up getting laid off from my job just one month before my divorce was final. I literally had $32.00 in the bank. I looked at my then-two-year-old son the day I got laid off and I thought, “I could sit here and cry about this, or I could see it as an opportunity to start something new. I’m out of this marriage, I’m out of this job—I can look at the glass half full or half empty.”

There was a Whole Foods Market that was opening in Detroit at the time, and I’d drive by and want to pitch them sometimes, but I didn’t know how to approach them or what to say. So I figured out who to talk to and, luckily for me, I got a meeting. I pitched them like my life depended on it, which it did. Ten minutes into the pitch they said, “We love it, we’ve never seen anything like it, this is great. Let’s do it!” That was really the first store that we got a purchase order from.

Why did you feel you should patent the product?

My mom was really the catalyst for pushing me to get a patent. She said, “Gwen, you’re sitting on a gold mine, you have to patent this.”

I truly didn’t think that I was able to get a patent. First, I knew it was expensive; I had researched the costs and the lowest attorney fee was $10,000 and that wasn’t even with the filing fees. And of course, if you don’t get the patent, you don’t get that money back. My mom was really the catalyst for pushing me to get a patent. She said, “Gwen, you’re sitting on a gold mine, you have to patent this—someone else is going to take what you did and make a ton of money, and you’re going to be so upset because you created it first.” After a few months of coaxing, my mother jokingly said, “You know what, don’t even come over [to] my house until you’ve applied for that patent.” She wasn’t trying to be mean, she really just saw the potential of what I had created.

How did you start?

I did this all on my own. I didn’t have an attorney, so it was extremely intimidating. I looked up the patent law—I spent a lot of time at the library and became best friends with the librarians in my city [Canton, Michigan]. I put in a lot of sweat equity, because I didn’t want to spend all that money and not actually get the patent. I thought, if I can learn some of this, perhaps I can do this on my own.

What was that process like?

It was a lot of reading, learning and looking at case studies. I really utilized Sara Blakely as a muse – she’s the woman who started Spanx. She owns a patent and filed for her patent on her own as well. I think she’s amazing, and I thought that if she did it on a shoestring budget at the time, I could do this too.

I didn’t know anything about patent law at the time and it was very intimidating and scary, but I think what really drove me was the fact that I knew I had something that was truly unique. After my company and our products started becoming more popular, I started noticing some other companies using Rhassoul clay. Very few others had been using it before I came up with this product, and no other company had created a ready-to-use Rhassoul-Clay hair product like I had. I wanted some sort of protection for my business. I also wanted to have leverage. If one day some big conglomerate decides to offer me a sale for my company, I want to have the option of saying, “Well, you can have the company, but I still own the patent, or I’ll license the patent to you.” Or perhaps I won’t sell at all, keeping the company, along with the patent. Either way, I want to have those sorts of options. Granted, the patent only lasts 20 years, but if you really work it, you can make something happen in that time period.

All in all, it took me six to eight months of research before I even applied for the patent. There’s a lot of information available on the Internet about patent filing, but a lot of misinformation as well.

Ultimately, how important was the patent to your success?

There’s been a lot of press around this patent, which in itself has been huge. We’ve caught the attention of several national media outlets. The Tom Joyner Morning Show, which I’ve listened to since I was in grade school, called the other day and asked me to be featured on their segment, “The Little Known Black History Fact.” If you’re a listener of the show, you know that it’s a really big deal—and a huge honor—to be “The Little Known Black History Fact!” None of that would have happened without the patent.

The patent puts NATURALICIOUS in a whole new league.

To be honest, I didn’t set out to be the first black woman to do this. I didn’t know that no one else had done it before until I was awarded the patent and then found out. I think for entrepreneurs it’s exciting because a lot of times we’re creating products in our homes and a lot of us are really smart and savvy and creative, but we limit ourselves by thinking that we can’t qualify or that we’re too small to do it. In my case, it goes to show you can start something with $32.00 in your bank account, like I did, and then grow to the point where your product is in demand enough that you need to protect it.

It’s also huge for women entrepreneurs. Statistics show that women and minority-owned businesses take on personal debt in order to fund our businesses, rather than taking investment opportunities or raising capital in other non-traditional ways. Since having the patent, I can’t tell you how much interest I’ve had from investors. I’d already had a few people reach out previously, but the patent puts NATURALICIOUS in a whole new league. It gives me the option of taking on some of these investors, because now we have something proprietary and they see value in that.

Have you had to enforce your patent yet?

I’ve only had it since August 15, so not yet, but I definitely anticipate having to. I’ve seen others using Rhassoul clay and mixing it with other ingredients. They’re mostly small players, but I’ve spoken to my lawyer and we’re seeing how it develops. I definitely have the capacity, and plan to be litigious if I need to.

Some people see using patents to block others from copying inventions as unfair, especially in the context of large companies. Why do you think the public is sometimes critical of patents?

From a business perspective, it’s very frustrating to create something and go through all the trial and error, all the hypotheses and the sometimes years people spend coming up with an invention, only for someone else to come along and use it and profit off of it. From a business mindset, we see the value in IP. I think it’s necessary, important and needs to be enforced.

In any other field, you’d have to pay to use someone else’s property. You can’t move into someone else’s house without paying rent. IP is also property—it’s something that is legally owned, and others should have to pay for it if they want to utilize someone else’s creation for profit. If they don’t wish to pay for it, they can create their own ideas and profit off of those.

What would your advice be to other fledgling entrepreneurs who are thinking about patenting?

If you’re feeling intimidated about applying for a patent and you can’t afford an attorney, I’d advise seeking out the counsel of an intermediary. You’re trading your time for money when you use an attorney or intermediary. By applying on my own, I saved over $8,500, but I also spent six to eight months just learning the law in preparation of the application process, then another 15 months waiting on a decision from the USPTO. You have to decide if you want to save time or if you want to save money. If you know you can be thorough, diligent and consistent in your pursuit of a potential patent, go ahead and apply on your own.

From my perspective, I see having my particular patent as way of literally owning my own beauty. My company obviously makes a beauty product, so there’s a bit of a pun in there. However, owning our ideas—whether beauty related or otherwise– from a legal and financial perspective is so important for women and minority owned business. We need to own our ideas and inventions. A lot of us are creators, but we don’t actually own anything. Someone else could come along and see the value in what you do. Why should they pay you when they can just create it themselves for a lot less? So I definitely encourage everyone who feels they’ve created something viable to pursue patenting.