Issue No. 37
Words: Michelle No
Visuals: Erika Salazar
Jamyla Bennu may be the founder of a beauty collection about to make its Target debut, but, truth be told, the 37-year-old is just as happy under quieter circumstances: spending time with her family in their home in Baltimore, Maryland.
"They'll climb into bed and Pierre and I will pretend we're still asleep for a good 10 minutes," Bennu says of her two sons, Sadat (3) and Osei (5). "One will be on one side of me, and [the second] will be on the other. Then one will say, 'This is my mommy,' and then I'll say 'We share the mommy,' and they'll try to be quiet. Then it's time to get up."
From there Bennu's life jumps into high gear. While her husband and Oyin Handmade co-founder Pierre prepares breakfast, Bennu gets the boys ready for school in a marathon frenzy of packing lunches, dressing her children, and shuttling them off to their respective schools. Save for the blissful few moments shared in bed, her mornings are “mayhem.”
"As the oldest of four, [I’ve always known] the amount of responsibility and work involved in raising children, and that responsibility is one that I've always respected and been intimidated by," explains Bennu, who, despite her initial nonchalance, was won over to the idea of parenthood by her "amazing partner."
"Pierre is incredibly nurturing, and has this insane amount of emotional intelligence,” she says. “It is something I’ve always admired and a big part of why I decided to have kids; even if I feel like I have a lot going on, I know that someone else on the team is available."
As ideal as her parenting circumstances may be, the unexpected challenges of raising another human being have taught Bennu that a “perfect” household exists only through acceptance. She learned her first lesson in flexibility when, at the age of 2.5, her oldest son was diagnosed with a speech delay. Bennu initially tried to talk herself out of her suspicions, but enrolled Osei in an early intervention program as soon as an official diagnosis was made.
“As laissez-faire as I am, there still are some assumptions that I make that I’ve had to let go of to parent this particular child in the way that is best for him,” Bennu admits. "It’s been an education. I’ve learned how to communicate with someone for whom—the way it feels—English is not his first language. I’m a very verbally communicative person and I’ve had to pull back from my need to understand on my own terms, to communicate with someone on so many other levels. It’s taught me a lot about patience and about respecting the multiple intelligences with which we all greet the world.”
In her professional life, Bennu’s open-mindedness is what spurred her to start her own honey-based beauty line, Oyin Handmade, and what continues to guide the company’s ethos today.
“I grew up in a crafty, creative house, making clothes, furniture, and bicycles, [basically] knowing that you could make pretty much everything that you wanted or needed,” she says. “So when I came across a recipe book about home spa treatments, I just added it to the list of crafty things that I did. It wasn’t a big deal.”
During the early 2000s, Bennu kept herself busy with many other “artsy, hustle activities,” including building websites for artists, grant writing, teaching, and making films.
“We were doing all sorts of things,” she says of her and her husband. “But then in 2005, we kind of looked up and [Oyin] was all we were doing. It had taken over. That was when we decided to take it a little more seriously.”
When she moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn, New York, Bennu moved Oyin’s production to her “shoebox” of a house, which had a basement large enough to contain her entire business. As her clientele grew, so did her collection, and the business world started taking notice. Since 2012, the brand has been expanding through Whole Foods Markets in the Mid-Atlantic region, and starting spring 2014, will be debuting at select Target stores nationwide.
For Bennu, the feat is less of a financial step forward, and more of a personal win.
“For most of my life, there were way less products available geared toward natural hair. I have highly textured hair, and that’s who I thought of when I made it.” Bennu says firmly. “[Though] I’ve learned over time that just about anyone can use Oyin.”
Puppet created by fiber artist, Adrienne Patrick.
In her work, as in the home, Bennu is an ambitious multitasker. When she’s not researching new recipes for castille soaps or honey butters, she is ordering new production equipment, or interacting with customers on her various social media feeds.
“Being an entrepreneur is never boring,” Bennu says. “You're always getting to learn and stretch your capacity and do different things and exercise different parts of your brain.“
Though Bennu’s aspirations for Oyin include introducing a facial and home collection, her most pressing goal is raising her children to be the kind of people who don’t “cut people off in traffic,” she says, tongue-in-cheek.
“We really don’t want them to be jerks. We want them to be friends with each other, because having a peaceful and supportive family life can build up a foundation for being a peaceful and supportive member of society.”
Whether it’s building up her family or her company, Bennu estimates she’s only spent one out of 15 years with her husband, working apart from him. While most couples may cringe at the idea of working so many hours together, Bennu sees the shared ownership as one of Oyin’s biggest assets.
“I love spending my days with him,” she says. “There are shared goals, trust, and ease of work between us, and those things are carried over into the business and the culture of the business. We always say our products are made with love, and they really are.”
How has being a mom changed your life?
It has changed everything. From the way in which [Pierre and I] make decisions, and the way we spend our days, to the amount of sleep we get and the way our house is organized. My husband collects toys and knickknacks and obsolete technology, and there have been toys in our house since far before we had children. We’ve always had a house where kids love to come. Now we have a house where kids live.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
I didn’t grow up thinking I’d have kids. It was not a given. When we began talking about it, we had [been together] for eight years. We’d say, “Oh my gosh, children, what a big decision. Let’s think about that later.” [At one point], I began to feel like it was too late for me to keep not thinking about it. You can only put it off for so long before your body begins to make that decision for you. And there’s never a perfect time. So in 2008, [we thought], “Let’s give it a try, and if it happens this year, then we’re gonna have kids, and if it doesn’t happen this year, then we won’t.” And it happened.
Bennu's mother makes these dolls and sells them through her site, Dtb originals.
What was your pregnancy like?
Pregnancy is a complete science fiction experience. It’s crazy. My body changed in this accelerated phase and became a whole ‘nother shape. I didn’t have any of the discomforts one expects. There was no morning sickness, no lack of mobility—it was just complete fun and surrealness. I did feel [my second pregnancy] a lot more. I was 32 with the first one and 34 with the second one, and I wonder if it was just a matter of just being older. I felt bloated, a little bit of back pain, and I didn’t feel like an amazing fertility goddess of beauty and wonderment.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mother?
Learning to respect the kids as individuals and allowing them their own time frame for development, and to grow outside of my expectations. My oldest son had a speech delay when he was 2.5, and his linguistic language does not come easily to him. He has a really strong mathematical and engineering mind, and is strong in kinesthetic and physical languages. I sometimes say his first language is charisma and English is his second; he tells you what he needs with the sparkle of his personality. [Parenting him] has been one of my biggest lessons and I’m still learning it.
How did you find out Osei had a speech delay?
At the time, he was in home care with a babysitter who had one other child, and the other child was speaking fully by the time he was 18 months. Super precocious. I was very concerned about looking at him differently, or judging my kid too harshly or in comparison to this other child. Even though I had questions, I just wanted to be fair to him. So I [went through a period of] asking myself, “Am I crazy?” when I first began to suspect that his speech wasn’t developing normally. I [finally] took him to a pediatrician, who did more testing and did confirm for me that [his speech] was outside the realm of what was normal for a 2.5 year old.
Is there any advice that your mother, or any mothers in your life gave you, that you abide by?
I abide by all advice and no advice. I feel like having a circle of mothers is incredibly important because it gives you perspective. But I also take it with a grain of salt because nobody’s got my kid, and even between the two of them, I’ve seen that what works with one child doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Or what works for one at one point, may not work for that same one a year later when he’s a completely different person. I don’t know if any of us really feel like we’re doing it right. In fact I’d wager all of us feel like we’re doing it wrong. Ultimately these kids are the ones that can teach me best how to parent them.
How did you start Oyin?
I started making bath salts and hand butters for myself and friends in 2001. Pierre encouraged me to make a website for it to sell to people who weren’t my friends, and that happened in 2003. We found ourselves working on it more and more, as we also did other things. [By the time] we moved from New York City to Baltimore, we were working 12-18 hours a day. A huge shift [happened in 2008]. We hired people and Oyin began to be [more of] an official business—something that wasn’t just the two of us but involved others—and enabled us to scale it out a lot more.
Which product was the toughest to “get right”?
Boing! [A hair moisturizing cream.] I worked on that for a year. I wanted to have the hold with the moisturizing [component]. It was a really delicate balance. I’d have to try different fixatives and vegetables and there were none that I found [that were perfect]. They would be too chemical-y, or too medical-y. But I loved that part of [the work]—the science and trial and error of it.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
Meeting customers and seeing how they use Oyin. We opened a boutique in 2009, and that was when the in-person interaction started to really happen. Even though I don’t work at the shop anymore, and we have another person who does the social media, I do whatever I can to participate. Like, at the end of my day, I’ll go on Instagram and [see] 40 people who are really excited they got their Black Friday orders so fast. There is all this emoji love and it just makes my freaking day that they trusted us enough to buy our products. We still can’t believe we get to do this for a living. It’s just the best.
What kind of example do you hope to impart to your children through your work?
That work doesn’t have to be a place that you dread to go to; it can be fun. We have a family business and having the kids coming in every now and then is awesome for the culture of the company. The things we make are made with love, and everybody on the team is working their butts off, but we’re also having a good time and enjoying each other.
And the kids love it. They ask to go to work with us and get excited about bringing friends over after school. Osei was less than a year old when we first opened our little boutique here in Baltimore, and he was in the shop every Saturday that [first] year. He was the mascot.
We also want them to be fulfilled. We hope to instill in our kids the freedom to shape their lives, follow their strengths, and [encourage them to] work to make the things that they do best, the things that they love the most, also be the things that they do most often. That’s an incredible luxury [we have], and one we are thankful for all the time.
Issue No. 37
As co-founder of beauty brand Oyin Handmade and mother of two children, Jamyla Bennu has mastered the art of the work-family shuffle. Her business philosophy transitions smoothly into her home, where she and her husband insist on raising their two sons, Sadat and Osei, on their own terms. Bennu speaks with mater mea about her journey toward authenticity in her family life and career, and reveals the key decisions that continue to bless her today.