Miss Jessie's Miko Branch On The Relationships That Changed Her Life
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
The entrepreneur says she wouldn't be where she is today without the support of other women.
For many natural hair aficionados, Miko Branch needs no introduction. Depending on who you ask, Miss Jessie’s—the hair care line she co-created with her sister, the late Titi Branch—pioneered today’s natural hair movement.
Long before there were scores of options for kinky, coily, and curly hair in Target’s aisles, Miss Jessie’s and the Branch sisters helped prove there was indeed a need in the beauty market that no one was fulfilling. And speaking personally, I didn’t realize my natural hair could be perceived as beautiful until I saw photos of women transformed by Miss Jessie’s products on their website in the early 2000s.
Dubbed modern day Madame C.J. Walkers by a descendent of the first Black woman millionaire, the Branch sisters wanted to share their story of building an empire from scratch with other entrepreneurially minded women. Their book, Miss Jessie's: Creating A Successful Business From Scratch—Naturally, chronicles the sisters’ upbringing, how they started their business out of their home turned beauty salon in Bed Stuy, New York, and the ups and downs of turning a small business into an empire.
“I think a lot of my growth occurred through my failures,” Branch explains. “I hope that others can learn from what I’ve done, whether good or bad, and be able to do it better and build from there.”
Sharing your story to inspire others is just one way women can support each other. And Branch will be doing just that on October 6 as the keynote speaker during the Maryland Women’s Business Center 5th Anniversary Awards Luncheon and Step Up for Women Entrepreneurs online and silent auction. (Disclosure: mater mea is a media sponsor of the event.)
I got a chance to speak to Branch about her trajectory, from being a single mom working hard to make ends meet as a hairstylist to becoming the co-founder of a wildly successful, self-owned and -operated company; how women have shaped her career and life as a mother; and how she's been able to forward after losing her sister Titi.
You’ve talked a lot about how your son has had such a profound effect on the course of your life and as an entrepreneur. Can you describe his influence on you?
In my 20s, I definitely lacked maturity. When my son came on the scene, a few things happened. It became very clear to me that I had to be a more responsible [person], I had to [become] more of a planner… But I was also facing single parenthood. It was very clear that I was going to be a single parent—his father would not be on the scene in any way—so that put a fire in me that made me want to be as self-sufficient as a mother as I could be. My son really served as a focal point for me to really focus on making the best life that I [could] make for him. Then everything kind of fell in place.
One of the ways I thought that I could knock out two birds with one stone was by being an entrepreneur. I thought him seeing me build a business [would be] a great example as a role model. But it was also a wonderful way for me to try and provide financially for him because I knew that it was going to be a little tough on us.
I know that’s something a lot of our readers can identify with: the desire to be an entrepreneur so you can have flexibility and not be beholden to anyone else. What did your community look like during the earlier years before you were successful?
I was not able to be a successful mother and single parent to my son without help. I had a tremendous amount of help from my sister Titi Branch. Titi served as a co-parent to my son, and my mother, in the last few months of pregnancy, came and lived with us. She also stayed with us for a year, and she helped me while I nursed myself back to a normal state.
I want to win, and if I don’t win, I really need to know that I put in all my effort in at least trying to win.
She supported me by cooking, by caring for my baby and baby sitting while I was getting back on my feet and trying to rebuild my business. My sister and I had made some business moves that resulted in the loss of our [hair salon]. So we had to relocate to our house, and my mother would care for my son while my sister and I focused on rebuilding our business.
My dad would also come into our house and help in anyway that he could. My immediate family really served as a community for me, and the support that I got from my family enabled me to be the best single mother that I could be to my son.
What do you attribute to Miss Jessie’s longevity and ability to get to milestone after milestone?
It really points back to who I am as a person. I wanna win! I want to win, and if I don’t win, I really need to know that I put in all my effort in at least trying to win.
It’s kind of like being beat up by a bully. It’s not such a heartbreak if you knew that you fought back. If you let a bully beat you up all the time and you never swing back, you’ll always have that little voice in your head that says, “Maybe I could’ve won that fight.”
It’s important that I least try to win. I think, with that in mind, I’ve been able to move from Point A to Point B when adversity comes.
How do you incorporate giving back with your business? Why is that important to you?
Giving back is so important because I got a tremendous amount of support from my family. I got a tremendous amount of support from those clients in the early days who decided they wanted to take their money and take a chance and allow us to service them. And for all the people who did a nice gesture and didn’t look for anything in return, that’s giving.
In areas where you’re in a position to give, I believe that the law of reciprocity is definitely in play. Giving back is gratifying for us on the giving end. But on the receiving end, everything comes back to you tenfold. It feels good to know when you’re in a position to do it if you can. I experienced losing my business, and when I lost my business, I had the help of friends. It could be something as easy as “Miko, you can do it” or “I support you” or “You’re talented, this can happen again.”
That kind of support meant a lot to me. When you treat people good when you’re doing well, if you were ever to get down on your luck, it’s those same people who are there to build you back up. It’s probably more important to give back and show gratitude while you have it because you never know what’s coming down the pike later. I gotta tell you, when hard times come, the help is really helpful. (Laughs) It can make or break you.
How can women support each other as business owners and also as mothers?
I think it’s really important that we show love, kindness, acceptance, and help for one another. There’s an experience that we have as women that are unique to women. I find that sometimes we tend to be competitive, catty, and we serve as maybe a blocker to one another. I think there’s an empathy that can take place from one woman to another when it comes time to help. Although men can be very helpful to us, I’m not sure if they’re able to understand and empathize with all that we go through. So I think a woman’s help is probably [more] meaningful because we understand where we’ve been.
When one woman sees another woman lead by example and give and be helpful, I think that it’s very contagious. We need to see it—then we can emulate it and it will just spread like wildfire.
Do you have a story about someone stepping up for you or you stepping up for someone else, and the impact that had?
My sister was a very good communicator and I was very talented with hair. She decided she was going to represent me. Titi didn’t have clients in the beauty industry, but she took me on as a client.
My sister called every single magazine in New York City and the editor in chief of Black Elegance magazine at the time was Sonia Aline. She gave Titi an opportunity, and Titi booked me for the job. I did hair [for a photo shoot] and although we didn’t make a lot of money, that relationship led to a referral, and that referral was with Ashley Stewart, a retail chain store for full-figured women. They needed a hairstylist for one week’s work. That one week’s amount of work resulted in $8,000, and that turned out to be the seed money for our first line. That was a woman helping another woman. Titi was not a fixture in the beauty industry at the time, she was new to the game, and that helping hand that we got from a woman of color was very, very useful to the beginning of our career.
The natural hair landscape has changed so much since the early 2000s. You hear about a lot of companies taking on investors or being absorbed by larger companies. But that hasn’t been Miss Jessie’s story. Why do you want to stay 100% owned and operated?
I think it all started with our father Jimmy Branch. He raised us very early on to be entrepreneurs. He just chanted all day, “Be your own boss, do for yourself.” He almost shamed us for aspiring to work for someone. That was just part of the culture in our household. Don’t get me wrong, there’s advantages to having investors and partnerships with larger companies. I just think for our personal experience, it was just ingrained in us at an early age to pay the cost to be the boss.
I think it was especially important to our dad because he came right out of the civil rights era, and being free was extremely relevant at the time. Having the freedom to vote, having the freedom to sit where you want on the bus, having the freedom to do what you want to do. I think that was very present in his mind. We are the product of my dad, and I think he was probably celebrating that he had what he didn’t see his mother or his grandmother have. That freedom was celebrated and he wanted my sister and I to take full advantage of it. In doing for ourselves and being our own boss, there was little room for partnerships with larger corporations.
It’s probably more important to give back and show gratitude while you have it because you never know what’s coming down the pike later.
I don’t know from a business perspective what’s better or worse. I think for us and our lifestyle, it makes sense for us to be our own boss. I will tell you that businesses are ever changing [and] philosophies change, particularly for an entrepreneur. A lot of the moves that we’ve made in our business are a direct result of what we’re experiencing personally. As you know my sister passed away, and I’m able to run this business efficiently because it’s a manageable business, but the life of an entrepreneur is ever changing. Some of my philosophies now may be different in two years or 10 years—but I think for right now, it’s safe to say I am very comfortable in 100% ownership in our business and I like it that way.
What have you been surprised to learn about yourself and your business from writing your book and sharing your story with the world?
Writing the book turned out to be a form of therapy for me. Now that I’ve written the book with my sister, I realize that many people should write their story. It brings a lot of things back into perspective. In telling our story from the beginning to the present, I was able to take a deeper look at Miko as an individual. I was able to see myself and my journey; I don’t know if I really had time to do that as I was living my life and being [a] mother and just maturing.
I think that’s an exercise that everyone should do whether you have a business or not: Sitting down and just telling your story. It really gives you a rich understanding of who you are as a person, it gives you an understanding of where you started and where you are now. It’s also a launch pad of where you may want to go.
What challenges do you have now as a business owner, and how are you addressing them?
My biggest challenge right now is balance. I consider myself to be a pretty good multitasker. I’m a great mom, I’m a great businesswoman in the Miss Jessie’s world, I’m a great friend, I’m a great girlfriend. With everything that I do, I like to do it 100%. With all of those different hats that I’m wearing, I think that balancing and giving people 100% of Miko… that’s requiring some balance in me.
These days I’m trying to find more time for Miko, because I realize that life is short. And I try to put myself first in terms of happiness and joy and good health. I’m trying to be a better prioritizer. But I think balancing all the jobs I’ve been appointed to do is something I want to master a little more, or maybe relax in some areas. I’m working on that now.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share?
I want to take a moment to discuss my sister. I can tell you that I had a very unique experience and opportunity to spend over four decades with a very dynamic and wonderful woman who was my sister. We’re only a year and three months apart. I had a wonderful opportunity to be protected by her, to be taught by her, to have a business with her, to co-parent with her.
She was very supportive of me. I was very creative and my sister helped to create a platform where I could get better and perfect my skill while she handled all the other aspects of doing business. That support that I had meant everything to the success of our business. With my sister, I kind of had an all-in-one: I had an accountant, I had a best friend, I had a roommate, I had a co-parent, I had a lawyer, I had a protector.
This interview is about Miko Branch, but I couldn’t be able to be the full, robust Miko Branch without the support of my sister Titi Branch. Although I have a mother and father who love me and contributed to our development in great ways, I think the ongoing support and presence of my sister helped to develop me into a better human being. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have been loved and have partnership and to have the presence of my sister with me while she was here on Earth. I wouldn’t be here in the way that I am without her. I have to give special props to her.
It’s amazing to have had that light guide you throughout your life. Has it been hard to get a sense of what’s next personally or with your business without having your sister present?
Because Titi and I built our business together, the what’s next in our business is actually not a mystery. It’s not blurry, it’s not fuzzy. We built a solid business from scratch and each of us threw our backs into this business. In Titi’s absence, I’m still able to carry on Miss Jessie’s and innovate.
If someone would have asked me years ago how would I handle this, I probably would’ve said, “I would be devastated to the point where I couldn’t function.” I think Titi’s passing has given me the desire to keep moving forward and not drop the ball. Whatever we started, I’d like to try and finish it with excellence because of the work that she put into me and because of the work she put into the business.
I have a desire to keep my head up [and] get better understanding of my life. What lessons can I learn from Titi’s life, how can I apply it, how can I share her message? I find strength from experiencing how to handle and cope with the loss of my sister. I think that she would have wanted me to be strong. So that’s what I’m striving to do. I’m striving to find the strength in this whole experience. I know it’s not over, and everything is a continuum. I’m just going to try and live my life and try my best to enjoy myself and not to be down. Life is short, I realize, so I’m trying to live every day like it’s a gift.
Anthonia Akitunde is the founder of mater mea.
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