November 29, 2022

Founders of Ruka Hair Tendai Moyo (27) and Ugo Agbai (25)

From braids to wigs, Black women’s hair styling choices are dynamic and complex. The second wave of the natural hair movement has seen Black women embracing their curls and coils, with textured hair increasingly celebrated in mainstream media. While this has meant many Black women are more comfortable wearing their natural hair, protective styles still play a significant role in our hair care journey.

For Tendai Moyo (27) and Ugo Agbai (25), this reality inspired the creation of their hair extension brand Ruka. Moyo and Agbai say they’ve “set out to revolutionize the hair industry for Black women through science-led, community-driven hair solutions.” They currently offer ethically sourced human hair bundles, ponytails, clip-ins, and wigs in 10 textures.

Having only launched in 2021, Ruka has already left its mark on the Black British hair scene, becoming the go-to brand for the likes of King Richard’s Demi Singleton and British Olympic athlete Dina Asher-Smith.

After speaking with Tendai and Ugo, it was clear why the brand has been so successful: Ruka has helped restore Black women’s trust in an industry that has historically neglected their hair care needs. Ahead, the Ruka founders discuss their entrepreneurial journey and their experience raising $2.5 million in funding.

How did your consulting career prepare you for entrepreneurship?

Tendai Moyo: Consulting companies [like Bain & Co] aren’t as big as investment banks and auditing firms, which allows them to invest in their people. It also teaches you how to engage in teams and work with your clients. That has played a big role in developing our own thing because it gave us an understanding of how businesses work.

Ugo Agbai: In a consultancy, investing in people from a personal and career development aspect is a must. Otherwise, there is no growth. Learning that firsthand has helped us figure out what we want for our team. Being able to structure problem-solving, break down questions, and build a muscle for developing solutions sounds like an obvious thing because we all solve problems every day. But, when the business is literally solving people’s problems, there is an art and a formula to it, which has been quite helpful to learn.

How have you made sure you invest more in your team at Ruka?

UA: One of the first things is agreeing everyone is human and that they should have plans far beyond Ruka. I enjoyed consulting because people would ask, “What’s your life plan?” The wrong answer was, “Stay here until I die.” We have built a team as passionate about Ruka as they are about their career development. Having healthy conversations like that means people can put their all into the work they do without feeling like it’s taking from the plans they have for themselves.

Tendai, Ugo came on board after a pitching round where an investor told you that you needed a co-founder. Why was she the first person you thought of when this idea was presented?

TM: After the pitching round, the first person I messaged was Ugo. We’ve always been people who significantly trust each other. So when Ian Hogarth, our first angel investor, suggested I needed to have a co-founder, the first person I thought of was Ugo. She had already been helping me develop the pitch decks, and I said, “Why don’t you stop working one and a half jobs, leave McKinsey and come and work with me?”

Ruka Hair model smiling
RUKA HAIR

Many Black people desire to start a business, but don’t have the network to help them realize their ideas. How were you able to navigate the challenges of starting from scratch?

TM: We both graduated in 2018 and started working on a business called Strome. Trying to fundraise was an uphill battle. We pitched to white men who asked why people still needed to be empowered in 2018, and we had no idea how to answer that question.

Shortly before leaving Bain in September 2020, I noticed people were crowdfunding. But the problem with that is you often have to over-commit and give to people to make it to the top of the webpage. For me, it was about validating the interest people already had in a crowdfund, but not on a crowdfunding platform. We raised $29K (£27K) in three weeks and have since raised $2.5mil in investment through other sources. This made us realize there are Black women who are willing to put money towards finding a solution in this space.

When we launched, people were also in a space where they wanted to educate themselves. It was soon after the tragedy of George Floyd, and people wanted to do the work. The biggest challenge was speaking to Black investors because they had already experienced this product and were leaning toward the default response, “Why am I going to buy extensions from you versus going on Amazon or AliExpress?”

It was about proving the things we did, like our virtual experience, were completely different from what they had experienced before. We also involved our community in our decision-making. Black women have many opinions on what needs to improve in this space, but no one asks them, “What do you want to be changed?”

Building community has been a big part of your brand. Why was it important to have that at the core of your business?

UA: We want people to feel like they are part of the HQ because everyone is invested in trying to solve this problem. We wanted to leverage the existing community and bring them into the Ruka story. From day one, we launched a co-creator program where people have a say in what the products look like. This is important in an industry that has been owned by people who don’t look like us or care to hear our voices authentically.

Regarding the celebrities you have supporting your brand, have you intentionally reached out to them, or has it been purely organic?

TM: In the beginning, our engagement was organically driven. The beauty of co-creators is that they also create content on our behalf. We’ve started playing around with paid marketing, but that will always be fuel to an engine we already have. When you step away from true storytelling and rely on paying people to buy your product, you get into a space that doesn’t feel true to the existing communities.

We want to be an enabler that educates and creates products that work. We don’t want to be another brand that takes money from Black women. That’s one of the reasons we decreased our prices by 10-20% on most of our products. There is a lot of intentionality on our part for saving Black women money, and what that boils down to is how we market our products. We’re in a space where there hasn’t been a lot of trust, and we are bringing integrity back into the market.

Ruka Hair Perfume
RUKA HAIR

Your Hair Perfume is the first product you launched with. Why was it important to have another branch of products instead of just focusing on hair extensions?

TM: We’re “soft life” babes at heart. In the hair space, we haven’t been allowed to be that. We end up having to compromise on products that make us feel special and luxurious for functionality. We are coming into a space that honors Black women’s rituals while giving them something that truly works. The Hair Perfume sits right in the middle of that. We offer a product that doesn’t dry out your hair and works on your natural hair and extensions. Everything from the heavy glass to the tropical scent has this “soft life” essence.

UA: We operate largely in the styling space, but many people refer to us as a hair care brand because we are saying you don’t need to compromise on the care of your hair for the sake of styling it. There has been a lot of discourse on Twitter around “If I don’t like my hair, am I anti-Black?” For me, it’s analogous to being plus size because structurally, society is fatphobic. If I want to go out and find an outfit, I can’t find something I want to wear that suits my body at a larger size. Immediately, I am told my body doesn’t make sense, and I should aim for whatever else. It’s the same with Black hair. The lack of solutions tells us that caring for our hair is difficult, impossible, and tough. If we can build a brand that removes that compromise, hopefully, we can start to have the option of not having to compromise between taking care of our hair and looking good.

What’s next for Ruka?

TM: We have an incredible research and development team—Sam Grisa from Dyson, Yolanda Grunewald from Phillips Kingsley, and our in-house trichologist Afope Atoyebi. They’ve been able to help us work toward becoming the Apple of hair care. No company in this space covers the full suite of hair needs. You have companies that make tools, companies that do the wet products, and those that do extensions. With Apple, everything is interconnected—you switch your phone on, and it tells you everything you need to do. Everything we are doing feeds into that simplicity and connectivity.

Additionally, we are coming out with a gel that is good for your hair. Most of the ingredients used in existing gels don’t enhance your hair; they dry it out. Our gel will ultimately help many Black women and make it easier to use our products.