The disaster struck less than a year after Yve-Car Momperousse, who is Haitian-American, began planning to start a beauty products business, Kreyol Essence, using organic black castor oil from the island nation.
Distraught and discouraged, she threw herself into relief efforts. But ultimately, it was her mother who gave her the encouragement she needed to press on with plans to start her company. “Now more than ever, our people will need jobs and a way to be self-sufficient,” she told Momperousse at the time. “When the donations stop, how will the country survive?”
Those words struck a chord. Momperousse was driven to help the people of Haiti in their hour of need, and she also wanted to bring her products to customers. In 2012, she shifted her focus back to starting Kreyol Essence and seeing her vision through.
Momperousse’s mission has brought success to Kreyol Essence. Since officially launching in 2013, it has grown significantly; Momperousse projects it will be a multi-million dollar business by 2020. “We would be the first company in Haiti to achieve this level of success as a vertically integrated cosmetics company, especially since we are headed by a woman of color and focused on social impact,” she says.
Kreyol Essence employs 70 people in New York City and Haiti — many of them, women — and has contracts with hundreds of Haitian farmers who grow the plants that provide her key ingredient. “Social businesses have to be real businesses in order to have an impact,” she asserts.
Deep Roots, Steep Climb
Momperousse’s entrepreneurial journey began in 2009 when she went through what she refers to as a “hair-tastrophe.” While straightening her locks at a salon, whole clumps fell out because of damage caused by a too-hot iron. Momperousse was unable to find the black castor oil she normally used for hair repair. Frustrated, she decided to make sure it was more accessible — not only for herself, but for others too.
“I had a personal need that was unfulfilled, and I wanted to solve that problem,” she says. It’s a unique story that, at the same time, hits familiar notes — a plurality of women who participated in our 3-year 1,000 Stories project said they started their companies to solve a problem or fill a gap in the market (41 percent, in all).
To launch Kreyol Essence, Momperousse used her personal savings to make a prototype of her first product, a move she described as scary. “But I believed in the vision of the company and the community so much that I had to take the risk,” she says.
She dedicated the next two years to securing additional financing for production, packaging and more. “It was hard, because I was thrust into a world of P&L statements, ROIs, and all of these terms that I had to educate myself on,” she says. “And, it’s an arena where you don’t find many women, especially women of color or Caribbean-American women. It felt like I had three strikes against me.”
She ultimately leaned on a network of mentors — mostly male — to get more comfortable with talking numbers in pitch meetings. Now, she feels fully confident “sitting at any table and negotiating deals.”
She also earned a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and a master’s from Cornell University, and took part in Cornell’s eLab accelerator, all while building Kreyol Essence into what it is today.
But hard work and struggles — hers and those of her teams in the U.S. and abroad — are all part of the process. Momperousse says she, and other women entrepreneurs, must be prepared for “failures and difficult times, because they are unavoidable. Understanding how to deal with discouragement and challenges is what propels a business forward.”
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While building the business, Momperousse has also engaged in activism to promote Haitian culture, foster AIDS awareness and provide financial education for children, among other causes.
And as an entrepreneur, she’s not alone in prioritizing social impact; helping and inspiring others was named as a key element of success by just over a quarter of our 1,000 Stories project participants.
In 2015, Momperousse focused on ramping up production, which she says was a significant feat to accomplish in a developing nation. But now, she’s determined to make Kreyol Essence a household name.
“We’re launching new products, as well as new packaging,” she says, adding that she hopes to debut both in May 2016. “And we’re really focused on increasing distribution in the United States, as well as Europe. We’re even starting to get into the Caribbean marketplace.”
Through it all, Momperousse has never forgotten the family that has supported her, including her entrepreneurial grandparents, her business and life partner, Stephane Jean Baptiste — and of course, her mother. “It’s one thing when you start a business to have energy and support. But also, when things are very tough, it’s good to have that family nucleus.”
Momperousse wants to provide that same kind of support to the people of Haiti. “We want Kreyol Essence to be here 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now — to create true economic development,” she says. “I am put on this Earth not only to benefit myself, but to ensure that benefit reverberates for others.”