Making Big Waves

Kim Lewis, CEO and cofounder of CurlMix, celebrates curly hair while investing in her hometown.
written by Abigail Bobrow
Photographs courtesy of CurlMix

Every day is a good hair day for Kim Lewis (GIES ’13), CEO and cofounder of CurlMix, a Chicago-based, haircare products business. The young company and cofounders Kim Lewis and her husband, Tim, only twenty-seven and twenty-eight respectively, have seen their business continue to expand in the past year and that was after they turned down an offer from the business reality show Shark Tank.

“We knew we were worth more,” Kim explained on Chicago’s The Jam TV show earlier this year. “Robert [the Shark Tank host] missed out,” agreed Tim, seated next to her, smiling.

Their path to success wasn’t always easy. The first business the high school sweethearts started originated from an IT class at Illinois. However, the app they created, Natural Hair Academy, meant to be a platform to educate people about natural hair care, lacked a business model they felt would make money.

CurlMix’s flaxseed gel is offered in a variety of formulations to address different haircare needs.

Using their winnings from Tim’s run on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2015, they launched CurlMix, originally a do-it-yourself box for creating curly-hair products. That original concept evolved and is now an easy, four-step, wash-and-go system. The products, which are only available online, are an answer to a dearth of natural, organic haircare creations tailored to curly-haired people who want to embrace their curls. The products feature what the company found was their best-seller: flaxseed gel.

“When I was a sophomore, around nineteen, I just went natural,” Kim recalled in a recent phone conversation. “But there were hardly any products to do our hair, so that’s when I started making stuff in the dorms. I would go to the beauty supply and the grocery store, and make my own.”

When Kim thinks back to her days as a student at Illinois, she knew exactly whom she wanted to be after studying with Professor Paul Magelli, who exposed her to “the power of being an entrepreneur.”

The learning curve from making her own batches to mass-producing multiple products was steep but within reach. Beyond just establishing the company, Kim had to learn what goes into making gels, serums, and shampoos. Hours of research and consulting with a cosmetic chemist paid off.

“We had our first six-figure moment in August of 2018, and by November of that same year, we had done over $200,000 revenue for that month. To compare, we had only done $130,000 for all of 2017,” Kim said. “We went from $3,000 in January to over $200,000 in November and closed the year out with $1 million in sales — and during that time, we also filmed for Shark Tank.”

After the Shark Tank episode aired, they also secured a $1 million investment from LinkedIn founder Jeff Weiner and his partner. CurlMix is hoping to make $10 million this year.

The Lewises’ mission extends beyond empowering curly-haired women. They’re investing in the Chicago community they came from on the South Side.

The CurlMix packaging facility is located on the South Side of Chicago.

“Tim and I both come from poor to lower middle-class families. Our families didn’t know anything about business — it’s completely out of the scope of what they thought was possible,” Kim recalled. Even though she knows her mom is impressed with her success, Kim thinks her mom “just really cares about her grandbaby,” she said, laughing.

CurlMix employs twenty-three people, including Illinois alumna Deanna Brooks (GIES ’13, ’14), who is head of finance. Fifteen employees work in the manufacturing facility in the neighborhood where the Lewises grew up, while other employees work remotely throughout the country.

“I knew the only way I was going to be really successful was if I built it myself. Although, I didn’t do it by myself. My husband [and cofounder] helped me. He’s been my partner in business ever since day one,” Kim said. “That’s how we got to where we are.”

This story appears in our latest print edition of STORIED.