Invite Miamians Yve-Car Momperousse and her life and business partner Stéphane Jean-Baptiste to a dinner party, and things will get giddy pretty quickly. While you’re lifting pan lids to find the spatula, your guests are giggling on the couch as the couple helps them lather their skin in creams smelling of lavender and hibiscus, as well as primping their hair with rosemary- and peppermint-infused oils.
The cofounders of the Miami-based Haitian beauty brand Kreyòl Essence will tell you it’s one of their favorite ways to attract new customers. After all, it’s what drew the two to each other.
A little more than a decade ago, Momperousse was working as the director of diversity for her alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, and thinking about how to hook a mate. She chemically straightened her hair for a party where she figured she might find one, and sure enough, she met Jean-Baptiste.
The next day, however, she woke up to find her hair falling out.
Horrified and distraught, she called her mother and asked for a traditional remedy. The elder Momperousse filled an empty rum bottle with castor oil, taped the top, and shipped it to Philadelphia.
Soon enough, Momperousse's hair was not only growing but also flourishing. The same could be said of her relationship with Jean-Baptiste: In 2014, about six years after finding love and moving to Ithaca, New York, the two founded Kreyòl Essence. They started with a small farming cooperative made of eight women in Haiti and sold their beauty products in less than two dozen stores. Today they're headquartered in Miami, have more than 500 employees on both sides of the Florida Straits, and distribute their goods to retail chains such as Whole Foods and Ulta, as well as the Citadel’s Pivot Market in Little Haiti.
From the get-go, Momperousse, a Haitian-American who was raised in Haiti and the Northeast United States; and Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian-American raised in Boston, knew their market niche would be organic, time-honored products from their ancestral homeland. They say inhabitants of what is now Haiti were using castor oil for health and wellness hundreds of years before other parts of the world tried it. They also claim Haiti’s variety is far more user-friendly.
“Folks love that it’s less sticky than other castor oils. It has ricinoleic acid, which allows it to go deeper into the skin,” says Momperousse, who is also the company’s chief executive officer. “It can be used for everything from eczema to scalp challenges.”
And thanks to an endorsement from Jada Pinkett-Smith in the actor's People "Holiday Gift Guide," they've been getting a boost in purchases of their moringa products. Often called the “miracle tree,” the hearty moringa can grow in just about any semi-arid tropical or subtropical area. The protein-rich product can be ground into basic food staples such as cassava flour to curb malnourishment, can be steeped as a tea for better energy, and can even be used as a skin purifier on your face.
“Fun fact: Moringa is often used in developing countries to clean water, which it can help your face to look detoxified,” Momperousse notes. “It’s literally removing the impurities from your skin.”
In these tumultuous but more "woke" times, the impact of products on our bodies and the world is of the utmost importance to socially conscious consumers. Kreyòl Essence took that aspect into consideration when it began production of its beauty line in Haiti.
“All of our packaging is recyclable, and we also tend to use glass so that the product is reusable. Some of our customers even do refills,” Momperousse explains. “We’re also looking at products that don’t have packaging, such as shampoo bars, and how to use barks, leaves, and fruit so that they don’t spoil.”
These products would never make it out of the field and into their chic, earthy bottles if it weren’t for the workers. For many historical reasons — namely punishment for a bold revolt against French colonizers that turned Haiti into the world’s first independent black republic — the country’s economy has been beholden to a neoliberal global economy, not to mention years of internal corruption. These factors, as well as the logistics of island living, inflate the prices of things such as fuel, transportation, and household goods and make it difficult for producers of just about any product to serve the local population and export their goods at a competitive rate.
As Haitian-Americans, Momperousse and Jean-Baptiste were well aware of these complexities when they formed Kreyòl Essence.
“We were really committed to the mission of creating economic impact for the most vulnerable of the country — the women and the farmers,” Momperousse says.
Kreyòl Essence calls itself a for-profit social impact company. It partners with local nongovernmental organizations to build production from a cooperative model and ensure farmers have the technical assistance they need to grow quality crops and products.
“We had to have financial education as to why it’s important for [workers] to own their finances so that a man [cannot] just come and take your money or have power over you like that,” Momperousse says. “We feel part of our long-term social impact is being able to take the time to teach those life lessons, to have a clear vision for financial empowerment.”
As the name implies, Kreyòl Essence is advertised as a product straight outta Haiti, but Momperousse says their goal was to provide products for anyone with dry textured hair.
“Anyone who has that, they are our primary customer,” she says. “Textured hair is superdry, and of course that means that a significant number of our tribe — that’s what we call all those who are part of our Kreyòl Essence family — are women of color.”
While the company is working to develop a broader range of health and beauty products of all hair and skin types, Momperousse says she is thrilled by recent shifts in popular beauty standards.
“It’s an exciting time to see people honor and pay homage to the beauty that we already knew we had,” she says. "I think it’s an opportunity for women to just love themselves, to see that trends change and that what is perceived as beautiful by mainstream culture, by the powers that be, has changed."
Momperousse and Jean-Baptiste say curious customers should follow Kreyòl Essence's website and social media for details on the upcoming local products parties they plan to host in early 2020 at the Citadel's Pivot Market in Little Haiti. And for those who really want to see these entrepreneurs step out on a limb — or maybe more like a plank — Momperousse and Jean-Baptiste will present their goods and their business model to the snarky investors of ABC's hit business reality show, Shark Tank, this Sunday, January 12.
"We took an initial gamble coming to South Florida, a region in which we did not have a personal history to build upon. In hindsight, South Florida was the perfect location to help us grow our business," says Jean-Baptiste, the company's chief operating officer. "I’m excited about the creative energy that you can experience flowing in all the various neighborhoods of the city, each offering its own identity and cultural signature. There’s a burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem that we’re excited to leverage to continue to grow our operations."