Inclusive innovation in haircare: in conversation with Winnie Awa, founder at Carra

Winnie Awa wants to change the lives of one billion people. Specifically, she wants to give one billion people their best hair ever. And by developing AI tools and applying them in the textured haircare market, she is well on her way.

Winnie is the founder of Carra, an innovative startup that uses data to provide much-needed guidance to customers with textured hair. In October, it was a privilege to invite Winnie to speak on our panel for the Diversity and Inclusion in Beauty launch event, and last week I had the pleasure to catch up with her to hear a little more about her career and her plans to disrupt the textured haircare space.

Our conversation started right at the beginning. Winnie grew up in Nigeria, before moving to the UK for her A Levels. After studying management and information technology in Manchester (during which time she took a year out to work at IBM), she began her career at EY, which led to roles developing technology in the fashion and luxury spheres at Net A Porter, ASOS and LVMH.

“Those roles in fashion were really the best of both worlds,” Winnie told me when we chatted over Zoom last week. “It was taking my experience and applying it in a real-world context, in an arena I loved. A highlight was creating Givenchy’s first-ever ecommerce offering, and partnering with the engineering and data science teams at ASOS to build to build a machine learning platform within the company.”

It was these experiences that paved that way for Carra. “It got to the point where I had a really firm grasp on how to build amazing systems,” recalled Winnie. “And as a woman of colour with tight, curly, coily hair, I’d always struggled when it came to my haircare. I knew that something could be done with technology, to build a programme that could solve problems for customers in a really scalable way.”

Winnie first launched an ecommerce platform called Antidote Street, which created products for people with textured hair. After seeing first-hand the strength of the community, the challenges they face, and what can be achieved through gathering and acting on data, Carra was born in 2021.

Today, Carra is a two-pronged business. First, there’s the AI-powered platform that brings together detailed data and expert professionals to give customers tailored haircare routines and recommendations. The textured haircare market can be difficult to navigate – in large part due to a lack of education and choice – and Carra is designed to cut out the guesswork.

“A customer with textured hair typically spends nine times more on their haircare,” said Winnie, “they probably buy lots of different products, and will often have a graveyard of half or barely-used bottles on the shelf that haven’t been fit for purpose. With Carra, I wanted to relieve people of that frustration, and provide some much-needed guidance.”

“A customer with textured hair typically spends nine times more on their haircare. They probably buy lots of different products, and will often have a graveyard of half or barely-used bottles on the shelf that haven’t been fit for purpose.” 

Since its inception, Carra has evolved to develop a second offering: Carra Labs. Through Carra Labs, Winnie and her team partner with beauty businesses to provide unique insights on the textured hair market and its customers. Armed with Carra’s actionable insights (based off an impressive 12 million individual data points), beauty brands can make informed decisions about new products – from formulations and active ingredients to marketing and price points.

It’s a very exciting time. “We’re spearheading change by powering consumer intelligence,” explained Winnie. “Our Textured Hair Engine is the richest and most powerful tool for companies looking to learn more about the multicultural consumer, and understand nuances in user hair care routines, product usage and habits. We’re supporting beauty companies as they inclusively innovate.”

The Texture Gap report from Carra Labs presents a data-driven profile of Type 4 textured hair.

This notion of inclusive innovation sits at the heart of Winnie’s mission. Sixty percent of all people globally have textured hair, and yet these customers are underrepresented and underserved in the beauty industry. For many years, people with textured hair have had to pick between mom-and-pop-style labels or products from major beauty groups that aren’t adequately tested on all hair types. Despite a clear need, there’s been very little research, creativity, or innovation.

We agree that embracing textured haircare is not only the right thing to do, but should be seen as a commercial no-brainer. “The market is projected to grow to more than $15bn by 2030,” said Winnie. “Brands now have a huge opportunity to tap into that segment, and Carra gives them the tools to really listen to and create for that audience.”

Driving this change is no mean feat. I wondered what Winnie’s biggest learning has been since launching Carra in 2021? “I think it’s about growing the business in a way that finds balance between celebrating successes and keeping hold of a dream,” she reflected. “Any founder will tell you that starting up a company is a rollercoaster, so remaining laser-focused on the impact you want to have is so important. But at the same time, you’ve also got to step back and recognise what you’ve achieved. Taking stock and reflecting on successes doesn’t always come naturally in a fast-paced startup environment.”

“Any founder will tell you that starting up a company is a rollercoaster, so remaining laser-focused on the impact you want to have is so important.” 

Winnie counts Emma Grede – co-founder of Good American and Kim Kardashian’s business partner for skims – among her role models, alongside the late fashion designer and entrepreneur Virgil Abloh. “I’m drawn to people who have a really polymathic lens,” she told me, “people who are able to apply their skills and talents in multiple fields. I think there are lessons to be learnt about not striving for perfection, but consistently making work, creating momentum, and building a community.”

Indeed, the next few years at Carra will be defined by fostering a community and deepening its impact. The startup has just launched a new series – Hair Talks – designed for people to come together and have open and honest conversations about their experiences with textured hair. “The first conversation we’re having will dissect the notion of what it means to love your hair,” explained Winnie. “Because it’s a quip we hear all the time in a marketing context – but what does that actually mean, especially when it can be incredibly difficult to take care of? Some people think of community as being the same thing as a social media following, but it’s much more than that – it’s about creating a space where people can genuinely convene and commune.”

Customers and people with textured hair make up just one part of the Carra ecosystem. Through the platform and Carra Labs, Winnie has created an interconnected network which includes retailers, manufacturers, and business decision-makers. “The bottom line is that inclusive innovation makes the world a better place,” she said, as our conversation drew to a close. “My challenge to everyone would be to lean in, to collaborate, and to work together to create truly standout solutions. Just think how much more positive the world could be.” | @TheMBSgroup