When Vicki Ude got her economics degree from the University of Minnesota in 2000, she had no idea she would one day be putting that knowledge to work at a company that makes and sells hats designed specifically to not crush curls.

But nine years, a Nigeria-native husband, pregnancy-induced curls and two beautiful, biracial, super-curly daughters later, Ude and her sister, Lisa Machado, find themselves running Curly Zebra and selling their gorgeous, handmade hats to curlies all over the world.

“We live in Minnesota. My daughters’ hair would get so dried out in the winter. I struggled with always putting on the fleece or acrylic hat, which would damage the hair. But I couldn’t find anything else,” says Ude.

Ude says the idea for something better started churning in her head last winter. Unable to find anything that would protect her daughters’ heads from the cold but not mess up their curls, she asked her mom, an accomplished seamstress, to sew a satin lining into a regular hat.

Vicki Ude and Lisa Machado

Ude was thrilled with the results. Her daughters’ hair looked beautiful even after wearing the hats. “I noticed such a big difference. I noticed their hair was in much better condition,” she says.

Winter gave way to spring and summer, yet Ude kept thinking about the cold-weather hats. She and her sister created more prototypes, and a business began taking shape.

In late summer 2009, Curly Zebra was officially launched, with the hats for sale at Twin Cities-area craft shows. The company went online in early September.

Ude handles the business side of things while her sister is the company's creative force.

Curly Zebra hats come in three distinct styles

The hats—for children and adults—are offered in three styles: pillbox, chullo, and stocking. The pillbox is the company's best seller, and the chullo and stocking hats are popular for boys. Because there are many styles, designs and sizes, the stain-lined fleece hats are made to order. And even custom-creating each hat, Curly Zebra manages to get orders out the door in a week or less, Ude says.

Sales have grown steadily this fall, Ude says.

Eventually, Ude says, Curly Zebra would love to have economically disadvantaged women from Nigeria and Angola — the birthplaces of the sisters’ husbands—make some of the hats. “A lot of women and mothers in these poor countries may not have the resources to support themselves,” she says. “We’d like to help.”