In the early 1990s, Debra Small was in beauty school when she began creating her own concoctions from existing products.
Then a funny thing began to happen. While her fellow students had no customers to work on, she usually had several waiting for her out in the lobby.
"It was because of my products," says the St. Louis entrepreneur. "I got so much feedback from people telling me I was doing things their stylist wasn't doing."
Even after she became a color specialist for a large hair-care company, she still spent her free time mixing and creating her eco-friendly combinations.
That's how HPO Spa Products — short for "Happy People Only" — was born. She launched her company in 2006 with her Hair & Body Shampoo, Body Lotion and Spa Hair Conditioner. All products contain organic ingredients such as avocado, honey and wheat protein, as well as essential oils.
To get the word out about her products, she began consulting with salons and launched a web site. She also reached out to adoption agencies that worked with biracial children and put on free seminars for children from foreign countries.
Small became natural herself in 2005 when she wanted to test products on natural hair to see how temperature and humidity affected it during different seasons.
"I was chemically relaxed since I was a teenager, so it took a lot of courage to do that," Small says. "Now I love being natural. I love that I can have different textural moments — straight one minute and twist outs the next."
Small still does hair two to three days a week at her salon, New York, New York Hair Design. It provides her with a perfect environment to try out new products on a variety of hair types.
Small spends much of her time and energy on HPO, constantly researching ingredients and other product lines to make sure her products are the best they can be. She says her bathroom looks like a beauty supply store because of all the products she buys for her research.
HPO hair products.
HPO now has 15 products for hair and body, many created based on customer feedback. She originally created Happy Scalp, an essential oil blend, to deal with her own excema. She began using it on friends with bad dandruff and they got amazing results.
Simply Curly Conditioning & Styling Pudding, one of her most popular products, was the result of Small's interaction with a customer at Whole Foods Market demonstration.
She told Small her conditioner was like "crack in a jar," and asked her to mix something up to style her natural hair. She initially called the styling cream Curly Diva, and it has since evolved into Simply Curly, the newest product in the line.
"At this point, I don't think the line needs anything new," Small says.
She likes to mix products together to get different looks. Her favorite combination is Twisty Locs mixed with Butter Drops, which she uses to create a spikey look. When she goes curly, she uses Spa Conditioner with Simply Curly.
Small says her products work for all hair types, and even those with no hair. She says bald men like them because it soothes razor burn.
When she's not cutting hair or working on her growing hair-care company, Small dedicates a lot of time to philanthropic endeavors. Her Bertha Bar, a soap with a peace sign on it, was created in honor of an aunt who died of cancer. All sales from the bars benefit her company's wig fund, which goes toward buying wigs for women with cancer. She also is involved with Locks of Love and Hats off to Cancer as well as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. After Hurricane Katrina, she donated crates of hair and body products for people who had been displaced to the St. Louis area.
"I'm all about giving back," Small says. "Every day, I thank the universe and thank. I may be just a little guy, but I believe that if you really work from your heart and do what you love, everything works out."
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