The New Pioneers

This Female Founder Is On A Mission To Make Synthetic Hair Sustainable

“Black women should not have this experience with our braids.”

by Tatiana Walk-Morris
Ciara Imani May, founder & CEO of Rebundle, an eco-hair care line and synthetic hair recycling progr...
Courtesy of Curtis Taylor Jr.
Quick Question

In Bustle's Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice. Here, eco-hair care brand Rebundle founder and CEO Ciara Imani May tells Bustle about starting a business, her role model, and why it’s critical to look at sustainability in an intersectional way.

In June of last year, Ciara Imani May, 26, decided to grow out the fade she’d had for a year. Not wanting to wear wigs or her short natural hair, May began wearing braids — but found that they made her scalp itchy and inflamed. This discomfort led her down a research rabbit hole, seeking more information about the chemicals in artificial hair and U.S. regulations for overseeing them. She also started thinking about how synthetic hair used for braiding can only be used once before being tossed — meaning the braids she got frequently went straight into the landfill.

“That was the moment where [I thought], ‘Yes, there needs to be a solution to address the waste, but that health problem goes way deeper than just my scalp itching,’” May tells Bustle. She points to the widespread use of apple cider vinegar to rinse hair before braiding with it, but with the fiber itself often made out of PVC, a potentially harmful plastic, there’s not much you can do about the chemicals already in the hair. “My body is absorbing these toxins, and every other Black [woman] who wears these types of hair — her body is absorbing these toxins as well,” she says.

These concerns led May to start Rebundle, a social enterprise startup that recycles used synthetic hair and creates plant-based hair care products. The company is preparing to launch pre-orders in December. So far, Rebundle has been able to recycle more than 60 pounds of synthetic hair, working with a partner to process PVC plastic into outdoor furniture and garden hoses — “things that don’t need to look very pretty,” according to May — while non-PVC plastic can be recycled in-house. “It's a really extensive process, but we've been learning about the materials and the best way to repurpose them — like, what’s the most valuable thing we can turn them into.”

Below, May tells Bustle about her goals for the company, her advice for fellow Black women entrepreneurs, and why Issa Rae is her role model.

When you started Rebundle, what did you draw from your business background and what did you learn along the way?

I don’t have a background in sustainability, but my master’s degree is in social entrepreneurship, so I formulate business ideas with social enterprise in mind. Social entrepreneurship is the balancing act of people, profit, and the planet — thinking, "How can I solve a social issue while also building a high-growth startup?" Since founding Rebundle, I’ve learned a lot about how recycling works and why it’s so difficult, which has to do with materials sciences. I couldn't solve the issue of waste without learning how to become a materials scientist, by experience if not by book. For our plant-based hair, I’ve worked with Chief Scientific Officer Jessica Sanders to understand how to manufacture it and what inputs are needed to get the color and texture we want. These inputs are chemicals (because everything is a chemical), but they’re nontoxic, nonreactive additives that we put in to get the desired look. I didn’t have a chemistry background, so I had to find someone who did so we could do it together. It's been cool to be immersed into STEM from the perspective of a business person.

What advice do you have for aspiring Black women entrepreneurs?

They should start. Even if it’s something that you don’t have a background in or something that you’re super knowledgeable in, there’s a ton of resources out there to learn the basics of entrepreneurship. Start where you are, and then find some resources and some communities to support you. Every step of my entrepreneurial journey has been supported by some organization, some group of people, some grant funding, someone who can offer mentorship and guidance.

The intersectionality of Rebundle provides me the opportunity to move out of hair care — we touch sustainability, STEM, so many areas.

Who’s your role model?

There are tons of amazing founders in the startup space. But in terms of putting a stake in the ground, it’s really Issa Rae for me. I think what she’s been able to do from the beginning of her career to now is really amazing. It really inspires me how she commands her space and moves with so much confidence into spaces that don’t seem like they have anything to do with writing, but they’re all so interconnected. For example, starting Raedio because the soundtracks on Insecure are fire and people stan the show for the music all by itself. Similarly, with her representing her 4B/C hair on HBO, to becoming the face of Sienna Naturals. I stan hella hard and hope to dominate just like her. How she was able to build that — I want to build something similar.

Where do you see the company going in the future?

We have ideas for an entire line of eco-friendly products for Black women because they’re underserved in that area. We have clean products in our skin care, in our hair care, but not with our braided hair. So many of us have our hair braided maybe half the year, but there aren’t any products or an experience for honoring our extensions, being comfortable, and being as eco-conscious as we can.

What have you realized about the intersection between sustainability and Black women’s hair care?

It’s a really good time for a brand like Rebundle to grow. People like Leah Thomas, Lauren Singer, and SaVonne Anderson are starting to ask the necessary questions about why Black people have been left out of conversations about intersectionality and environmentalism when we are so deep into climate change. The intersectionality of Rebundle provides me the opportunity to move out of hair care — we touch sustainability, STEM, so many areas. We are an example of how a company can achieve multiple missions with a single truth at the center, which is that Black women should not have this experience with our braids.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how Rebundle recycles hair. It has been updated to include the correct information.