How a homeless single mom founded a multimillion-dollar hair care company with less than $5,000, while making music with Eminem, Dr. Dre, and getting a Grammy nomination

  • Kay Cola is a singer and songwriter who has collaborated with rap stars like Eminem, Dr. Dre, and The Game and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2010. 
  • Cola was homeless with a newborn baby and a 5-year-old son when she first launched her career in music, but it wasn't until she started her hair care business, OrganiGrowHairCo, that she started making money. 
  • She launched the company with less than $5,000 at the end of 2016 and made $1 million in sales in its first full year. She's made over $12 million in sales since. 
  • Her organic hair care line is made for all hair types and textures, and focuses on helping customers understand their individual hair porosity. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Right after Kay Cola gave birth to her daughter 10 years ago, she found herself homeless. Only 24 years old at the time, Cola already had a 5-year-old son and had just left a toxic relationship with the baby's father while struggling to make ends meet as a singer and songwriter in Los Angeles. 

"I was literally sleeping on friends' couches with my son and my newborn baby," Cola, now 35, told Business Insider. "I had to take the bus to a community college that I was going to at the time to be able to receive welfare." 

Shortly afterward, Cola signed her first singing contract with Universal Music Group for $40,000 and moved into her own place. She went on to collaborate on songs with hip-hop greats including Eminem, Dr. Dre, The Game, Ne-Yo, and Charlie Wilson. That same year, she was nominated for a Grammy for her work on Wilson's song "Musta Heard." 

But even though her music career was taking off, her bank account wasn't. 

"I don't think people realize, like, 'starving artist' is a real thing," Cola said. "People are not really making that much money in music. On the outside, it's like, 'Oh, you got a Grammy nomination, you're touring with this person,' but I was barely getting by." 

So she decided to put music on the backburner and go in a whole new direction. In 2016, she launched the hair care line OrganiGrowHairCo, with less than $5,000 in her savings account. Her business was one of the first to feature organic products for natural hair of all textures and every race.

In its first full year of operations, it bagged $1 million in sales, and it has racked up over $12 million in sales to date, records reviewed by Business Insider show. Cola also received no initial investment funding, relied heavily on social media, especially Instagram, to grow her brand, and has expanded to include skincare. 

Today, celebrities like artist Kehlani and retired NBA star Chris Bosh have publicly endorsed her products. 

Cola hopes to continue to redefine what it means to be a self-made millionaire and single mom, and run a Black-owned business that pushes boundaries in the beauty market. 

Getting to the root of the problem

Cola started to question her own hair habits when her 5-year-old daughter asked to straighten her naturally curly hair. 

"My daughter was at a predominantly white and Hispanic school. Everyone had their hair straight," said Cola. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness, you're only 5 and you're already asking to change your hair. I was like, 'Honey, when you get older, you're going to appreciate your hair.'"

But Cola realized she wasn't even taking her own advice, and often wore her hair straight or with weaves and wigs. 

"I was being a bit of a hypocrite, telling her to wear her natural hair and I'm not even wearing mine," she said. 

Hair discrimination has long been an issue in American society, especially in workplaces, where predominantly Black men and women with natural hairstyles have either lost their jobs or been forced to change their hair to comply with unjust company rules. 

Over the last few years, cities and states throughout the US have started to ban hair discrimination at the workplace, with California and New York leading the way with new legislature. 

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Taking chances and giving back

Determined to start wearing her natural hair, Cola began looking at products to help her locks grow. 

"My hair was so damaged, I was like, 'Okay, I have to fix this,'" she said."I was like, 'I want to find something vegan and organic to help' and there really was nothing, especially in Black and Brown hair care."

Instead, she concocted her own kind of scalp oil to help promote hair growth. She named it "Scalp Beverage" and packed it full of natural oils like black seed, grapefruit and coconut oils. 

One of the things that sets her line apart is that each product is made specifically based on individual hair porosity, or the ability for hair to absorb and retain moisture. 

At the urging of friends, Cola registered OrganiGrowHairCo as a business in California, put the oil up for sale online, and made an Instagram page. 

"It just blew up overnight," she said. "It was just a lot of followers and sales like simultaneously." 

Cola estimated that she gained about 5,000 new Instagram followers in her first week, and sold $500 worth of goods the first day. 

"In the Black community, there were a lot of pages looking for Black businesses to support," she said. "Because I had been so vocal in the past about injustices and things like that, a lot of these pages were adamant about supporting me."

She even enrolled her family to help out.

"I had my daughter, like, labeling bottles," she laughed. 

Today, the line has grown to include the skincare offshoot OrganiGlowSkinCo and lifestyle brand OrganiGoLifeCo.

'I don't use the B-word — broke — in my house' 

Since becoming a CEO, Cola's life has changed dramatically — and so has her mindset, she said. 

"I've never had something consistent like this before, so I have to talk myself every day because sometimes I get scared, like, what if it all goes away?" Said Cola. "I have to tell myself, 'Don't use the 'B-word' — broke — in my house, because I now understand the power of manifestation and your thoughts becoming your reality." 

She said she hopes other women looking to start a business or succeed in life can look to her and her story as proof that anything is possible. 

"Being a mom and a woman who's been there, who's been down in the dumps — I've been suicidal — for me to be here now, I just want other moms and other women to know that you cannot stop. You cannot give up," she said. "You have to let what you have been through be your testimony, and you have to let it be your driving force to help someone else when you get there." 

But because of her past, she always comes from a place of gratitude. 

"I'm sitting in my house in the Hills with a pool and this view, and there are people who are literally sitting behind brick walls and fluorescent lights," she said. "I still can't believe that this is my life and I don't take any of it for granted."

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