This article is adapted from our AQ Top 5 feature on young Latin American entrepreneurs. To see the rest of our list, click here.
Tasty as they may be, it wasn’t McDonald’s hamburgers that propelled the restaurant giant to the top of the food chain. The company’s founders — and later Ray Kroc — turned the burger joint into a global icon thanks to a relentless drive for efficiency, meticulous product testing, and a legendary aversion to waste.
Those lessons weren’t lost on a young Leila Velez, who at 14 was a cashier at her local McDonald’s in Rio de Janeiro, soaking up lessons in division of labor, standardization and quality control. Five years later, at just 19, Velez took what she learned behind the counter and applied it to her own business, a hair salon for women with curly hair that felt like a day spa but was run like an assembly line — with a few adjustments.
“The turnover is usually high (in fast food) because people are spending just a part of their life there,” said Velez, 42, whose beauty products and services business, Beleza Natural, grew from that single salon in Rio to a national company with more than 3,000 employees. “There’s a good aspect to it, but I want my coworkers to build a career with us. When they stay, they know they have a very good chance to start a fantastic career.”
That’s not just talk. According to Velez, Beleza Natural is the first job for 90 percent of her employees, many of whom are single mothers in their early 20s. Unlike many companies offering entry-level jobs in Brazil, Beleza Natural gives new workers a clear path to getting ahead, with training for managerial positions and tuition discounts with partnering universities for those who wish to further their education. As they take on more responsibilities at work, Beleza Natural’s employees “become role models for so many of their friends and families in their communities,” Velez said.
Many of her clients, too, connect with Beleza Natural on a personal level. When Velez started the company with three friends in 1993, hair care products for the vast number of Brazilian women with tightly curled or kinky hair were limited to damaging relaxers and straighteners; natural products to help women enjoy their curls weren’t readily available.
Velez and her partners set out to change that. “For me, beauty is just a tool,” said Velez, who noted that clients would come in the door for the well-defined curls, and leave with boosted self-esteem.
Up until 2013, when Velez partnered with GP Investments, a Latin American private equity firm, Beleza Natural made do without any outside financing. One of Velez’s original partners sold his taxi to provide the capital for the first salon in Rio’s Grande Tijuca neighborhood. Word of mouth soon brought in busloads of women from surrounding areas of the city. Much of the company’s success can be attributed to tapping into an underserved market: women in Brazil’s low-to-middle income bracket who were “invisible” to most companies, Velez said. After a year and a half of 18-hour work days, Velez and her partners were confident that a focus on client relationships — and their embrace of the natural beauty of kinky hair — was a winning formula. Today, Beleza Natural serves 130,000 clients a month at 30 salons across Brazil, with plans to expand in Latin America and the U.S.
Velez’s success has caused other firms to eye the market that she and her partners opened up — which she welcomes. “Of course we prefer a world without competitors,” she laughed. “But at the same time I think it’s great that women with kinky, curly, wavy hair are now able to find new products.”
Velez probably doesn’t need to worry too much. Any rivals will have to match the community-first strategy Velez developed after her experience in fast food. As Velez pointed out, “(Our competitors) won’t have a long-term relationship with clients that are looking for more than just hair care — those that are looking for a way to empower themselves, to love who they are.”
That, for Velez, is the real payoff. When she first started, it was unusual for women like her to keep their hair curly. “Now I can see a lot of young women proud of their curls, proud of their hair,” she said. “I’m really proud to be part of this movement in Brazil.”
Bintrim and Bons are editors of AQ