In 2011, Michelle Ntalami, now 32, was living the life that would be the envy of many young career women. She was an account manager with a top advertising firm — Scanad Africa — and was doing other branding projects through her company, Brandvine Group.
But in 2012, something happened that would change her life forever. During one of his routine check-ups, Michelle’s father Edward Ntalami was diagnosed with cancer. “This shocked me because my dad was a healthy man. He ate right and kept fit,” she says.
The next two years were an emotionally draining and trying time for Michelle and her family. She, her mother and three siblings watched as Edward went through excruciating chemotherapy.
In 2013, Michelle decided to shave her hair in solidarity with her father. “I also decided to start living a healthy life. I didn’t want to take life for granted. I started eating clean and exercising. I also decided to keep my hair natural once it grew back. I didn’t want any potentially harmful products in my life.”
Michelle says she struggled to find all-inclusive products to keep her kinks in check and ended up shipping in products when she wasn’t mixing up natural products at home.
“When people saw my hair, they would say it looks healthy and they asked me what I used. I realised there was a gap in the natural hair market and that was the beginning of what would become the Marini Naturals hair care range.”
Michelle says she ran the idea by her father when she accompanied him to one of his sessions in hospital.
“He told me, ‘I don’t know what Marini means, but it sounds like a woman’s hair will grow very long if she uses a product by that name.’ My dad always supported me. He was very intelligent so if he agreed with an idea, you would know it was a good one. He was the CEO of the Nairobi Stock Exchange and oversaw many initial public offerings — very sharp. I know if he was here now, he would gladly write a cheque to support Marini. I really miss my dad.”
In 2014, Michelle decided to quit her job and go to Italy to study interior design – one of her passions. “I chose Italy because it is the centre of all things art. I got a scholarship because I had a First Class honours in my Bachelor’s degree in brand design and communication.”
Michelle says she struggled to decide whether to travel because her father’s condition was deteriorating, but opted to go and hope for the best.
In November, as she prepared to take one of her main exams, she got a dreadful call — her father had passed away. “It really disoriented me. I came back to Kenya to lay him to rest and returned to complete my studies.”
When Michelle returned to Kenya, she decided to change her life completely.
“I had to drop some people from my life because I realised they were only fair-weather friends. There are some people I thought were my real friends but they didn’t bother showing up for my father’s funeral. They didn’t bother finding out how I was doing. They just sent texts. That really hurt me. These are the people I used to go out with for events. But it’s OK because now I have maintained only real friends,” she says.
Michelle says her mother and three siblings have supported each other throughout the loss. Her love for her mother is very evident as she pulls out her phone and shows a picture of her and her mother in a warm embrace. “My mum is my everything. She is my best friend. I love her so much. She is always there for me.”
Diving into entrepreneurship waters
With the new focus in life, Michelle decided to go full throttle and make the Marini idea come to life. She partnered with her former colleague and best friend Niyati Patel to start production.
After making a few samples of hair products, Michelle rounded up a group of friends to test them and she says the response she got was overwhelming. “People were so supportive. We ran out of products and had to quickly make more orders. That is when I realised I was on to something and I put in more effort.”
Launch on anniversary
Marini was formally launched in November 19, 2015 on the death anniversary of her father. “I wonder if my dad is looking down on me and is proud of what I am doing.”
She says it has not been easy and she is yet to break even but she is optimistic about the future. “I always tell people not to look at entrepreneurs and ask them when they will buy a yatch. It is not easy. I used to make about three times more working at Scanad than I do now but this is my passion and it will grow.”
Is Michelle married or seeing somebody? We might never know because we could not get an answer out of her.
Marini Naturals recently won the Best Product Award in the recently-held Kenya Hair and Beauty Awards. Michelle says she didn’t think the brand would be received as well as it has been and with the growing market, she wouldn’t be opposed to a buy out when the company has grown. She has launched a natural hair awareness campaign through her YouTube channel to teach women with natural hair of different kinds how to take care of their tresses.
Michelle says she wants to make Marini the number one natural hair brand in Africa. “We are already in Kigali, Rwanda, and I want to get to the point where I walk into all major stores both here and across Africa and see Marini products.”
On whether the naturalista revolution is just a fad, Michelle says, “No it’s not, it’s here to stay because women have realised natural hair is healthy.”
And to those people who say natural hair is unprofessional, Michelle says, “It’s like saying my dark skin is unprofessional. This is what I was born with. As long as it is clean and well maintained, there should be no problem. I mean, are we saying it more professional to have permed hair even if is dirty and full of dandruff?”