Evana and Zoe Oli pose with products from their business.

Beautiful Curly Me

Evana Oli

Evana Oli (BSBA ’02) is a “mompreneur.”

After over 17 years of experience marketing for companies such as Delta, CNN and Georgia Pacific, Oli’s career took an unexpected twist. It all started when her daughter, Zoe, complained about her hair.

As a 6-year-old in a predominantly white classroom, Zoe had questions about why her hair wasn’t straight like her classmates’. Heartbroken that her daughter didn’t recognize the beauty of her curls, Evana first decided to set an example by embracing and wearing her naturally curly hair. As a business professional, she was surprised by the way this decision challenged her own confidence.

“I had to come to terms with really being able to be comfortable in my own skin in a corporate environment and wear my own hair versus trying to present a Eurocentric look to fit in,” she said.

Embracing her natural hair was an empowering step for Evana, and she decided she wanted to do more to encourage her daughter. At her sister’s recommendation, she bought her daughter a black doll. Zoe was thrilled but had one complaint.

“She loved the fact that the doll had skin like hers’, but then she started complaining about the doll’s hair,” Evana said. “I went to the stores [and] I didn’t see any dolls with natural curly hair. So [Zoe] told me she wanted to make her own.

“I didn’t take her seriously at first, but she was very persistent. And so I told her, okay, we can do this together as a team and I’m going to make sure you’re involved because I don’t know anything about this, either.”

Together, the mother-daughter team brought Zoe’s dream to life, founding Beautiful Curly Me. Becoming an entrepreneur was a big adjustment for Evana, but experience in marketing and managing products for large companies helped her get started.

“We’ve been through a lot of different obstacles, but I think getting started was the first thing,” she said. “And once we got started, we were determined not to fail. We put our all into it and just continued pushing through the difficulties from being a bootstrap business and not having any outside funding.”

Since its inception, Beautiful Curly Me has grown to feature multiple dolls – designed by Zoe herself – along with books written by Zoe, puzzles and a girls’ enrichment club. Each product furthers Evana and Zoe’s mission to empower girls to wear their curls with confidence, and for each doll purchased, one is given to a girl in need.

“A lot of girls face the same challenges Zoe did where they feel less-than because someone teased them or someone tried to pet their hair, like they’re in the petting zoo, or maybe they are the only black child in a classroom or in a certain space,” Evana said. “It’s about giving girls confidence in who they are and to be comfortable in their own skin. The doll is just a touch point for building that inner confidence and self-love.”

Along the way, the company has received national attention. Good Morning America, Forbes and The Kelly Clarkson Show are just a few of the organizations that have featured Beautiful Curly Me. The company hopes to expand their global reach, with a goal of bringing dolls to 10 million girls in the next five years.

Another way that Evana and Zoe are empowering youth is through their recently launched program, Youth Mean Business. The week-long accelerated program provides business mentorship to young entrepreneurs, ages 11-17, helping other “Zoe’s” in the world bring their dreams to life. At the program’s pilot, nine “youthpreneurs” were paired with expert mentors who met with them daily to talk about their business, and guest speakers covered topics including marketing, operations and strategy. At the end of the week, each youthpreneur pitched their business and collectively received $25,000 in grants.

“Kids are very resilient, and I do learn a lot from [Zoe] because she also doesn’t see the world as jaded,” Evana said. “She’s very optimistic, she’s very positive, she’s very much like, why not, why can’t we do this? She challenges me to say, you know what, you’re right, why not push for this or push for that?”

Through Youth Mean Business and teaching MBA classes, Evana shares the experience she has gained through her career and from starting Beautiful Curly Me. Never losing sight of the big picture is essential for getting a business off the ground, she says.

“Start where you are, use what you have and do what you must,” she said. “Sometimes we overthink, and we’re scared to fail so we don’t fly. You just have to get started, whatever it is.

“No one is going to work harder on your dream than you.”