06 Jul Never Stop Making: Jamyla Bennu on Growth, Community, and Being a Maker in Baltimore
From the moment she wakes up, Jamyla Bennu, creator of natural hair company Oyin Handmade, is off and running. The typical life as a maker and entrepreneur. But, Jamyla is anything but typical. Her business card reads Mixtress, and if there is one title she identifies with more than anything, it’s Maker. “I was a maker before anything else. The making came first.” Her story starts out like so many others who have taken up making as their life’s work. A divine fusion of a genuine love for making things, and a decision to transfer that love into creations the traditional marketplace wasn’t providing. For Jamyla, a kinky haired woman who loved to let her coils shine, what was missing from the marketplace was hair products that catered to her natural hair texture. So she made them herself, for herself. “It was originally just for my own use. Feedback from my friends and family led me to enter the market.”
But when you’re a maker, who begins to make that exciting—albeit slightly terrifying—transition from creating products for your family and friends to distributing to strangers across the country, the road is anything but smooth. “There are no milestones, no predetermined paths. There are long nights and late hours. And it can be a very lonely road.” Which is why a community of business owners that understand the unique journey as a maker, is essential. Made in Baltimore became that maker community for Jamyla. “Community is everything. None of us is doing this by ourselves.”
Instead of thinking about makers in their own category of business, Jamyla feels that makers are a class of entrepreneurs that all experience a unique set of similarities. They are hands on, they are typically bootstrapping, and they are intimately close with their creations—which can make scaling particularly difficult. Made in Baltimore gives Jamyla and other makers a chance to access each other and this can be the difference between success, flailing, and failure. “When you have the opportunity for peer feedback, you can lean on each other as guideposts. You can bounce ideas off each other, and you can ask questions.” She mentions that having feedback to questions like “am I paying too much for this service or product?” and “have you had this problem before? Is it normal?” are invaluable for a maker and their journey. And while those interactions have been integral to the growth of Oyin Handmade, it’s the deeper, more intimate connections, that have helped Jamyla at times when the going is particularly tough. “Being part of a community of makers that sees you and believes that you’re doing something worthy, is incredibly helpful”. This type of support comes in many forms from her first customers, which she views as investments, to the power of a thumbs up from a fellow maker and “keep doing your thing.” So many of us see makers once they have blossomed into the CEO’s that we admire, and it can be intimidating. We only see the results of 15 years of hard work and determination, not the struggles like Jamyla shared which include overcoming her personal introvert tendencies for the good of the company and standing behind her own voice. If Jamyla could give “Little Jamyla”—a young, black, woman, aspiring maker and entrepreneur—one bit of advice 15 years ago it would be this:
“Get a little uncomfortable. If there’s something that needs to be done that you can’t do well, don’t run from that. Lean in or find someone else to lean on your behalf.”
When you’re a maker and your creations begin to make their way into homes around the world, you and your business will inevitably begin to grow. And with that growth, comes change. Through the changes, Jamyla makes it a point to stay true to her core. “Making is still a huge part of my identity…” and one that she has to fight for daily. When CEO duties take over the majority of her day, finding the time to do the making can be difficult. “I miss the ingredient research, the invention, the making batches and getting feedback. I miss the creativity.” Which is why an hour or two, a couple afternoons a week, are set aside for making. As a maker, turned CEO, and Mixtress above all, Jamyla has made the commitment to herself to keep inventing, keep creating, and keep making natural hair care products in Baltimore.