Founder of ub hair Zina Alfa on how tech is advancing the hair and beauty industry

zina alfa tech founder

Zina Alfa is an inspiring creative, equipped with a repertoire of skills from producing to presenting. Now she has turned her attention to the beauty industry, creating the tech app ub hair, which matches people that need their hair done to the highest rated stylist in their vicinity.

ub hair is the product of Zina’s passion for afro hair being respected and seen as equal, arising from hair discrimination she faced when growing up that also led Zina to start a petition against the UK government. The petition, currently at over 95,000 signatures, seeks to make it a legal requirement to include afro hair as a characteristic of race in the equalities act. In February 2021, the first ub hair beauty and fashion summit took place, with several panels discussing the barriers faced in the beauty and fashion world as well as speaking with leaders and founders on what it’s like running organisations in hair, beauty and fashion.

There is still a long way to go when it comes to educating people on afro hair discrimination and getting rid of discriminatory policies in institutions such as schools and in the workplace. Below Zina speaks to GUAP on why this is an important issue for her to tackle and how ub hair is doing this:

Zina alfa tech founder

Hey! Tell us a bit about yourself

Hey my name is Zina and I’m a tech founder. I actually was in the creative industry and worked for companies such as ITV, Sky, [and] I produced a couple short films but now I’m solely focused on tech. 

Ha I don’t even know where to start. I care about social justice issues and inequality. I feel like it’s my mission to help other people flourish in their space whether it’s tech, beauty, strategy… I just happen to be doing that through tech and activism.

You run a service called ub hair which matches people wanting their hair done to the highest rated stylist near them – what was the problem as you saw it that gave you the idea to start this up?

Well I grew up in Blackheath, South East London so my options for hair weren’t really great. Also my mum is disabled so it was difficult to find a home hairstylist to do afro textured hair and as a kid, I had to go to Peckham to get my hair done. It’s not the same place as it was 15 years ago I tell you that and as a 10 year old it was not safe!

When I moved to Sheffield University, I couldn’t find any reliable afro hairdressers in the area, so ended up travelling down to London every 5 weeks to get my hair done. This was really expensive and just a massive inconvenience for me. I was really scraping the barrel – just for me to have my hair straight (that in itself is another story) but here we are. 

So when I finished at Sheffield and then did my masters, I started talking to lots of hairstylists and people about what would be useful to them. That’s when I started to imagine a world where finding a hairdresser was very easy and you could trust your stylist, wherever you were.

It is quite ridiculous if you think about it. I think for girls with afro hair who can’t do hair like me, you’re screwed. I wanted an easy way to connect with hairdressers and book someone who could also do afro style hair. I’m a big supporter of equality on all levels so I wanted to create a world where managing different types of hair was easy and you could trust your stylist. It’s important that we are included in the thing we spend so much of our time and money on.

tech app ub hair

How is it going so far?

It’s going really well, after our event we doubled in numbers and now that shops have opened again we are actually able to see in real time how the bookings are going! 

What has your experience/journey with beauty and hair been like?

Wow what a question… how much time do you have? Ha. When I was growing up, I didn’t know what “good hair” was, nor hair discrimination. All I knew was that I hated my hair and I wanted hair like barbie. I can remember the first time I actually thought I had “bad nappy hair” which was when I was five years old. I was in America and my mum was sleeping, my uncle’s wife decided that she was going to relax my hair because my hair “wasn’t good” like hers (she was mixed race). Putting chemicals in a 5 year old child’s hair is absolutely ludicrous and the message that sends out to children is terrible. It completely destroyed my self esteem.

Then when I was about 12/13 I had braids [and] my maths teacher told me my braids were disgusting and that was not school policy. I had to take them out. My mum protested and I never got braids until when I went to Nigeria in 2018. Wild. 

As I grew older I realised how much trauma was attached to my hair and beauty practices as [an] individual but also for many black women too. I used to get the Maybeline powder which was far too light for my face, the boys used to call me ghost because my make up looked like a ghost on me. I remember thinking right when I grow up I’m going to make a black affordable beauty line. Well thankfully I didn’t have to but Riri did. 

I think the problem we have as a community is that we have normalised Euro-centric beauty and chemically straightening our hair, getting wigs and weaves etc, being darker skinned all play into each other and it’s all due to slavery. We now associate having straight hair as a symbol of upper class, beauty and success. It’s so sad to see really.

I was a victim of it and I know that so many other people are victims of it too so as a result we don’t care [about] the damage we are causing to ourselves just to fit in. There are huge misconceptions surrounding afro hair and it being “harder to maintain” and as a result people “relax” (chemically straighten) their hair. Which is actually one of the reasons why I started my app.

I think collectively institutions give us asymmetric information and there is nothing out there to protect us. Although it is a marketplace app, the entire rhetoric is about hair equality and information for all hair types. Having the correct information about what products are safe to use and how they impact your hair is so important. We look at the science behind the everyday products we use and we match you with the correct hairstylist/barber. I think it was just from that frustration and trauma and wanting to turn that pain into purpose and realising that actually I’m beautiful regardless of my hair texture or my dark skin. I’m so happy though to see there is a huge movement. 

I also think it’s important to include everyone in the conversation about hair so I’ve started a podcast called The HairStory Podcast which looks at people’s life stories through hair! Aren’t you glad to be hair

How is tech advancing the hair and beauty industry?

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Ub hair alongside many emerging companies are building new technologies that are changing the way we look at beauty, fashion and hair. In the past few years, the world has witnessed the rise of several game-changing technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and 3D printing. We’ve seen social media tech that is changing the way we [see], companies like dermatologica who use machine learning to match you with products based on your skin type (we are doing the same but for hair).

I think it’s helping people get more personalised products/services for themselves. The other day, I saw a company that uses AI algorithms to predict style trends using a VR mirror in dressing rooms. A smart mirror takes a photo of your face and scans for wrinkles, pores, fine lines, red spots and brightness levels. After rating each of these factors from “good” to “poor”, it will send you tips and recommendations of products to try. I mean wow. I’m so glad to be part of this ever changing technology.

Also you’ve got to remember for people like my mum who are disabled, this is fantastic, she can get a hairstylist coming to her home, she can find products, even clothes and it can leave her feeling more confident within herself! I love it. 

What advice would you give to anyone struggling with hair and beauty standards in terms of finding what works best for them?

Unfortunately it’s about doing your research. Youtube has everything on there and honestly the blogs… reddit is so good and Twitter you can search for key words. TikTok is also a great way for little nuggets of information. Also contact your local hairstylist/barber and ask them what is best for your hair type. We will be hosting workshops in the summer.

Remember, most of these places are trying to sell their products and majority of the time we don’t even know what goes in them. Think about going to a smaller, more niche place where you can support the local business but also build a better relationship with them. I think once you find what is best for you it will ultimately make you feel more confident. Nothing feels better than when I created my own little concoction of coconut oil, shea butter etc in my hair and wow I felt so good. I buy the products from black-owned businesses too, that way we all eat! 

What’s the end goal with ub hair?

I think it’s to build a long lasting legacy in the tech and beauty industry. Amazon started with books and people didn’t see the vision and I think that’s the same with us. We’re more than a booking platform. I want people to be themselves! ub YOU!

Follow ub hair on Instagram.

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