The first thing on Lotte Davis’s mind is the sunshine streaming into her office window, more or less blinding her. So, down come the shades. “We are growing, so my own office space is constantly shrinking,” she says. “So for now, I have this little space.” Thankfully, her company, AG Hair, is moving into larger offices, at a building that will include production facilities as well. “It will be great to have everything under one roof,” says Davis. “We control our production processes closely, everything in-house, and this will be a good move.”
AG Hair was founded by Davis and her husband, John, in 1989. Their business relationship melded his expertise in hairdressing and product performance, and hers in retail merchandising and design. After a shaky start (“We were too broke and too stupid to know better”), their dedication to environmentally-friendly ingredients, along with some highly effective retail-level marketing, created the traction they needed, and AG Hair eventually became the largest Canadian hair product company, and the largest in North America to produce all its own goods. Not bad for a business that began with the owners hand-filling bottles—using a peanut butter filling machine—in their Vancouver home.
“We learned as we went, and we sure learned how to solve problems,” Davis says. “When we discovered the vast majority of hair care products are thickened with common table salt, we were motivated to find a better way. In the case of thickeners, we started using cellulose. And today, we have an entire research and development department, so we can keep our standards extremely high. And that leads to consumer loyalty.”
The success of AG Hair led to a moment, in 2006, when, as Davis puts it, “we just looked around and realized we had a truly viable company on our hands.” And that led to another thought. “I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and here I was, successful as a woman, and I wanted to do something to help other women succeed,” she explains. “And I knew without question it had to be in Africa, and had to be for women. I did not want to write a cheque, though. I wanted my arms right around it. And when I visited a slum school in Nairobi, that was it, I knew what to do.” What emerged was One Girl Can (and eventually, Women Leading Change, as well).
Davis explains that “in Kenya and Uganda, primary school is free, but secondary school is not. So we started by building one secondary school for girls. Now we are just finished building our sixth.” They also have scholarships for high school and university students. “We had 32 girls enter university last year,” she says. “And I want to maintain a relationship with each one of them. I visit twice a year now, and I always say to the girls, ‘Your job is to get a B or better. And then you can become mentors yourselves. We are always here for you.’” A portion of each AG Hair product sold is put towards the facilitation of the non-profit.
The governments supply the teachers, who have “embraced it fully,” says Davis. “They all want each other to succeed.” Davis exudes a quiet, but firm, confidence in this organization: “The idea is to have these girls help themselves, and then begin to help their entire culture.”
Davis is also frank about the fact that “the goodwill comes back to AG Hair big time. There are so many examples, of companies or even entire distribution networks, wanting to participate. They love the model and want to support it. That portion of each bottle sold that goes to One Girl Can is as direct as possible. No middleman, just funds straight into the system.” AG Hair absorbs all the administrative costs, as well. Davis seems almost surprised by the way her corporate world has embraced her charity work. But all that planning and preparation were well targeted, aimed at getting results. As the sun begins to set on the day, she opens the blinds a bit, looks out the window into the southern distance.
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