It’s a bewildering irony to leave a hair salon looking worse than when you arrived.
“It’s when you put your hair in a bun after you get it done and say to yourself: ‘Did she even use a flat iron? It’s still so puffy,’” said Jihan Thompson, a former magazine editor and a founder of the beauty booking app Swivel. “So many times I’ve left the salon feeling like I wasted my money.”
Ms. Thompson and her longtime friend Jennifer Lambert introduced their app to digitize the hair salon vetting process for black and Hispanic women, a group largely ignored by the beauty app craze.
“Sometimes you get lucky with your 11 hours of Yelp research, but we’re trying to streamline that process,” Ms. Lambert said.
Swivel users select a desired service and indicate their hair type. The services list includes traditionally black hairstyles — cornrows, twist-outs, Bantu knots, silk press — and addresses hair types like curly, kinky and transitioning from relaxed hair to natural. Based on that information and the user’s location (Swivel is available only in New York City at the moment), the app offers a list of salons selected for their skill and service level. Either Ms. Lambert or Ms. Thompson has visited each of the salons on the app.
“We realized the talent’s out there,” Ms. Lambert said. “It’s just a matter of connecting people with it.”
Hair is an integral part of black cultural expression, so it is unsurprising, and desirable, that hair care often takes place at salons within the black community. But the black hair experience is also shaped by a beauty industry that doesn’t educate its stylists to care for textured hair.
“One of our stylists said that every time she learned a new technique in beauty school, she would ask the instructor, ‘O.K., now how would you do that on my hair?’” Ms. Thompson said.
Building and promoting Swivel and seeking funding has meant finding the right way to explain the void the app fills. “Outside of the black community or black women, people haven’t taken a second to think about black women’s hair — to even consider if we have unique hair needs,” Ms. Lambert said. “The light-bulb moment occurs when we tell people that beauty schools simply don’t train stylists on black hair.”
In November, the founders brought in Anthony Dickey as the strategic adviser to the company. His Midtown salon, Hair Rules, and hair-care line by the same name are mainstays of the natural hair movement. Mr. Dickey noted that the retail industry had responded to the natural hair community by coming up with products, but, he said: “It’s sort of the cart before the horse. The hair education didn’t come with all the new products. And the products won’t work if you don’t know how to use them properly.”
The black salon business has been on a decline in recent years as women have embraced natural hair and come to rely on the internet for advice. Mr. Dickey hopes he will be able to teach hairstylists and salon owners in the Swivel network how to care for natural hair properly and bring natural-hair clients back into black salons.
“I’m transitioning now,” Ms. Thompson said. “And the common theme is everyone wants to have the fullest, healthiest, longest hair. Part of that is having a good stylist, a professional who can walk you through. YouTube is great about empowering women to see we can do our hair ourselves. But it doesn’t hurt to have a stylist in your back pocket.”
She often has a noteworthy blowout — just the right amount of volume, shine and curl. Running a hair business, Ms. Lambert and Ms. Thompson feel the pressure to have perfect hair — all the time. “That was not my life before,” Ms. Thompson said.
The two have the easy rhythm that comes with a longtime friendship. (They met 22 years go, in fourth grade.) “The bond is there, so that we’re not going bail on each other when things get tough,” Ms. Thompson said.
She added that they had also found support in the larger tech community: “It’s amazing how when you start to tell people what you’re doing, people just want to help.”