‘SheaKing’ up UB one hair product at a time

Student entrepreneur helps UB community feel ‘good as hell’

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Jorel Cunningham’s afro is rich in moisture and thickness and its sheen of oil could be seen from his roots to the very ends of his hair.

Cunningham’s afro could make any afro-lover proud, but it wasn’t always affordable to maintain.

“I would look online to see what places [in Buffalo] are braiding hair and it would be like $70-$80 for straight backs,” Cunningham said. “And if you wanted box braids, they would charge you like $100-$200, it’s ridiculous. For your own hair, not bringing any extensions.”

Cunningham, a senior Asian studies major and music performance minor, noticed a lack of black businesses offering quality hair products and affordable braiding salons catered to Buffalo’s black and Latinx communities. So last May, even though he had no interest in entrepreneurship, he created The Shea King, an Instagram business intended to help students buy expensive products for less. The Shea King offers an array of products with choices ranging from Jamaican black castor oil to black soap. 

“I went around to some of the stores that were selling some of the same products that I was selling and made sure I’m charging just a little bit less, or as [low] as I can,” Cunningham said. “I also made sure there were certain stores not selling certain things.”

Devin Forde, a graduate communication student, remembers how surprised everyone was when Cunningham announced his business.

“I think it was either a Black Student Union or African American Studies general meeting,” Forde said. “During open announcements he talked about his business, black products, and the entire room gasped in amazement. Moments after, so many people were making inquiries, it was really cool.”

With the help of his mother, Cunningham has his natural, brand-name products shipped from his Bronx home to Buffalo. 

“Originally, it was just going to be shea butter and coconut oil, and then [my mom] came up with the idea of black soap,” Cunningham said. “I know there are a lot of African students here, so I was like, ‘Yeah, you know what, ain’t a lot of black soap up here either, we should definitely put that on there.’” 

After that, Cunningham kept thinking of other things he could add to the list. 

Customers have options including Jamaican black castor oil and mango soap to choose from. Once they pick the product, they can send him a direct message or ask him in person for the item they want. Cunningham then delivers the products to dorms and certain off-campus spots. 

After buying a bar of black soap and a large bottle of coconut oil from The Shea King, Forde felt "good as hell" –– both inside and out.

“[For the most part], black and Asian and Latinx students are ignored on this campus. We’re only paid attention to when the school wants to b------t their diversity politics,” Forde said. “It feels good to have another person that looks like us try for us.”

Cunningham’s next goal is to add Shea Moisture to his list of products, which he said will “take everybody’s business.” 

He also hopes to stay in Buffalo after he graduates and open a storefront.

“I’m trying to see if I can get certain things in place to where I can have a more permanent location, or somewhere that’s more established to where people can come and go, rather than me having to do deliveries,” Cunningham said. “I definitely want to try to do whatever I can to make sure everybody up here has what they need.”

Originally, Cunningham was looking for products for himself, but was inspired by Jay-Z and Nipsey Hussle, who conducted business by giving back to the community.

“The reason why they impacted people and made a little bit of a change is because they had businesses. And it wasn’t just businesses to make money, it was businesses to help people out,” Cunningham said. “That’s the thing about businesses, when you have one, it can’t just be about money, you have to think about not only what your customers want, but what they need.”

Alexandra Moyen is the assistant news editor and can be reached at alexandra.moyen@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @AlexandraMoyen.