How overweight suitcase helped Northern Ireland entrepreneur launch her own brand of hair products
Yolanda Cooper from Mallusk found travelling with multiple hair gadgets so cumbersome that she designed her own - and now she's also developed unique haircare products which contain seaweed, moss, clover and whiskey. Yolanda, who lives with husband Matthew and son Jaxx, tells Stephanie Bell her inspiring story
A pioneering local mum is leading the way in the growing move towards 'clean' beauty products with the launch of her own exclusive hair care brand.
Yolanda Cooper (33) has come up with something so unique that already some of the world's most iconic department stores have snapped them up.
Her brand, We Are Paradoxx, is 97% natural, organic and cruelty free - but where Yolanda really has the edge is in the packaging, offering a world first with it being 90% plastic free.
Another unique selling point is her unusual choice of natural ingredients which include extracts from the likes of Jameson Whiskey, kelp seaweed, Carrageen moss, clover, white nettle and Celtic salt.
Due to launch tomorrow after two years of development, We Are Paradoxx will be on sale in Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Harvey Nichols in London and House of Fraser in Belfast, as well as Cloud 10, Feel Unique, ASOS Luxury and Next online.
The fact that so many top stores are happy to give space on their coveted beauty counters to a new brand says everything about the quality which has gone into Yolanda's range.
Oddly, it was while dealing with an overweight suitcase en route to a sunshine family holiday two years ago that Yolanda had her eureka moment which led her to become not just an entrepreneur but an inventor.
She has patented a new hair tool due to be launched this summer which will be a world first and which inadvertently led to her developing a range of hair care products.
Yolanda, who studied for a degree in management at Queen's University, lives in Mallusk with her husband Matthew Cooper (33), a senior administrator for a London-based tech firm, and son Jaxx (3).
She was so convinced she had come up with something unique on that holiday that she gave up her job as global head of marketing with a top beauty brand 12 months later to focus on developing and patenting her idea.
She explains: "I was in Dublin airport and had that really embarrassing moment when I had to open my suitcase and take stuff out because it was overweight. I had straighteners, a curling wand, tongs and travel rollers which I had to take out and stuff into my backpack.
"When I was on the plane it just hit me 'why isn't there a hair tool that does it all?' instead of having to pack so many different ones.
"I thought surely someone else has come up with the idea and when I got to Spain I started to search online while lying on my sunbed, but I couldn't find anything. I then did patent searches and nothing showed up. I just thought 'there is a real business opportunity here'."
Yolanda came home from holidays and employed a firm of patent solicitors to do a professional check and was thrilled to discover that the idea she had for a multi-tasking hair tool had never been developed.
"I felt sure that someone else would have owned the patent and when the solicitors didn't find one I decided to go ahead and apply for it," she says.
"I employed a local firm of mechanical engineers and a firm of electrical engineers to design and develop the product which is nearly ready for launch this summer."
While her invention was in the development stage she again spotted a gap in the market for hair products which led to her forming her new company, We Are Paradoxx.
"I just thought at the time that if I am going to create a brand I want to be able to offer women everything for their hair," she explains.
"I had learnt a lot about organic beauty products through my job in the beauty industry and a lot about the nasties that go into products that most of us aren't aware of.
"I did some research and discovered there are two ends of the spectrum. There are the really clean, non-toxic products which are very natural but aren't cool brands with the nice packaging that you would see on Instagram.
"At the other end of the spectrum were the cool brands which looked great but had formulas which are so unhealthy - that's where the paradox is and where we got our name.
"I thought it would be amazing to develop a really clean and green formula that also had really cool packaging."
Plastic pollution, especially in our sea and waters, has become a major focus of world attention recently with retailers coming under increasing pressure to do their bit and ditch plastic packaging.
Yolanda's business projections for her first year involved figures of up to 100,000 units for her new hair range, a figure she says she couldn't consider producing in plastic.
She adds: "I thought there had to be a better alternative. Everyone is talking about recycling plastics and yet 85% of people don't recycle it correctly and I also felt that I didn't want to put that onus onto my customers.
"Every single piece of plastic that was ever made still exists as it takes one million years for a piece of plastic to disintegrate.
"We wanted to be as eco friendly a brand as we could. We looked at working with aluminium and stainless steel and have produced the first hair care product range that is 90% plastic free."
Yolanda has worked with local designers and manufacturers to develop and make her products.
The entrepreneur already has offices in Belfast city centre where she employs a team of five.
Financing her brand has been possible with investment funding and even in this area, she excelled in persuading companies, mostly specialising in technology, to invest in her beauty range.
She says: "I really worried that no one would be interested in backing us.
"I actually feel teary-eyed talking about it. It was a long journey and as a young female entering a man's world where every investor apart from one was a male, I thought I wasn't going to be taken seriously.
"Tech Start NI was the first firm that took a leap of faith and backed us and I feel that they really opened the door for other investors. Most of our investors are men from the software world who have no other interests in beauty."
A former colleague, Claire Andrews, was the first to come on board and work on researching ingredients and product development. Together the women focused on local ingredients for their products, making some fascinating discoveries along the way.
These included finding that whiskey is great at making hair shine and hence they have used it in their elixir, Irish moss conditions the hair and Celtic salt is purer than Himalayan salt and is now one of the ingredients in their sea salt spray.
After much research they then got a natural chemist on board.
Yolanda says: "We had a very strict, what we referred to as a 'dirty list', which we would not have in our products such as parabins and sulphates and many others which are commonly found in many beauty products.
"Fragrance is a loophole in beauty where you can hide some of these nasties that are quite bad for you so we just worked with essential oils and I hand blended all of the scents myself," she adds.
With the perfect products, the next challenge was to find a market and Yolanda soon found that her strict attention to detail was going to pay off.
Contacting buyers from leading department stores direct, she set up meetings in New York and London and was relieved to find that her unique combination of natural ingredients with cool natural packaging proved a winning combination.
She says: "It was not just about what goes into the product, but also about what goes into the packaging and that really sensible decision I made about no plastic, really made such a difference when talking to retailers.
"The buyer for Harvey Nichols first met us in August and then again in November when she told us that she had seen 50 other brands in that short period of time and we were the only one they were taking on board.
"The other companies were ticking some of the boxes for clean, cool, eco friendly products but we were the only one ticking all of the boxes."
We Are Paradoxx has six products in its range: Hangover Hair Elixir, Game Changer Multi-Tasking Hair Mask, Climax Volume Tonic, Fierce Sea Salt Spray, Super Natural Shampoo and Secret Weapon 3-in-1 Conditioner.
Before they even hit the shelves tomorrow, Yolanda's mind is working overtime on new ideas for future products.
"We have another invention in the making which is aimed at hair stylists and professional salons and in total we have 21 new ideas for hair care," she adds.
"Our first products are in the premium range priced between £18 and £30 and I really want to be able to make them affordable so that everyone can buy clean products.
"I feel passionately about that, so that's our next step, to bring out a range of the same quality - but at more affordable prices."
You can find out more at www.weareparadoxx.com