You might say the hallmark of every entrepreneur is determination and drive. Nicole Baranowski, BA ’19, MSc’21 has these qualities in spades! As an avid athlete and past Western mustang, Baranowski has competed and excelled in several sports, including volleyball, basketball, soccer, and her special passion – varsity rowing. Baranowski enjoys pushing through obstacles to meet a goal. This determination continues to fuel both her 5:00 am workouts and her commitment to running her own company - Hairstrong.
Like most entrepreneurial start-ups, Hairstrong, came about through a wish to solve a basic problem.
The problem of long hair constantly escaping elastic bands and interrupting precious minutes of workout time.
Add to that the elastics that break, pull or hurt, scrunchies that don’t stay in place, annoying clips and pins that fall out; all these things distract from focusing on athletic performance.
Baranowski initially thought her hair was the problem because the one-size-fits-all hair products – just didn’t! She was constantly re-adjusting her hair and this was distracting her from her workout program. Like most busy people, workout time was tightly scheduled in between other commitments and she needed to maximize her sessions – which didn’t include fussing with her hair.
It wasn’t until she shared this problem with her fourth-year entrepreneurship class that she realized it wasn’t just a personal issue. Everyone with medium, thick or long hair struggled. Baranowski had found her class project.
The next step was to develop a solution. She ordered string, elastic and cord - thinking some sort of knotted band might work. A few trials proved a knot too hard to manage and it damaged hair.
Baranowski’s next thought was a type of adjustable clasp found on camping equipment and rain jackets – something you can cinch as tightly as needed. Technically it worked but as Baranowski said … “looked ugly”.
Her entrepreneurship classmates suggested adding a fabric covering to protect hair and making an adjustable scrunchie. Despite not having any sewing skills, Baranowski ordered fabric that night and started to experiment until she had a prototype that worked. The final product – the Strongband - was attractive, strong, re-useable and customizable for different hair types. There would be no need for repeat buying of packs of elastics knowing they would break or fall out.
Baranowski had found the one hairband to rule them all.
Her first thought was to outsource the product overseas, but to commit to the high number of units needed for her first order overwhelmed her. Instead, she created a spreadsheet of all the seamstresses and tailor shops in London and began contacting them to see if they could supply smaller quantities locally.
Her first seamstress worked well for a few months until Hairstrong orders outgrew her ability to supply. Baranowski secured a second seamstress through the London Economic Development Centre. This worked for a time too, only to be derailed by the Covid pandemic. Her third choice defaulted on her commitment for 700 units two days before the order was due. Left with few options, Baranowski scrambled and found someone else within 24 hours and contacted her customers to let them know of the pending delay. Luckily, they understood. By now Hairstrong was receiving orders through the website, from trade shows, and word-of-mouth, so Baranowski knew she had no choice but to deliver.
Being an entrepreneur takes resilience and perseverance and that’s not to be taken lightly. When things are going well – anyone can ride that wave. It’s how you pick yourself up during those down days.
Baranowski credits the lessons learned from competitive sports for her resilience. She also credits her entrepreneurship savvy to the business skills learned at Ivey and through various Accelerator and Incubator programs at the Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship.
As well as running her own business, Baranowski works with student entrepreneurs in her role as a Business Analyst with Morrissette Entrepreneurship, where she helps budding entrepreneurs acquire the right tools to succeed. Baranowski believes everyone can learn these skills - and should - because they will give you the mental capacity to handle all the inevitable ups and downs of your business. She helps people set goals that they can achieve and to hold themselves accountable. It’s a tricky combination of pushing yourself and not burning out.
I think the idea of being OK with being uncomfortable is huge. Because every day you are not going to wake up and say -I am in the spot that I like right now. Going after your dreams takes risk – and risk is scary – and that’s OK – it’s supposed to be scary.
Taking calculated risks is part of the ride. Baranowski is used to making scary decisions. She analyses the risk – usually worth it – and looks at the downside – is it ok to fail and regroup? She is a detailed planner and passes this on to her aspiring student entrepreneurs. She advises young founders to plan their pitch, work through all the things that could go wrong and have a contingency plan.
Fear is valid and you can deal with it. A certain amount of stress actually helps your performance and if something happens, deal with it and move on.
Clearly, it’s worked for her in both business and sports.
Baranowski is focused on the future and expanding the functional aspect of her product. Not only does she want Hairstrong to be a credible player in the athletic industry, but she also sees potential for the product within the police and fire services; places where long locks aren’t simply an annoying distraction but a potential safety hazard. She thinks the right hair tool could be considered part of the uniform.
It is an exciting journey and one that leads to a lot of self-knowledge and accountability. Big opportunities always have big risks.
Whatever the future brings Baranowski will continue to be focused and self-reliant. She is always open to further coaching and mentorship and whatever she learns will be passed on to her students. That is what they call a win-win in the sports and business world.