Shawna Stepp-Jones was living in Atlanta seven years ago when she first noticed the need for a quick, non-damaging hair dryer for wigs and extensions.
“I had to travel 40 minutes to drop off my bundles of Arjuni Cambodian hair to my stylist so that she could bleach them blonde. I was told to return the next day so that the bundles could air dry overnight before installation,” she said.
Stepp-Jones also thought her stylist’s technique of using overhead and handheld dryers was inefficient. “At that point, I decided I would build a solution,” she added.
Next week, the Morgan State and Johns Hopkins alum will debut Spundle, her no-heat machine that dries hair in 15 minutes or less. She said the device, which is patent pending, improves upon current processes, which can take up to a day to dry. The machine, which stands three-and-a-half feet tall, uses the ambient temperature of the surrounding air in the room to create a dual airflow that focuses on drying the inner cap and outer hair strands. No heating or cooling element is used.
Stepp-Jones, a 36-year-old Towson resident, thinks her invention will revolutionize a number of industries from the film and television industry to drag performers and hair stylists.
“We recognized there was a lack of innovation and genius. No one was thinking about detachable hair,” the Edmondson Village native said. “Our competitive advantage is that we are focused on detachable hair pieces.”
Her immediate priority is to target high-volume salons and “provide them with a faster way of drying wigs and weaves so that they can have a new revenue stream.”
“Now you can have your client come in and drop your unit off and have it ready in an hour,” she explained. “You can take the wig you wore to the gym in the morning and you can have it cleaned for when you go out at night. It’s really cool for the salon. It’s a new lane they can charge.”
She believes another potential market is the television and film industry, where hair stylists are drying dozens of wigs and weaves on set.
Char Wilson, owner of Hair by Char, a salon in Mount Vernon, said the invention is a “game-changer” for the hair and beauty industry as well as for television and film.
Wilson, a professional hair stylist for the past 13 years who has worked on shows such as “Atlanta,” “The Game,” and “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta,” said the device would cut down on time and the number of wigs and hair pieces needed on set.
“The most valuable thing we have is time,” she said. “I think the industry is going to react really well.”
Currently, film and television industry hair stylists take more than 30 minutes to dry each wig.
“If we can get a Spundle, it will be life-changing, Wilson said. “We oftentime have to sit our [hair] units outside. If we had a Spundle in each trailer, it would be epic.”
Weaves, wigs and extensions are a multibillion dollar industry, according to Grand View Research, a market research and consulting company headquartered in San Francisco. In 2021, the market size was valued at $6.13 billion and is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 8%.
McKeever “Mac” Conwell II, an investor with Stepp-Jones, said the invention has a deeper impact than the technology.
“It speaks to her ingenuity and the ingenuity of Black people. It reflects the ingenuity of Black people who come up with these awesome concepts even though they are continually overlooked,” he said.
The ingenuity of Stepp-Jones and other inventors of color will be on display Tuesday at Demo Day for Techstars Equitech Accelerator, a program for members of underestimated communities or for people developing technologies that increase access and equity. During Demo Day, participants in the accelerator program showcase their inventions to the public.
Kory Bailey, chief ecosystem and relationship officer at UpSurge, a Baltimore-based company that oversees and raises awareness about Baltimore’s growing tech industry and organizes tech businesses, said Stepp-Jones and her company are “perfect examples” of what Baltimore has to offer.
“She represents one of the many Black women founders and CEOs leveraging their talent and experience to build Equitech companies in this city that will have a positive impact on people’s lives for years to come,” he said.
Coming out of Demo Day, Bailey said, he encouraged the Baltimore business community to support Stepp-Jones and other companies to “contribute to the acceleration of our innovation economy and our mission to become the world’s first Equitech City.”
Bailey calls Demo Day a “celebration of the game-changing founders and innovations coming out of Baltimore’s neighborhoods and universities.” He added that the competition reflects the city’s ability to attract and retain companies led by diverse founders from all across the country.
Stepp-Jones’ journey has not been without adversity. It’s taken her close to a decade to get to this point — a result of financial obstacles.
“Lack of access to capital was a huge burden that I had to overcome,” she said. “Everyone pretty much said I was pre-product. No one wrote a check.”
To pursue a patent for her Spundle, Stepp-Jones quit her job of 10 years as a patent examiner, where she specialized in patents dealing with display systems.
She became a surrogate mother of twins to raise money to keep her dreams alive. “I felt like I was left with no options to innovate and commercialize my idea, so I had to create an opportunity for myself,” she said.
Conwell, a Morgan State University grad who was introduced to Stepp-Jones in 2017 by a fellow alum, became her first investor.
“She’s incredible. She’s super-smart. She’s extremely innovative. She’s extremely tenacious. She’s not going to let anything stop her dreams from coming true,” said Conwell, who has made a six-figure investment in her company.
Stepp-Jones inspired Conwell to start a company, Rarebreed Ventures, in 2021. The company has given out more than $350,000 to business owners from underrepresented ethnic groups.
“She is my North Star,” Conwell said.
Conwell describes her as this generation’s Madam C.J. Walker, the late Black entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist who is believed to be the first female self-made millionaire.
“I truly believe in what she is doing. But she couldn’t get anybody to take that leap of faith on her,” he said.
While Stepp-Jones is making Spundle a reality, she is encouraging other young Black women along the way through her effort, Divaneering Lab, her brainchild program to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). She launched the initiative in 2013 as part of her platform for Miss Maryland Plus America, a pageant that she won.
“That’s my way of building my pipeline. I hope to give jobs to some of these young ladies,” she said. “I’m really trying to create economic empowerment for our community.”