Leila Velez grew up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Her mother was a maid; her father, a janitor. In the early 1990s Leila was serving hamburgers at McDonald’s. But she had a dream.
Leila was frustrated by how few hair products there were for the curly locks of Afro-Brazilian women like her. “Poor people deserve to feel beautiful, too,” she told her sister-in-law Zica, a hairdresser. In 1993 the two amateurs turned Leila’s basement into a mad scientist’s lab, perfected their formula and opened a salon without any outside funding.
Soon women in Rio were waiting four to six hours for an appointment, and customers were crediting their products with not only improving their hair texture but also boosting their self-esteem. From a single salon, they’ve grown into a national company with more than 3,000 employees.
“Now, I can see a lot of young women proud of their curls,” said Leila. “I’m really proud to be part of this movement in Brazil.”
Giving back is important to Leila, and to Beleza as a company. Beleza is the first job for 90 percent of their workers, many of whom are single mothers in their early 20s. Beleza offers them training and tuition discounts with partnering universities, helping pave the way for them to become role models in their communities.
Over the years, Leila has also paid it forward to the next generation of entrepreneurs, serving as an active mentor in the Endeavor network. And today in turn, Endeavor is helping Leila forge connections and introductions in New York City so she can achieve her next dream — opening Beleza salons in Harlem.