Meet the multi-hyphenate founder and CEO of Soft Rows, Dr. Quani Burnett

FLINT, Michigan —  “I don’t even know if I started to cry first. I think there was an initial shock. I don’t even know if it was excitement,” says Dr. Quani Burnett, founder and CEO of Soft Rows, a “culturally-inclusive, high-performing hair care company on a mission to prioritize, not tokenize, texture-rich hair.”

The company, inspired by vintage Black hair ads of the '80s and '90s, not only works with women of color cosmetologists and chemists but is also home to an editorial blog that shares culturally-inclusive stories about hair.   

Her shock comes on the heels of her becoming a part of the 2024 Sephora Accelerate brand incubation program. According to Sephora's website, the program is a six-month curriculum with mentorship, merchandising support, grants, and investor connections for all participants with the opportunity to launch at Sephora North America upon completion.

“If you look at my life and how I started working in healthcare and made this huge jump into working in beauty to now trying to start my own brand, the tears were in remembrance of the past five or six years,” she expresses over an early morning Zoom call from her home in California.

The Flint native’s journey from physical therapist to entrepreneur sees her life build upon the lessons of making her family proud of her. While the journey has been ripe with imposter syndrome, doubt, and uncertainty, Burnett fully understands that Soft Rows is a mission that is bigger than her.

Flintside caught up with Dr. Burnett to talk about her time as a physical therapist, the creation of Soft Rows, the honoring of tradition, and more.

Soft Rows' mission is to create culturally inclusive conversations on honoring one's tradition and heritage about and through hair. (Courtesy photo)
Flintside: You worked as a physical therapist for years. How was that experience?

Quani Burnett: “I’m very grateful for my time as a physical therapist. I loved helping people. I was working alongside the physician’s surgical team, providing recommendations and treating and rehabilitating veterans. I spoke at conferences. I was able to work for the Drew League in L.A. Then, I got to work for the [Los Angeles] Sparks for a season. Amidst all these amazing experiences, I felt like something was missing. That should have been the pinnacle of my career, and I was feeling lost in it.”

Flintside: How did you make that career pivot?

Q. Burnett: “After the Sparks season ended, my skin was horrible. I went to Sephora to try and find products that would work for my skin. I finally found a brand [but] when I went on their social media pages, I didn’t see a lot of people of color. Out of loneliness, I started an Instagram page called ‘Drunk Elephant Brown.’ It was built on trying to find people of color using this particular brand. The founder of Drunk Elephant and some other people were like, ‘We think this is cool.’ I didn’t understand the significance of it, but they invited me to an influencer trip to New York. I realized this advocating for inclusivity that I was doing for Drunk Elephant, I could be doing for all brands. So, I rebranded my Instagram page to ‘Beauty for Brown Skin.’”

Flintside: Was this the catalyst for you to create Soft Rows? 

Q. Burnett: “I started consulting for brands. I was looking to make the leap but was scared. A full-time position opened at Youth To The People, and I decided to take it. I think the biggest blessing was I started to understand the freedom entrepreneurship could give you. Being in California, I’m seeing young people throw these amazing ventures and meeting all these amazing people. I was surrounded by not only entrepreneurship but [also] creativity. One of the seeds for Soft Rows was this article I wrote for Byrdie. Here, I am seeing billion-dollar brands and the science behind them. I have a whole doctorate degree. Like, I’m a nerd. And so I’m like, there’s got to be a different way.”
"Black hair has long been politicized. At Soft Rows, we want to empower you to wear your hair however you choose," expresses Dr. Quani Burnett. (Courtesy photo)
Flintside: Your website mentions that you work with women of color chemists and cosmetologists. How has that process been?

Q. Burnett: “I knew from a chemistry standpoint that I wanted to do something different. A point of differentiation for Soft Rows is ingredient innovation. We’re still actively formulating our products. I invested in proprietary formulas working with chemists who have [tightly] textured hair like mine. Before I started formulating, I was talking to cosmetologists and natural hair specialists, and those insights shaped what I took to the chemists.”

Flintside: Your website has a three-sentence tagline: 'Honor your tradition. Express your true self. Celebrate your texture.' What’s the meaning behind these?

Q. Burnett: “I have such a deep respect, reverence, and honor to tradition — honoring your mother and your father. I say that Soft Rows will be culturally-inclusive but will also be culturally-nuanced. That means that we are attuned to other people’s traditions. One of the biggest similarities I love to use is in South Asian or Indian culture. Me greasing my scalp can be akin to you oiling your hair. All of those different things have a uniqueness to it. But you can appreciate it from whatever culture you come from.”

Flintside: There’s a lot of talk these about natural hair. What do you think Soft Rows’ mission is in this regard?

Q. Burnett: “I want to empower a community to love their hair. And honestly, with specifically Black hair, the versatility of our hair, there’s this divisiveness in the natural hair community of natural hair warriors and straight natural soldiers. Black hair has long been politicized. At Soft Rows, we want to empower you to wear your hair however you choose. That’s why we’re making sure that we’re not just giving you oils and butters. So if you want to color your hair, if you want to straighten it, if you want to wear wigs and braids, we are creating products that flex with you.” 

Inspired by the '80s and '90s vintage Black hair ads, Soft Rows works with and empowers women of color chemists and cosmetologists. (Courtesy photo)
Flintside: Similarly, in schools, there’s controversy around students being suspended for wearing their natural hair. Do you want or believe Soft Rows has a role or voice in that?

Q. Burnett: “I wrote about the Crown Act. We know that in certain states, it is still legal to discriminate based on hairstyles. It’s something that we want to actively be a part of. I think one route that I’m more interested in is the fact that for cosmetology school, you do not have to be proficient in textured hair. Cosmetologists play a big role in shaping young girls and men’s perceptions of their hair. I see the efficacy of [Soft Rows] products and our storytelling as a way to connect with people.”

Flintside: So what’s on the horizon for Soft Rows, and how do you see this growing?

Q. Burnett: “I want to dive deeper into cultural norms and explore hair for all: men, women, and non-binary. Something that I say is that Soft Rows is parallel to my journey. As I’m growing, Soft Rows is growing. I know a lot of people refer to their brands as their babies, but Soft Rows is this mission, and it’s bigger than me. That means that it’s bigger than my fears, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. It’s not my baby because it’s meant for people to take it and incorporate it into their healing journey however they see fit.”

To learn more about Soft Rows, visit its website, Instagram, and TikTok pages.
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Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.