Obia Ewah ('04) was a 26-year-old medical school student when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
"Everything changed," she says. "Something in my environment was making me sick."
She paused medical school to focus on her health and family, making several major changes along the way. One major change was to stop using hair relaxers after reading a published study that linked chemical relaxers to an increase in fibroids. She also stopped using other types of hair products after realizing those she was using contained harmful ingredients, such as phthalates in fragrances, which are known endocrine disruptors.
And then she had an idea.
"I studied chemistry at UNT, so I'm going to create natural products for myself," she says.
Those products turned out to be OBIA Naturals -- and they are now sold in stores such as CVS Pharmacy, JC Penney and Walmart and have been featured in Essence magazine. Ewah, who has been cancer-free for eight years, says her degree in biology with a minor in chemistry helped her create the product line, which uses non-toxic, vegan ingredients.
After graduating from UNT, Ewah worked as a chemist for a couple of companies in Dallas before earning a master's in public health from UT Southwestern. Then she went to American University School of Medicine in St. John, Antigua. During her second year of medical school, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. When she began creating her products, she remembered how she had to watch water boil for hours in chemistry class while making aspirin and other dehydration reactions for exams. To create her first hair moisturizer, she bought a cooktop to heat the oil, water and emulsifier needed to create a stable formula.
Many hair product companies are founded by hairstylists who do not understand the formulation science and manufacturing behind hair products that they market. But with her science background, Ewah knew the biology and chemistry involved in making a successful hair product that actually works.
"Biology helped me understand the layers of the hair follicle and why they were important in relation to styling products," she says. "My creative mind was thinking of how I could make the hair follicle happy."
Friends started noticing her healthy hair and said they would pay for her products. She got a business license and started creating. Her first three products were Curl Hydration Spray, Curl Enhancing Custard and Curl Moisture Cream. She created labels on a computer, printed them out and attached them to products that were in jars and bottles. She soon started selling at trade shows and pop up events.
One day, In 2015, she received a phone call from a distributor for Target. She thought it was a prank call. The distributor had to persuade her to come to New Jersey to see their warehouse before Obia believed they could help land OBIA Naturals in Target. The distributor saw the company’s buzz on social media and at a trade show, and it had just been named “Best Emerging Brand” by the editors of Naturally Curly.
Ewah agreed and soon Target was selling OBIA Naturals, named not only after her but also her grandmother and great-grandmother. "Obia," which means "first daughter," is a common name in certain parts of Nigeria.
"The first time I saw my products in the store, I started crying," she says. "It feels good to scan your product, and your name pops up on the register."
But it's been hard work, too. Ewah, who grew up in Rowlett, works six to seven days a week -- putting in more hours than at a full-time job or even medical school. She's missed two weddings and countless birthday parties.
She hopes to return to medical school someday, but in the meantime, she's still making a difference. Women, including those who have cancer, have told her how much the product has helped them.
"Stories like that make it worth it," she says.