Grad Business and Engineering Students Develop Organic Hair Dye

Two chemical engineering and three M.B.A. students have combined their expertise and concocted a way to create a pure, all-natural hair dye and market it around the world using henna leaves.

Men and women who frequently dye or highlight their hair or are considering a hair color change might have concerns or reservations about the chemical products being used. But thanks to some recent research by Manhattan College graduate students, more people may have the chance to receive a hair dye treatment with all-natural products.

By using henna leaves, two chemical engineering and three M.B.A. students have combined their expertise and concocted a way to create a purely all-natural hair dye and market it around the world. In fact, the project is currently being reviewed by the committee for the 2012 Frontiers in Education Conference, which publishes papers on innovations in engineering education. If accepted for publication, the paper will be featured in the IEEE Xplore digital library as an academic resource paper.

“The joint project on henna has been a great experience for the school of business and the school of engineering students who are offered a glimpse of the real world,” says Gennaro J. Maffia, Ph.D., professor of chemical engineering.

Vrej Pilavdjian and Katherine Rodriguez, both graduate students pursuing an M.S. in Chemical Engineering, and Brian Korney, Caitlin Frazer and Joseph Fernandes, all M.B.A. students, started collaborating last fall and conducting research for the henna project. The engineering team did an independent study with Maffia on growing henna, drying the leaves with a freeze dryer and developing the processing protocols. Meanwhile, the M.B.A. students prepared an analysis of the hair dye industry and a marketing plan under the guidance of Carolyn Predmore, Ph.D., professor of management and marketing, and presented a feasibility study in December to the chemical engineering team.

The interdisciplinary collaboration gave the project a level of thoroughness and completion that would not otherwise have been possible, and provided us with valuable experience in working with professionals outside our own area of expertise.

“Working with my fellow M.B.A. candidates, as well as the engineering students, was a great opportunity,” Fernandes says. “The interdisciplinary collaboration gave the project a level of thoroughness and completion that would not otherwise have been possible, and provided us with valuable experience in working with professionals outside our own area of expertise.”  

“This type of project allowed me to see the dedication and commitment new ventures need but also the payoff that can happen,” Frazer adds.

During the spring semester, the M.B.A. students used the marketing plan and new research from the chemical engineering students to prepare a business plan. In fact, the team of five recently came together to present their findings and business plan to the entire school of business faculty.

The presentation started with a discussion on how henna hair dye works and the findings on what natural ingredients will work best to create a marketable organic product. Afterward, the chemical engineering team explained the process of freeze-drying the henna leaves and how they grow best in warm climates.

The team also identified three primary target markets within the U.S. and reported that the country’s use of natural products has increased 20 percent since 2010. In addition, Japan was described as a secondary market because of its vibrant youth and their constant interest in changing their personal style, sometimes modeled on anime characters. Brazil was also cited as a secondary market due to its beauty-conscious population and government subsidies for plastic surgery.

“The most rewarding aspect of this project to me was to incorporate the market analysis, provided by the business students, with my chemical engineering skills to design a process to create a product that will actually sell in the real world,” Pilavdjian says. “It was true symbiosis at its best.”

The business plan presentation concluded with an explanation of how a potential survey will be sent to prospective customers to find out more information on personal hair care, sustainability and other related topics. In addition, the team highlighted strengthens and weaknesses of the project and future plans.

“Working with the business students for the henna project better prepared me for what I will experience in my career when working on a cross-functional team,” says Rodriquez, a soon-to-be engineer at S.C. Johnson. “Learning about business needs and how to incorporate them while developing a production process is essential to a successful product.”