It all started with a promise...
My name is Danielle Obe, and this is my story.
After my young daughter had just finished her weekly swimming lesson, her latest swim cap had let water in… again.
They just aren’t designed for the way our hair grows. What followed was an ordeal we are all too familiar with, attempting to shampoo and condition the damaging chlorine out of my daughters hair.
My daughter got so upset that a couple of other well-intentioned swimmers raised concerns with the Duty Manager, who came to do a well-being check.
Never in my life would it have occurred to me that someone would have thought I wanted to harm my daughter. The one I had carried, nursed, and have done my utmost to love, cherish and protect.
That swim cap, the one that couldn't protect her for just an hour, was symbolic of so much more. It represented her freedom. Her empowerment. Her opportunity. Her happiness.
That was it. With tears in my eyes and a heavy heart, that was the moment that I vowed to make a change. For my daughter, and all the women and girls before her.
I didn’t know how at that moment, but I knew I would. That was the start of Obé. A promise from a mother to a daughter. One that I was going to move heaven and earth to fulfil. It may sound dramatic I know, but it acted as the catalyst for an idea that could change well... everything.
Be the change you want to see
I want to live in a world where my children are able to enjoy the water, without fear or feeling like there isn’t a place for them. Particularly when it comes to being able to swim. It is more than a valuable life skill, it is a basic human right.
So many unnecessary deaths occur each year, that disproportionately affect people of colour, because they do not swim. What started with Obé, has led me on to co-found and Chair the Black Swimming Association (BSA).
There are many barriers to people of colour participating in aquatics, with the BSA we are working hard to make it more accessible for all. But, there is one I am looking to address with Obé. A big barrier that impacts me, my daughter, and many others I have found on this journey...our hair.
Throughout history, hair has been a symbol used to identify status, wealth, and religion. It's our crowning glory. It allows us to express our personality, our style, and our professionalism.
All hair is beautiful, but not all hair is the same. Caucasian hair, is largely easy to manage, maintain and style. By comparison, Black and Afro Caribbean hair takes a significant investment in time, money, and maintenance to keep it protected and looking good. A leisurely swim could result in an intensive shampooing and conditioning session to limit long term damage. But, when it comes to our hair, the issue is much bigger than just swimming.
We turn down going on spa dates with friends, we panic when getting caught in the rain popping to the shops, and we don't even consider visiting splash parks with the kids.
That impacts not only our opportunities but our quality of life. We spend so much of our energy avoiding everyday activities that involve water. It has almost become second nature, impacting our quality of life.
We miss out on so much of life because what exists is not fit for purpose and it is far easier to just avoid it. How can we encourage our daughters to get into the water when we don't? I realised that it starts with me. If I do not swim, neither do my children. After all, they are what they see.
Generational aquaphobia is limiting our kids and our grandchildren and our grandchildren's children from the huge benefits that come with participating in water. They aren't learning how to keep safe, seeing aquatics as a career path or even just having fun. I am on a mission to change that.
Through my work with Obé and the BSA, I want to empower all communities to embrace water and find their place within it.
Time to get to work
Along with my personal experiences with swim caps, I spent months researching the existing offering. Working with focus groups to understand the challenges they had faced from using them. Anything to seek out key insights that might help me to revolutionise the space.
I quickly found there seemed to be a common thread. Swimming caps were simply not designed with versatile, afro hair in mind.
It was like a light bulb moment. And any attempts at tackling the issue seemed flawed. They were all based on adaptations of the original design, rather than thinking outside the box.
I felt the long-standing barriers around water needed innovative thinking, not the same thinking in a different way.
Away from the pool, I started to think about - as a community - what we use to protect our hair. Then it dawned on me… a wrap.
Wrapping our hair is part of our culture. It is what we do. What if it could be revolutionised to protect our hair from water, whilst we look good doing it? Would that help make water more accessible to people of colour?
Obé was born
An innovative waterproof, hypoallergenic head scarf. The tool that will empower women into feeling confident, and protected in and around water. Creating an opportunity for participation, without the barriers.
It has been designed for functionality and to deliver on the promise of keeping hair protected whilst in the water, but I wanted to give it more of a lifestyle feel to encourage users to build a longer-term relationship with the water.
A journey full of ebbs and flows
My mission started because I wanted to enable my daughter to learn a valuable life skill. Now, it is the potential to improve the quality of life for communities all over the world. That gravity is not wasted on me.
But, like the waves of the ocean, this journey has not been all plain sailing.
After all of the research and product development, lots of testing was done, and we arrived at what we thought was the perfect solution. The samples were great. The fit was just right. Pre-orders went through the roof. Then… disaster!
Just like those countless swimming caps had failed my daughter, I had been failed. The factory I had trusted and worked with for months had not delivered on their promise.
The products that had been so carefully curated, were no better than bin bags. There were a lot of tears, a huge amount of heartbreak, and the difficult task of letting all of those who had pre-ordered down. It felt like rock bottom and that weight of responsibility pressed down upon me.
Then I remembered that promise to my daughter. So, I had to dust myself off and get back up. My sadness was strong, but my determination for change was stronger.
Fate stepped in, and led me to Tiger Global. A company that specialises in product development. They have 18 years’ experience, an office based in the UK and Shanghai. And, after meeting with them, I knew Obé would be in safe hands and here we are.