Very few people have a career that’s an entirely straight path; most’s include a winding road of dabbling in different industries and deciding what’s really right for them—and to say that was the case for Dafina Smith is an understatement.
The powerhouse has done just about everything, from being a buyer for Bloomingdale’s to working in real estate (where she closed deals for high-end clients like Beyoncé—yes, that Beyoncé). Now? She’s the CEO of her own hand-tied extension company, Covet & Mane.
Along the way, she’s had ups, downs, and many lessons about how to know when you’re in an industry that’s actually a fit. She’s spilling them all here, along with the details of her anything-but-boring path so far. Need some career inspiration? Look no further than Dafina Smith.
Name: Dafina Smith, Founder/ CEO of Covet & Mane
Current Location: Westport, CT
Education: Georgetown University
What was your first job and how did you land it?
My first job was the Junior Buyer Training Program at Macy’s when I was 13. I learned about it from a posting at my high school and I was obsessed with the idea that we would advise buyers on trends, and plan fashion shows and in-store events at Macy’s at The Mall of America, which in the early ’90s was peak mall culture. I interviewed and had to obtain a work permit to be allowed to work. I was the youngest person in the program and I loved that job so much.
You’re a Georgetown alumnus—when you were in college, what were your career plans? Did those change?
When I was in college I had ambitions to work within politics. I thought I would join the Foreign Service and eventually become an ambassador or work within the State Department. I interned for the RFK Memorial and was a part of Americorps during college and it really shaped my love of social justice.
When I studied abroad at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, something about the society and that experience being so intense and so visceral as it was in a transition from Post-Apartheid to Representational Democracy was exhausting for me. I realized that I did not want to engage in that career pathway. I came back from my junior year abroad and decided that I wanted to either be a buyer or work as a paralegal at a White Shoe Law Firm. I ended up with a job in Bloomingdale’s Buyer Training program.
I’ll be honest, my early career was just a typical episode leading up to a quarter-life crisis.
From being a buyer at Bloomingdales to working in realty and closing deals for the likes of Beyonce, you’ve had quite the career journey! Take us through the early stages of your career and how you ended up where you are today.
I’ll be honest, my early career was just a typical episode leading up to a quarter-life crisis. I had just turned 21, moved to NYC in 2000 and I was navigating a lot of sudden responsibility. I realized week one of my professional career that I was not cut from a corporate-world cloth. I liked the work; I did not like the people nor the culture, especially within the fashion industry. I knew I had a lot to learn and so I approached my career with a sense of humble curiosity. I tried to stick it out as long as I could at Bloomingdales because it literally taught me everything I use today to run a successful business. There aren’t a lot of roles that give young people that much autonomy and training, and for that, I’m so thankful.
I left Bloomingdales and transitioned to real estate after watching Sidewalks of New York where the character was a real estate agent in NYC, and it just hit me that it was the perfect career to satisfy my love of working with people and voyeuristic curiosity. I came alive in real estate. I was the top producer in my Chelsea office and it led me to work with some really great artists, such as John Mayer and Broadway producers. Eventually, those connections led me to the music industry.
I realized week one of my professional career that I was not cut from a corporate-world cloth. I liked the work; I did not like the people nor the culture, especially within the fashion industry.
I found myself working for Outkast Management Company in Los Angeles and it was such a fun time in my life. My boss Micheal Williams empowered me to explore my interests and learn a lot about the film and TV development process in addition to music. Outkast attorney Darrell Miller and I worked together on several TV development deals and he encouraged me to apply to law school and consider a career as an entertainment attorney. I attended USC Law School, worked at VH1 as a business and legal affairs intern, and realized there that I indeed hated law and ran back to real estate, where I was able to work with close friends and celebrities such as Beyoncé.
If you catch the drift, my career was very serendipitous and not always super intentional. I was young and curious but very humble. I fed my curiosity and sought to work in places that had a good culture and would teach me a lot. I think it’s more common to find founders that have a melange of experiences that they weave together to bring alive a brand.
In 2008, you opened Sunny’s Hair & Wigs, a boutique in Atlanta. What made you decide to get into the beauty industry?
My parents owned the Beauty Supply in Minneapolis and in Mesa, AZ. They very much approached that business as a mom-and-pop beauty supply and I could see the potential that the industry had.
It began as a side project. I would take money from real estate deals I was closing and I used it to design and code an online site that sold a curated assortment of hair extensions and wigs that I believed would translate well to an online consumer. When I left Bloomingdales, I was just starting to see the nascent possibility of e-commerce. I was selling real estate by day and fulfilling orders by night.
When I left Bloomingdales, I was just starting to see the nascent possibility of e-commerce. I was selling real estate by day and fulfilling orders by night.
Then the Great Recession came along and sucker-punched the real estate in Southern California. Real estate came to a stand-still, but the online orders for hair extensions kept coming in and our top market was Atlanta, GA. I truly believe that the Great Recession accelerated something that was already beginning to shift in me.
I took a trip to Mexico with my mother and she and I were on the beach one day just discussing this next fork in my career, and this vision of a flagship experiential hair extension boutique was born on the beach that day.
I wanted to bring my experiential retail experience along with my skills from real estate and music industry to an industry that I felt was not yet elevated. I think the beauty industry is such a visceral and emotional industry because of the emotions we unlock when we allow a woman to look on the outside how she wants to feel on the inside.
Your latest venture is Covet & Mane, a company that sells hand-tied extensions. How did you decide to start your own company? Why extensions?
It really began with a vision. I wanted to create the Chanel of hair extensions, and I saw the transformational power of hand-tied hair extensions when powered with being in the hands of a well-trained artisan. I also saw a lot of issues around the distribution model of hair extensions and lack of standardization in cosmetology school led to a very uneven experience for the client.
I really come alive as a problem solver and innovator, so when I encounter consistent problems in an industry, it’s the ultimate opportunity. So I felt really motivated to create a line that innovated a product that had been around for a long time, and also change and elevate the distribution model so that the client could trust; if someone has access to Covet & Mane, someone has really vetted their hairstylist or salon, and that this stylist is indeed a certified extension specialist.
I also think that while I love a good before and after makeover. As I got older and especially living in New York City, I thought there needed to be a conversation around enhancements vs extensions. I’m a 42-year-old mom of twins who loves a lob, but I lost a lot of hair due to hormonal changes, and I love that hand-tied is available to me as subtle enhancement just as much as it is to someone who wants 28” hair.
I think the beauty industry is such a visceral and emotional industry because of the emotions we unlock when we allow a woman to look on the outside how she wants to feel on the inside.
After you decided you were going to start Covet & Mane, what were the first steps you took? What were the biggest challenges?
The first step was going to China to have in-person conversations with different factory relationships and auditing and visiting the factories to learn more about the process and making sure we were aligned with ethical and upright enterprises. I really also wanted to bring something to market that was going to address the issues that I thought hand-tied hair extensions had. It was so challenging overcoming language barriers and explaining to our factories why we needed to change and innovate hand-tied hair. I invented the cut-point weft that allowed hand-tied hair extensions that normally cannot be cut.
The next challenge was taking the leap of courage to scale and really ramp up production and our purchase orders being a self-funded new business.
What is being a female business owner in the beauty industry like?
I have to say it’s a great industry to be a woman. It’s our playground and I’m so thankful that I’m not at all a pioneer in this industry. I love that the first self-made woman millionaire was from the beauty industry: Madame C. J. Walker. Today it continues with great founders such as Nancy Twine, Rihanna, Pat McGrath, Iman, etc.
What would you say to another woman looking to start her own business in 2021?
Don’t get caught up in the stuff that sucks your joy early on. You don’t need investors, you don’t need a ton of startup money, you don’t need an MBA; you need vision, creativity, actionable plans with deadlines, benchmarks. Don’t invest too much in branding early on. You will need to discover what a brand is. Brand identity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it needs to be a living and breathing product first and then you can iterate and really sharpen the brand voice.
I also believe that it’s best to put as much effort and energy into bringing a product to market that you are obsessed with, and then to set the price. Don’t get caught up in too much in what you need the price to be. It’s so much easier to bring to market a product where you didn’t cut corners on quality. In the end, it will actually save you money because you will have to spend less on customer acquisition and drive sales from referrals and word of mouth.
Don’t get caught up in the stuff that sucks your joy early on.
You’re also a mom to two twin boys. How has becoming a mom influenced your career?
It really humbled me. It was such a jarring experience because I had a very difficult pregnancy and my twins were 10 weeks premature. It made me see that if a business is over-dependent on you to run, then it’s not a business; it’s a job. After having children, I know my limitations and I say no a lot more, I eliminate inefficiencies and I delegate. I have an amazing team and if anything were to happen to me this company is set up for success but still guided by my values and vision.
What career moment are you most proud of thus far?
I was really proud that we were able to fund a 20K Scholarship with Fearless Beauty in 2020. It really was important to me that in a year that broke my heart in so many ways that we could align with a cause that can tie me back into advocating for social justice while still being a CEO.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
People spend too much time worrying about putting locks on their doors, and often the bigger threat is those whom you invite in with open arms. It’s been a nice way of reminding me to be mindful of the company you keep. I’ve taken it to heart and really have a treasure trove of amazing relationships within my family and circle of friends, but most importantly, in my marriage. I married someone who is thoughtful, loving, and kind, and that has been my best security system.
If you could give your 22-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
You have everything you need to conquer the world just as you are.
A celebrity that left you starstruck? Prince
A few favorite Black-owned brands? Oui the People, Beauty by Africa Miranda, Clare Paint, Briogeo.
Your go-to coffee order? Oat Milk Chai Tea Latte with a shot of espresso
Best book you’ve ever read? Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
Last show you binged? Bridgerton (twice)
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why? Dolly Parton. I love her grace, her wit, and her music. I feel like we’d laugh, cry, and I already have the outfit that I would wear planned. (It has rhinestones.)