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Tech, beauty companies should pay more attention to black hair

Commentary: As we see more beauty and cosmetic companies take a dip in the tech world, they would be wise to remember their customers of color.

A picture of a white woman with long, straight hair was my signal that the smart hairbrush that debuted at CES 2017 wasn't for me.

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At first glance, the Kerastase Hair Coach Power by Withings doesn't seem like it was created with black hair in mind.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Kerastase Hair Coach Power by Withings had become one of the most talked-about products at last week's electronics show in Las Vegas. The L'Oreal-owned hair care brand Kerastase worked with the tech company Withings to come up with the hairbrush. It uses a built-in microphone and sensors to gather information about your hair and how you brush it. The Hair Coach is supposed to send that info to the related app over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and you'll get tips on how to treat your hair better.

At first glance, I was sure that the brush was for people who looked like the model on the booth's display, not a black woman like me with thick, kinky hair. The rough bristles are packed together, which curly-haired folks know spells disaster for coils.

Then I spotted Megan Lucey, a Withings rep stationed in front of the display of hairbrushes with shoulder-length curly hair. By her own admission, Lucey has an interesting hair story: Her mother is Irish and Scottish, her father is of African and Native American descent. When her hair is short, her curls form a Z pattern. When it's long, they turn into S-shaped coils. But she's still able to use the Hair Coach brush.

She showed me the settings on the Hair Coach's app that let you create a profile of your hair, including a spot to input what type of curl you have. She only brushes her curls when her hair is wet, but the tech takes into account the differences between her hair and straight hair.

The Hair Coach might not work with every curl type (even if my hair was wet, I wouldn't trust those rough bristles to be gentle with my tight kinks). But the app's acknowledgement of hair that isn't straight (e.g., the hair of black women, women of color and other folks with curls) is a step in the right direction for collaborations between beauty and tech companies.

We saw more gadgets with a focus on health and beauty at CES 2017, and this field will no doubt become more popular in the future. Going forward, companies need to take a cue from L'Oreal and Withings: create products that address the needs of people of color, specifically black people.

It's not just a matter of creating products just for the sake of diversity. There's money to be had. Nielsen, the company that tracks everything from TV ratings to shopping habits, estimates that black people will have $1.3 trillion in buying power this year.

As of 2013, black people purchased nine times more "ethnic beauty and grooming products" than any other racial group, and black households spent an average of $94 annually at health and beauty supply stores, Nielsen reported. And curly hair is lucrative business: In 2015, the research firm Mintel estimated that the sales of products for natural hair (a term black women use to describe hair that is not straightened with chemical relaxers) reached an estimated $946 million, a 26.8 percent increase from 2013.

And we've seen success in Silicon Valley when companies create products intended for black people and other folks of color. Just look at the Bevel shaving system. Tristan Walker, who'd previously worked for Twitter and Foursquare, created Walker and Company and its first product, a line of shaving products specifically for men of color with coarse, curly hair. The company raised $33.3 million in funding and transitioned from online-only to availability in Target stores, the LA Times reported.

It will only be a matter of time before other companies take a cue from L'Oreal and Withings and create a whole array of smart brushes, combs and other hair care and beauty products that use connected technology to make us more beautiful. It makes business sense for these companies to consider the specific beauty needs of black people and other people of color, a market that is willing and able to spend money on beauty tech.