For Ramatoulaye Sy, a sophomore finance major from Senegal and the 2019 winner of SUNY Oswego’s LaunchIt student startup competition, her business is about helping people look and feel good, while also doing good.

AfroRock, an all-natural lotion to protect and maintain the hair and scalp, evolved out of Sy’s own needs and also looks to fund educational initiatives back in Senegal. 

For winning LaunchIt, organized by the college’s Enactus student club and School of Business, Sy won $2,000 and an opportunity to advance to future regional competitions. The second-place idea, the friendship and events app Ice Breakers, earned $1,000, with $500 going to third-place entrants The Shipwreck, a proposed burger-based eatery.

Sy earned a scholarship to come to America as a teen to study and play basketball at Masters School in Dobbs Ferry. For her, adjusting to a new culture, strengthening her English skills and excelling in the classroom and hardwood took precedence. Unable to find the products to maintain her hair they way she did back home, she ended up shaving her head at one point.

As her hair regrew, she found that creating a combination of oils and shea butter allowed the kind of hair treatment she desired. Sy eventually learned she wasn’t alone in the challenge of finding a product that could help with specific hair needs, particularly for Africans and African-Americans.

She eventually set up the @afrorock_official Instagram account, which has around 11,700 followers and has influenced Sy following through on her entrepreneurial dream. She sold out her first stock in 24 hours, and currently fills about 100 to 150 orders every two weeks, seeing continuing growth potential.

Sy was particularly encouraged by one of her marketing teachers, Ernest Perfetti, who suggested working on an in-class marketing plan, and later encouraged her to enter the competition.

Social benefits

The product gets assembled back in Senegal and uses shea butter from the area. Sy said she had the opportunity to do both cheaper elsewhere, but she wanted the project to have a positive impact on where she came from -- and has seen that people would pay for the quality product that results.

“I wanted to be a social entrepreneur,” Sy said. “It was important to me that this could create job opportunities for a challenged region.”

She is launching a campaign where a portion of all Afro Rock lotion sales will help buy school supplies in Senegal. But Sy dreams bigger, planning to add a line of clothing that will generate funds to help renovate schools in the African nation.

“Winning the competition is really helping out on the marketing side,” Sy said. “The fact that we’re getting recognition outside of Senegal, and especially in the United States, shows the product must be doing something right.”

A third-team all-conference forward for the Laker women’s basketball team her freshman year Sy continues to star in her sophomore year. Her advice for potential entrepreneurs is to not let fear of failure block them from reaching their goal.

“My biggest advice to young entrepreneurs is to not be scared to fail,” Sy said. “Put your ideas into action. If it works, explore it. If it doesn’t work, try something else. If you fail, that’s just part of the process.”