This time last year, the brutal murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others forced the world to finally reckon with the reality of racism and police violence in America. While this reality is not new, the stillness created by modern history’s most harrowing pandemic brewed the perfect and unfortunate conditions for people to pay attention more than ever before. An unprecedented number of protestors took to the streets and to social media pressuring institutions to speak up and commit to change, placing the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront of daily life.
The beauty industry was no exception to the call as investors, influencers, and business giants responded by creating partnerships, releasing statements on increasing employee diversity and injecting funding into Black-owned businesses at rapid fire. Glossier, Tower 28, and Revlon notably created extensive grant and mentorship opportunities exclusive to Black-owned beauty businesses while Sephora shifted its annual Accelerate program to focus on female founders of color. The potential for concrete change finally felt palpable, but now, a year later, it begs the question: Have those initial promises been kept and carried on?
“It really was a black square post and go situation,” says Olamide Olowe, co-founder and CEO of award-winning skin care brand TOPICALS. “A lot of [brands] did it just to not get backlash. It was a fad that has died down.” Criticism notwithstanding, Olowe acknowledges that much of the initial reaction to the protests in the form of accelerator programs and investor interest catapulted brands forward, including her own, as TOPICALS won a spot in Sephora’s most recent Accelerate class. “It took forever to raise the amount of money we did, but in one month we raised [more] than we did in two years.”
Marie Kouadio Amouzame and Alice Lin Glover, co-founders of EADEM, another Sephora Accelerate brand, credit the program with getting their foot in the door. “When we applied for the program we were still very much in our pre-launch phase,” says Kouadio Amouzame. “The Sephora program has given us a vital community of peers and mentors to help us build EADEM from the ground up,” Glover adds. EADEM’s first product, launched in May 2021, was met with enthusiasm and sold out within the first three weeks.
While brands felt the boost from the industry shift, the increased attention revealed the need for a more comprehensive approach to uplifting Black businesses. “In June 2020 alone we did more in revenue than the entire year of 2019,” Golde founder Trinity Mouzon Wofford says. “It was equal parts exciting, terrifying, and also devastating because of the context in which it was happening. There was a lot of genuine progressive effort toward bringing more equity to Black folks, but with that, inevitably, there was a lot to parse through. Some people just wanted to relieve themselves of any type of guilt. They were quick to do whatever superficial steps to brush that off.”
Asia Grant, founder of the natural skin care brand REDOUX quickly came to a similar realization. “We went from less than 50 orders a month to 50 orders a day,” she says. Retailers and influencers alike were reaching out to stock and partner with the brand. “I realized that some of the relationships could be performative. I felt like I needed to look at the broader picture and get a sense of intention about why someone wanted to enter into a relationship with us or stock us.” She adds that when she would speak with potential partners about their long term diversity plans, many were open to the discussion while others wouldn’t so much as respond to her emails.
“The wrong partnership can break a business,” says Mouzon Wofford. “Alongside the call to bring in more Black-owned brands we also need to be providing that mentorship to early stage folks who haven’t worked with a retailer.”
Fanfare has inarguably died down, but the initiatives that remain have driven stakes further into the ground, paving the way for true change makers. “There were a lot of big statements made, but I haven’t really seen it come to fruition,” says Jae Joseph, co-founder of Black Apothecary Office, an incubator program for Black-owned, personal care businesses. “It tells me that what we are creating is definitely still needed. It’s not just about buying Black but building Black.”
Launched in 2020, Black Apothecary Office challenges the accelerator model that traditionally doles out relatively small investments while taking precious equity. “Money can be helpful, but it’s somewhat throwing money at the problem. You need someone on your team who knows data and research — that do you do with resources and who do you speak to in terms of mentorship?,” says Joseph. BAO focuses on practicing community and understanding the nuances that can get lost when majority brands attempt to reach Black consumers. “Within ten years we aim to help 100 brands, bring them under us and create a community,” says BAO co-founder, Brianna Wise. This June, Black Apothecary Office launched its eponymous Papaya Essentials skin care line and will soon follow-up with its first cohort of five vendors across the skin and hair care categories.
Inside legacy brands, executives and leadership teams have turned attention inward with varying results. Reports of mistreatment of BIPOC employees have continued to be unveiled via the industry insider Instagram account @esteelaundry, and critics of diversity task forces have voiced concerns over marginalized employees performing unpaid labor at the benefit of larger conglomerates. However, some brands are getting it right.
“I’ve seen both sides and good companies are making an effort to show their employees they aren’t performative by hiring outside professionals who specialize in DEI and making sure that it's not a one-time event and then washing their hands of it,” says fragrance and beauty marketer Brittney Moseley Jackson. “It’s not about giving us Juneteenth off, it’s about a conscious effort you can see from the executive team to seek knowledge and make sure that their employees feel comfortable.”
Of the 300+ brands that initially shared data with Pull Up For Change, the non-profit organization demanding businesses transparently divulge employee demographic numbers, MAC Cosmetics was one of the few to give a one-year update. The company provided insight into its hiring data, philanthropic efforts, internal training, and product development strategy which included shade range extensions for two popular foundation formulas. Sephora US continued to make good on its original partnership with The 15% Pledge by committing to increase its Black-owned brand selection to 16 by the end of 2021. Most recently, a slew of industry players including Briogeo, Flower Cosmetics, Revlon, and Morphe partnered with Make It Black, a grant initiative led by Pull Up For Change, to raise $370,000 in seed funding for new, Black-owned beauty companies which will be awarded this summer.
Overall, progress has waxed and waned since last year, with the most substantial efforts led by Black founders themselves. The reality is, there is always more to be done. “There’s still not enough access,” says Kristina Johnson, founder of the forthcoming brand Beauty x THE GRL. Despite winning a $10,000 grant via KNC School of Beauty last year, raising additional funds has proven arduous. “Even the marketing of grants needs to be better. The pipeline, the access — there needs to be more funds,” she says.
“The typical barriers for investors to meet and talk with Black founders came down during quarantine, but investors don’t share the same circles as Black and brown founders,” Olowe notes. “Black entrepreneurs are over-mentored and under-funded,” says Mouzon Wofford. “There is an assumption we are all early stage or don’t know what we are doing, but we are just as capable as majority founders and can move through the levels of growth faster if we are seen that way.”
It is imperative that beauty industry leaders understand that supporting Black founders and employees is not a charitable moment. Without diverse perspectives, everyone suffers. “Black people don’t just make things for Black people,” says Grant. “And not only Black people buy from Black-owned brands. We are dynamic and there are so many Black people doing great work.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on 7/1/21 at 11:33 pm EST to reflect that TOPICALS participated in the Sephora Accelerate program, not the Glossier grant program, & Beauty by The Girl is formatted as Beauty x THE GRL.