It's no secret that the beauty industry has — and continues to — systemically repress and fail Black people. It's in the statistics, the stories, and, most recently, well documented by the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign on Instagram. Created by UOMA Beauty's Sharon Chuter to document the number of Black employees in leadership, headquarters, and office roles, the @pullupforchange account has pulled back the curtain on just how many self-proclaimed anti-racist brands don't have a single Black individual in their C-suite. In response, the movement to support Black-owned and lead beauty brands has been swift; though knowing how to start your own beauty brand for those inclined to take the reins themselves remains as confusing as ever.
To break down exactly what it takes to find your footing in the ever-changing industry, The Zoe Report reached out to three beauty brand founders via email: Founder, CEO, and Creative Director of UOMA Beauty Sharon Chuter, Founder and CEO of OrganiGrowHairCo Kay Cola, and Founder and CEO of Naturalicious Gwen Jimmere. Below, a behind-the-scenes look on how the trio of industry leaders began their brands.
Getting Started: Sharon Chuter of UOMA Beauty
How did you first get into the beauty industry?
Sharon Chuter: "Total accident, I just stumbled across it. I wanted to be a singer. Long story short, I brought Revlon to Nigeria. Once I did that, I loved it. I had found a career that allowed me to use my academic side and my creative side."
How did you first conceptualize your brand? Any original names or ideas that didn't make it past the cutting room floor?
Chuter: "UOMA as a brand is exactly what I had pictured when I thought of it! It’s always been my mission to celebrate diversity and celebrate Black culture. When I first had this concept I never could have dreamt that I would come out of the gate in 203 Ulta stores, or launching in Selfridges. Nothing stayed on the cutting room floor — if anything, things keep adding on and evolving, getting bigger.
So much of breaking into beauty seems to be a mix of luck, networking, and intense ambition. What helped you get your start?
Chuter: "I think tenacity played huge role. When I started — I just started. I had nothing. People assume that I had a bunch of contacts coming from my corporate background, but I didn’t. Once I left, I also left my contacts behind. I started by sending one email, then two and three — then people respond and then you have 10,000 unread emails in your inbox! Sometimes it is luck, but for the most part it’s me keeping it moving and learning."
As the creative director, how do you take a product idea from thin air and make it into a product?
Chuter: "I work backwards, sort of like a fashion designer. I start from a concept, a story I want to tell. For example, our last launch was the Carnival collection. I was inspired by the Carnival celebrations around the world — and thought, 'I wanna do something with this.' So then we look at our portfolio and see how this concept would fit into our existing product families. Then work on a mood board — colors, feathers, jewels. It was about glamour, sexuality, excess, and being unapologetic. These are all the things I was inspired by. I decided to create an eyeshadow palette and two shades of lipstick to add to our current range, then added a body highlighter since carnival is all about skin and you want to make your body glow. The feathers became lash sets. The colors on my mood board translated onto the eyeshadow colors for the palette."
The First Year Of Business: Kay Cola of OrganiGrowHairCo
How did you first get into the haircare and then skincare industries?
Kay Cola: "I originally got into haircare trying to repair my own heat-, bleach-, weave-damaged hair. In addition, my then 5-year-old daughter came home and told me she wanted to straighten her hair because everybody else at her school’s hair was straight. My goal was to make other girls never feel like that ever again and inspire my daughter to love her own hair. Once I realized how bad these products on the market were for our bodies, I decided it was time for better. I got into skin because I had always had sensitive skin. My kids had eczema and I noticed when I used pure, raw ingredients my skin reacted well to them. My friend who had just finished battling breast cancer was making butters and scrubs at the time, so we decided to partner up and create an entire skincare line."
What was the first year of business like?
Cola. "The first year of my business I wanted to quit. I cried, I didn’t sleep, I barely ate, my health deteriorated, and I didn’t spend time with family and friends. I invested my entire savings creating this business. I didn’t have any investors or outside capital. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way but it all ended up being a blessing and, slowly but surely, I found my way and was able to make enough progress that I could hire help. Today, OrganiGrowHairCo has around 25 employees!"
How daunting is it to create a beauty brand, when the market is already so huge?
Cola: "I’m a firm believer that what is for you is for you and it doesn’t matter how many people have created something similar. If you focus on your brand, yourself and stay true to your identity, you will be successful. I also firmly believe in keeping your intentions pure. Customers see right through you if you are not being honest about your brand or yourself."
Keeping It Going: Gwen Jimmere of Naturalicious
What helped you get your start? Any educational programs, seminars, books, etc. you would recommend?
Gwen Jimmere: "Nowadays, there is a very low barrier to entry in starting a beauty brand. Almost anyone can source ingredients, start mixing things up in their kitchen, create a simple website, make some posts about it on Instagram, and begin making sales. Growing and scaling the brand is a different story. I advise putting yourself in places and around people that can help you get to where you want to go. That means attending beauty industry events, participating in industry trade shows, joining mastermind groups that are comprised of people who are looking to scale just like you. So many of my 'lucky breaks' are due to me being at the right industry event at the right time with the right people. But the most important thing is that I'm always prepared when the moment occurs."
What was getting a deal with Ulta Beauty like? What advice do you have for younger companies trying to get a spot in major retailers?
Jimmere: "Getting into Ulta was one of those 'lucky break' moments where preparation and opportunity collided. Ready for a great story? I once hired a broker to help me get Naturalicious into some major retail chains. I told them Ulta was my dream retailer and that's where I wanted them to focus first. Right away, they told me that Naturalicious was not an Ulta brand. When I pressed them, they pretended that they reached out to an Ulta buyer who allegedly said they weren't interested because our 'packaging was low end.' I knew that a lie because as much as our packaging costs me, there was no way that it could possibly be deemed as 'low end.' I fired them because, if they weren't able to buy into the vision I had as the leader of the company, they weren't the right partners for us. Fast forward a year. I attended an industry event in New York City. I was chatting with a gentleman at one of the tables when a woman sat right next to me. I looked at her badge and it said 'Director of Emerging Brands, Ulta.' What are the odds of me sitting right next to the exact decision-maker for my dream retailer? The man happened to know the woman and he introduced us. She and I hit it off immediately, I truly liked her personality and I could tell the feeling was mutual. As I say, I'm always prepared. So when she and I started talking about Naturalicious, I already had my retail presentation with me, along with several boxes of full-size samples. She and I kept in touch and three months later she contacted me to let me know that Ulta was going to start selling Naturalicious."
Any words of wisdom to pass on to young women — in particular young Black women — looking to break into the corporate side of the beauty industry?
Jimmere: "Breaking into the industry isn't as tough as staying in it and growing and scaling within it. For women in general, my advice is to trust your own genius. I spent a lot of time having great ideas and feeling the need to have them validated by other people in order to move forward. Then one day I realized I am excellent at what I do and I didn't need any other person to cosign on my own genius. When I started to lean into that, that's when we really started to blow up. In particular for Black women: The distribution of wealth and financial resources has historically been far less proportionate for Black people than our non-Black counterparts. The same has been the case when it comes to acquiring capital to run our businesses, which ultimately leads to a means of preventing Black founders from creating generational wealth for our families and our community. But now, there are a growing number of Black and brown venture capitalists and investors who are specifically interested in funding Black founders. I encourage Black entrepreneurs to seek them out and do business with them. Personally, I have benefited from Backstage Capital. There are many others, such as Harlem Capital Partners, Cross Culture Ventures, New Voices Fund, and Black Angel Tech Fund to name a few."
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.