How Beauty’s Leading Black Founders Are Driving Opportunity
Cara Sabin, chief executive officer, Sundial Brands
Cara Sabin has more than 20 years of beauty experience at companies such as Clinique, Nars, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal and Sundial Brands, where she is now ceo. Before beauty, Sabin helped launch Capital One Financial’s first “What’s in Your Wallet?” campaign.
Danessa Myricks, makeup artist and founder, Danessa Myricks Beauty
Danessa Myricks has been a makeup artist for 20 years. She founded her eponymous cosmetics company and has traveled the world educating aspiring artists about makeup via Danessa Myricks University.
Shani Darden, aesthetician and founder, Shani Darden Skin Care
Shani Darden is a celebrity aesthetician who founded her skin-care line in 2013. Darden’s Retinol Reform has become a cult favorite, and the line entered Sephora in 2020.
Trinity Mouzon Wofford, cofounder and chief executive officer, Golde
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At the age of 23, Trinity Mouzon Wofford cofounded Golde, a wellness company promoting beauty from within. Through Golde’s approachable and affordable offerings, Wofford aims to make wellness more inclusive.
Jackie Aina, content creator and founder, Forvr Mood
Jackie Aina is one of beauty’s most prominent online voices, earning the NAACP’s YouTuber of the Year award in 2018. She is the founder of lifestyle brand Forvr Mood and executive producer of forthcoming documentary “Social Beauty.”
They Are Wearing: Shanghai Fashion Week Spring 2021
Black women account for 21 percent of all female-owned businesses in the U.S., but they also face disproportionate challenges when it comes to securing funding and distribution. In beauty, for example, research compiled by WWD Beauty Inc shows that Black-owned brands comprise less than 5 percent of the online assortment in major retailers in the U.S.
While the 2020 civil rights movement sparked a boom in business for Black-owned indie beauty brands, many of which are self-funded, a number have also been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Buy Black phenomenon drew consumers of all races while raising questions about the depth of their commitment.
To better understand the challenges and opportunities for Black female founders in beauty today, WWD Beauty Inc asked Cara Sabin, chief executive officer of Sundial Brands, to lead a virtual discussion with four entrepreneurs: Danessa Myricks, ceo of Danessa Myricks Beauty; Shani Darden, founder of her eponymous skin-care brand; Trinity Mouzon Wofford, founder of Golde, and influencer and creator of Forvr Mood Jackie Aina. Speaking via Zoom, the panelists shared their thoughts, insights and feelings about what the year has wrought thus far — and hope for what it will bring.
Cara Sabin: 2020 has been a year unlike any other, with ups and downs and surprises. How are you all doing?
Danessa Myricks: I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much as I’ve cried in my life this year. Ironically, in spite of it all, this has been the best year that my business has had. That makes me very optimistic for what the future looks like for brands like mine and how we’ll be able to sustain moving forward.
Shani Darden: I’m hanging in there. It’s been a roller coaster. We’ve been closed for a while, but I’m grateful that I had just launched in Sephora. I’ve had a lot more time to focus on my product line.
Trinity Mouzon Wofford: It’s been a whirlwind. 2020 was an explosive moment for Golde. We saw upward of a 10x increase from 2019 in revenue. It has been a positive for me in that way — I’ve been able to focus in on that and haven’t had as much of an opportunity to feel stressed about everything that is happening in the universe right now.
Jackie Aina: First, it was extreme paranoia because of all that’s going on. Then it was being at peace with what you can’t control. I just launched my brand, Forvr Mood, which is one of the bigger highlights of this year. I feel like if I can do this during a pandemic, then bring on whatever the hell else you got for me.
C.S.: This summer, there was a lot of discussion, as you very well know, around buying Black and consumers supporting Black-owned businesses. There’s also an element of, “Is this a call to action because it’s fashionable?” How do we make this something that’s sustainable?
T.M.W.: In June, when this movement to support Black-owned brands kicked off, there were quite a few experiences that I had that felt gross. I had an article come out where I was talking about how weird it is to be a Black founder right now — investors were suddenly hitting me up after they had ghosted me, retailers were reaching out and saying, “We’re super interested in The Honey Pot Company.” I was like, “That’s a different Black-owned brand, but good on you.”
D.M.: For me and my brand, the awareness definitely increased. I think what sustains it are the people who were supporting already. The people who were always there started to shout louder. Suddenly everyone was told to stop and pay attention to Black-owned brands, which was exciting. The thing that felt uncomfortable was when people felt that it was undeserving. I don’t think there’s any Black-owned brand that was creating garbage that suddenly is super successful because people said, “Support Black-owned brands.” People were supporting because these brands have amazing product. It was almost as if the attention was from a charitable space and not legitimate. We have legitimate businesses, strong businesses. We pay a lot of attention to the brands that we’re building and the products that we’re creating.
S.D.: It definitely brought great brands to light and I just hope that it can continue. Only time will tell.
C.S.: Jackie, you’re both a business owner and entrepreneur, but you also have worked with a lot of major brands. Have you seen the partnerships that you have with those brands change?
J.A.: I’m not interested in being a token, in filling a quota. It takes levels to get to that point in my career, and that’s something that I always try to tell my audience, when they are comparing other influencers — other Black influencers, Black creators — to me. I have to explain to them, “You can’t be so harsh on them because they’re not always in a position professionally to, I guess, play the bigger card.” A small, small, small part of me is skeptical because I communicate with my audience and I know what the conversations are about Black-owned brands before I became one. It was things like, “Why do they charge so much money? Why do they not have good customer service?” Now that we’re all talking about buying Black again — because we’ve been through this a couple times — is it going to be long term? Are we going to actually make long-term changes? Also, be a little more compassionate. If I’m ordering from a brand that hasn’t been around for years or is a start-up, I’m not going to expect them to ship a product the next day, the same way a huge conglomerate would. I’m going to give them slack. I’m not going to judge them as harshly as a Walmart or Target. I hope that we as consumers can continue to do that as well.
C.S.: Each of you are meeting this with skepticism but also optimism. What will it take for this to not just be a blip and be something that is sustainable, where Black-owned businesses are widely and broadly accepted within the beauty industry and not the flavor of the month?
T.M.W.: We need to see the level of enthusiasm and funding coming to these brands that they need so that they can have access to the same opportunities as non-Black-owned businesses. As someone who bootstrapped her company for over three years, I can speak to the level of opportunity that we didn’t necessarily have compared to brands that were easily getting additional funding or had the right connections to make things work from Day One. With our business, we can prove the fact that we have the revenue, we have the press, the product, and now we can go have these conversations. I feel empowered to get out there as not just a Black-owned business, but a really great company.
C.S.: A lot of the work that we do at Sundial and Shea Moisture is working with Black founders in those early stages, which are so treacherous. It’s not a secret that venture capital funding is not as accessible. How were you able to secure that so you could grow your business?
D.M.: I’ve been in business since 2004 and re-branded in 2015. It wasn’t until days before the pandemic that I moved into an office. I operated my business out of my home all this time, so I literally lived in my workspace on piles of clothes. Every penny that was earned went right back into the business, and I worked the whole time I was creating the brand, which is a different perspective as a business owner when you have to do things outside of what you’re trying to create while you’re creating and building your brand.
Throughout my journey, even though people believed in my talent, they never believed enough to participate financially. They all are here now, but now, I don’t have an interest. The pandemic has forced us all to be still and in that stillness, I realized that I can create more, I can create on a larger scale through my own efforts and do it in a way that doesn’t cost as much money and doesn’t take as much time. I’ve thought of so many other ways in which I can pivot and not have to rely on any financial support from anyone else. I want people to know, through all of our examples, that even if people say no to you all the time and don’t see your value and don’t see your purpose, you can still do it on your own. Funding for a woman is difficult. Funding for a Black woman seems impossible.
C.S.: Jackie, you have gone from — and still are — a content creator to working with businesses and brands and being a collaborator and launching collections to launching Forvr Mood. How has that process been for you?
J.A.: We started discussing Forvr about two years ago. Much like what Danessa was saying about getting funding, it was like, everybody loved me, but nobody wanted to pay up. I had no idea how to start a brand, I had no idea even what conversations to have. Thank God my fiancé is in investment banking. He was the one who broke down, “This is how much this is going to cost, this is what you can do and I think we should do this ourselves.” I was like, “Self-fund a business?” I don’t know a lot of successful Black people that I can directly come to for advice who have done that. I don’t have that security blanket of someone helping me or someone being invested. He was the one who made it feel possible. Now I feel like I have a little bit more leverage because I’ve proven, with us selling out in four hours, that this can be successful.
C.S.: On one hand, people think it’s a superpower that Black women have that we can conquer the world and take on an extraordinary amount of challenge and persevere. But it also sounds like it was done out of necessity. Oftentimes, we feel obligated to take on everything and do it ourselves. But we really need people to help us, support us. How do you get through those tough times when you feel overwhelmed?
S.D.: As far as self-doubt, I have a really good team. I opened my first studio about a year ago — I was working out of my house for a while — and I built a small team when I opened my studio. That’s gotten me through all the changes.
T.M.W.: I have my cofounder, who is also my fiancé, and we built the brand together. He’s responsible for all the beautiful package design and product photography. We have built out a team of six people, though it’s just myself and cofounder and one other person who are full time. Having the right people around you is critical. I value the fact that my partner and I did everything ourselves to start because we understood what we didn’t know.
D.M.: The actual customers, the people who have interacted with me throughout my career, were a strong force in me continuing to move forward. Something that’s important to unpack is that Jackie is unarguably one of the most influential women in beauty and did not get support. That’s how challenging it is for us to move forward. Her audience made it very clear what her power was. For me, it was the same.
C.S.: I’ve been in the beauty industry for about 17, 18 years. I’ve been through lots of different cycles. I’m really curious, what is exciting you right now? It may seem like an odd question because 2020 is such an upside down year. But what brands, what categories, are inspiring you?
T.M.W.: The wellness piece is huge for us. At Golde, we have a couple of superfood face masks, but our real core are these powders that you can add to lattes, your morning coffee, smoothies. There’s such an exciting opportunity to tell that story around beauty starting from within, especially for the younger audience that we target — that Gen Z to early Millennial girl who has been very excited about self care for a while, but doesn’t have a brand to champion yet. The wellness space today tends to be dominated by offerings that are more prestige. I love prestige, but it’s important to take this category of wellness and make it more accessible. It’s a movement that’s going to be even bigger than just one company.
S.D.: Beauty is such a big thing now, especially now that people are at home. It’s been great that people have had time to focus on taking care of themselves and using the right products. I think that we all needed that.
D.M.: I’m excited about the idea of diversity as a whole in beauty — not just culturally, but from product positioning, brand positioning. Finally, people realize that there’s more than one type of person that lives on the planet. We all have different ideas about makeup. Consulting with other brands, one of the things that bothered me the most was innovation was never top of mind in terms of audience. It was like, what worked last year, the year before, what worked for that other brand that’s hot right now, not necessarily forward movement. The success of the indie brand and all that’s happening in the world has opened people up to the possibility that people can be different, brands can be different, product offerings can be different. It creates more opportunity for people to create on the level that they’ve always wanted to.
J.A.: I’m with Trinity. I’m excited to see people take wellness and self care a lot more seriously, especially Black women. We’re always at the forefront of a lot of different movements, and we’re always expected to do it all and be magical. Sometimes it’s good to just be like, “How are you, though? Are you OK? Are you good?” In the wellness slash self-care category, either products are way too expensive or they’re not marketed toward someone like me — or both. I created Forvr Mood to fill that void. I also wanted it to be on the glam side because I wanted something that would look cute in an Instagram photo. I want to see more people taking self care to the next level and being consistent with it.
C.S.: We talked about the call to action to support Black-owned businesses. The other side of that has been a demand for greater transparency from a lot of the established brands in the industry. Four years ago, if a brand on Instagram posted Black Lives Matter, they would have been met with so much backlash and controversy. This summer, I was ambivalent, to be honest with you. On one hand, good, they’re declaring that Black lives matter. But it started to feel like it was more performative and not authentic. Another thing that had come out of that movement was Pull Up for Change, which was started by Sharon Chuter from Uoma Beauty. Jackie, you were supportive of Sharon in that movement that she led. What has been your perspective on calling for greater transparency, particularly because you do have influence with a lot of larger brands you’ve partnered with?
J.A.: It was genius of Sharon to call this out and to stand her ground and make it an actual call to action. It gave people checklists. It was so plain and simple: freeze shopping with these brands for 48 hours and wait for them to pull up. In beauty, we see a lot of people trying to, and this is not in a bad way, but we’re seeing a lot of brands trying to replicate what Fenty has done and the imprint they’ve stamped in the industry now. I guess better late than never. It’s not enough to have 45 foundation shades. That benefits your bottom line either way. It’s important to me to know that the people I’m communicating with behind the scenes and the people that are applying to work at these jobs are getting the same opportunities, too. And not only are they getting the same opportunities, but you’re not going out of your way to prevent them from getting those opportunities — because that happens, too. Sharon’s impact, that was everything. Supporting that was easy.
C.S.: Round of applause for Sharon. She really did do that. I would love for everyone to know all of the cool stuff that you’ve been working on that you’re proud of.
D.M.: The [Danessa Myricks] University has been important to me. Education has always been at the forefront of my career because when I started, there was nothing available. Over the last few years, I’ve learned so much, being able to travel all over the world and interact on every continent with artists and makeup enthusiasts. I’ve gone to places where people never physically saw a Black person in real life. I remember a trip that I took to Brazil. So much of the audience response was, “Oh my God, there’s a Black woman standing on this stage teaching and people came here to pay money to see her.” It just really showed me how much more work there is to do.
S.D.: I launched in Sephora the month that [the pandemic] started. I was set to have a big party and we had to cancel that. I was so afraid that no one would support the brand because obviously we wanted to be sensitive to what was going on. I had reached out to a lot of people and they were like, “I don’t think I can post.” Luckily, people realized that I was a small business owner, and I got a ton of support through that. The great part of all of this for me is that I used to work all the time — five to six days a week. I would do back-to-back facials all day long. I wouldn’t have been able to slow down. When we open again, I can say that I’m not going to be coming back full-time. And I’ve been able to put out more content.
T.M.W.: We have five new products that are all launching in the next few months. It’s been busy over here. We also have a really exciting retail launch coming in January. Keep an eye out.
J.A.: With Forvr Mood, not only am I excited about its birth, but it’s cool to step into my new role of content creator to actual brand owner. Candles are our hero product, but it’s eventually going to grow into a lifestyle brand. With our launch, we sold out the slowest week of the year for candles. My manufacturer was both shook and confused. Now that we’re stepping into fall and winter, if you’re a candle hoarder like me, then you know what time it is. I’m excited about the content that I have this year. I’m also excited about “Social Beauty,” the documentary that I’m working on not only because of my involvement in it personally, but because this is going to share the stories of what a lot of Black women in this industry have contributed — and not just influencers either. It’s going to show the corporate side, too.
Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of the conversation. For a full transcript, see WWD.com
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