Black Business Month founders

8 Black Founders Reflect on Their First Year of Business

Every year, more than 600,000 new businesses are started. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 20% of those businesses fail within the first year. Black women founders, in particular, face significant challenges when it comes to building brands that stand the test of time. Despite being the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs, they have historically been the most underfunded. Crunchbase data shows Black women receive less than 0.35% of all VC funding. "You have to prove yourself even though you have the same qualifications as your white counterparts," Common Heir co-founder Angela Ubias says regarding the disparity.

Over the last few years, there's been a concentrated effort to begin closing this funding gap. Thankfully, there are now resources like Fearless Fund, IFundWomen of Color, and Black Girl Ventures that specifically invest in founders of color. Across the beauty and wellness industry, brands like Tower 28 and Glossier have developed grant opportunities for BIPOC founders. And retail giants like Sephora have tailored their incubator programs to focus only on BIPOC-owned brands.

With support like this, Black-owned businesses can thrive for years to come. To further unpack what it takes to make it past year one, we spoke with eight beauty and wellness founders. Ahead, they discuss the highs and lows of their entrepreneurial journey.

Angela Ubias, co-founder and CPO of Common Heir

Angela Ubias, co-founder and CPO of Common Heir

Angela Ubias / Common Heir

Angela Ubias has been in the beauty business for almost ten years. She fell into the industry by chance after landing a job at the beauty manufacturer Texas Beauty Labs. "During the seven years I was there, I grew the team, learned how the products were made, and understood the ins and outs of building a business," Ubias says. 

After several years, Ubias became disenchanted with beauty. When she met her now co-founder Cary Lin, they bonded over their similar sentiments about the beauty business. "Nothing was exciting anymore in terms of innovation, formulation, and format," she says. "Brands also weren't designing products for my community." Noticing this, Ubias and Lin saw an opportunity to create a brand that spoke to BIPOC individuals and their needs. Together, they launched Common Heir in April 2021.

What sets Common Heir apart from other beauty businesses?

"Our approach to formulation and inclusivity is something that sets us apart. We strive to be transparent with our community about our limitations on sustainability and our shortcomings. We always design with our community in mind and want to listen to their feedback to ensure consumer satisfaction. Our level of dialogue isn't always present in other brands."

What were some of the challenges you faced during your first year?

"There were so many small challenges we had to work through. We started this business at the height of the pandemic. I left my job in May 2020 to focus on this business full-time. Even though it was risky, I felt this was my passion, so I took a leap of faith. My co-founder and I were perfect strangers, and we did everything remotely. When we started our fundraising process, it hit me that our pedigrees didn't matter because even though we had all this knowledge, we still had to prove ourselves so much more. Investors looked at us as risky. When some did invest in us, there was a lot of pressure to be successful. I had to work through a lot of internal dialogue about making my business successful."

What should people consider when launching a business?

"You have to make sure you have total conviction in your business because you will encounter obstacles that will affect your resolve. If you start becoming unsure about your business, it will hurt your progress. It's important to do a risk assessment with yourself and be open about the funding and time commitment you can give to the business. Understanding your limits is going to be pivotal in the first year. I always recommend doing some form of beta-testing or grassroots community building to get a feel from your potential consumers."

What advice would you give to aspiring business owners?

"Listen to your intuition and your gut instincts. Anytime I've listened to my instincts, it has always led me down the right path. If something feels like a good idea or a partnership feels right, go for it. I live by this mantra: 'If something is not a love match, then it's not meant to be, and there's no sense in forcing it.' You can apply that to every aspect of your life." 

Brittney Ogike, founder of BEAUTYBEEZ

Brittney Ogike, founder of BeautyBeez

Brittney Ogike / Beautybeez

Brittney Ogike decided to launch BEAUTYBEEZ, a one-stop beauty destination for Black women, because she was dissatisfied with her beauty shopping experience. "I hated going to the beauty supply store because there was no customer service," she says. "The products were just there with no guidance." 

Through BEAUTYBEEZ, Ogike has created a safe space for women of color. The retailer offers a wide selection of Black-owned hair care, skincare, and makeup essentials. Plus, those local to LA can stop into the flagship store for salon services (ranging from braids to waxing).

What were some of the challenges you faced during your first year?

"Because we opened in August 2019, one of our biggest challenges was the pandemic. We were only open for a few months before COVID-19 forced us to shut our location down. We quickly switched to an online platform to provide products to our customers.

On top of that, even though ethnic beauty is supposed to serve us, a lot of decisions are not made by us. As a Black woman, getting through the gatekeepers and telling them about your vision for the business can be challenging. Distributors are male-dominated, so getting buy-in and opening accounts with certain brands was hard. 

I also had to think about marketing and attracting customers. Just because you build something doesn't mean you will automatically attract customers. You need a plan to get the word out and spread the news about your business. There were multiple layers to think about, especially regarding financing. I needed to budget and know my numbers so my business could stay afloat."

What do you know now that would have been helpful in the beginning?

"One thing I am currently doing that would have been beneficial initially is finding other entrepreneurs I could bounce ideas off. Towards the end of my first year, I discovered there were many Black-owned beauty supply stores in LA, so I reached out and joined their group on Facebook. We share our experiences and resources; we lean on each other during tough times, especially during the pandemic. I wish I had connected with these women before I even opened because there were so many lessons I've learned along the way that these women could have taught me in the beginning. Finding a mentor is another layer that would have been helpful. I was looking for people with a unique and specific experience to mine, not realizing that I could learn so much from other retail founders."

What do you envision for the future of BEAUTYBEEZ?

"I want everyone to know about my brand. Right now, my goal is to figure out how my business can get more visibility and awareness. I want us to expand physically. I don't think the company needs to be on every corner, but it does need to be in strategic locations that are easily accessible to customers. It would also be great to expand internationally. There's a lot of demand for multicultural beauty in Europe and Africa, so I would also like to tap into that market."

KJ Miller, co-founder and CEO of Mented

KJ Miller, co-founder and CEO of Mented

KJ Miller / Mented

KJ Miller and her co-founder, Amanda Johnson, graduated from Harvard Business School in 2014. They developed the idea for Mented a year later after Johnson told Miller she'd been looking for the perfect nude lipstick for three years. "That was an 'aha moment' for us because as we continued the discussion, we realized the opportunity was much bigger than lipstick," Miller says. 

Miller and Johnson saw a glaring need for an inclusive makeup brand that made every woman feel seen. Mented officially launched in 2017 and was initially known for its nude lipsticks. They've since expanded into other categories (including complexion) and landed exciting retail partnerships with brands like Target and Macy's.

What were some of the challenges you faced during your first year?

"It's worth noting I tried other businesses that didn't work out and wasn't afraid to walk away from them before the success of Mented. That said, I'd say the biggest challenges were the 'unknowns.' For example, when we ordered our first lipstick components from China, I didn't know that 'FOB' meant the manufacturer wouldn't ship the lipsticks to America. So a few weeks before the launch, I was trying to figure out how to get thousands of lipstick tubes to the United States. It was overwhelming, but we made it work. That experience taught me I could overcome any challenge I face in the future."

What should people consider when launching a business?

"There are a few things I think people should consider during the first year. The first is to have a business plan and finances built out. You don't need to stick to those numbers, but preparing beforehand gives you a good foundation and prepares you for conversations you're going to have with customers, vendors, and partners. Second, know when to walk away. It's important not to continue down a business path solely because you're too scared to walk away. If you're going to walk away from your business, walk quickly so you can pivot to the next opportunity."

What do you think has been the foundation of your success?

"I like to say 'CEO' stands for 'Chief Exploration Officer' because I'm always asking questions and looking for a better way to do something. Ultimately, that has been a big part of Mented's success. I've also been committed to finding the best team members. There's no way Mented would be where it is today without our amazing team."

With the beauty business becoming more saturated, how can companies stand out?

"I never worry about how saturated a market is. The only thing that matters is if you are solving a real customer problem. If you're doing that, you'll find your customers. Or better yet, they'll find you."

Obia Ewah, founder and CEO of Obia Naturals

Obia Ewah, founder and CEO of Obia Naturals

Obia Ewah / Obia Naturals

Obia Ewah's interest in hair care began when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer during her third year of medical school. This diagnosis encouraged Ewah to become more conscientious about the food she ate and the products she used on her body. She stopped using relaxers in her hair and started wearing her hair naturally. "I noticed a lot of animal and harmful ingredients used in hair products," Ewah says. "Using my degree in chemistry and biology, I started making vegan products."

Though she intended to only make products for herself, Ewah's efforts eventually grew into a business that has helped countless people. Her brand, Obia Naturals, prides itself on producing vegan, pH-balanced, non-toxic hair and body care products for health-conscious consumers.

What are some things people should consider when thinking about starting a business?

"Follow your passion because you will quit if it is not something you enjoy doing. You have to build a business that you would do for free because, in the beginning, you won't be able to pay yourself. Secondly, I would tell people to have an airtight business plan. The business plan can be flexible and change, but you must have a foundation. Lastly, I recommend reading The Power of Broke by Daymond John. The book is about starting small. It's important to make wise financial decisions and find ways to be resourceful to help your company grow."

What do you know now that would have been helpful in the beginning?

"I wish I would have known how much I would have to sacrifice for my business. You hear people talk about being an entrepreneur, but it's one thing to hear it and another to go through it. I also would have paced myself and realized it is a marathon, not a race. I was competing with others when I should have been competing with myself. For example, I wrote in my business plan that I wanted my products to be on Amazon. However, there's a seller fee associated with having your products on Amazon. I also didn't consider that just because your product is on Amazon doesn't mean people will buy your products.

For the first six months, I would pay the seller fee monthly, and I was getting impatient because I was spending all this money, and not one item was sold. I almost deleted my page, but my family convinced me to be patient and wait. A few years later, we were nominated as the business of the year on Amazon. I would have lost that opportunity if I had taken my products off. You have to be patient because most people are not overnight successes, and I had misconceptions about that in the beginning."

How have you seen the hair industry change in the last 10 years?

"I've been in this business for 10 years. Back then, the majority of these companies were owned by white men. Now, we are seeing more Black women becoming owners of these businesses. The industry has also evolved from the point of discovery to acceptance, where people are now comfortable with their natural hair. Natural hair is featured in magazines and advertisements. In addition, the passing of the Crown Act has made it illegal to discriminate against natural hair in schools. We've been making major strides in the hair industry, and it will only continue to grow."

Ndidi Obidoa & Chinelo Chidozie, co-founders of Bolden 

Ndidi Obidoa & Chinelo Chidozie, co-founders of Bolden

Ndidi Obidoa & Chinelo Chidozie / Bolden

Going into business with your friends could be a disaster, but Ndidi Obidoa and Chinelo Chidozie have a fruitful partnership. The idea for their skincare brand, Bolden, came about while they were vacationing in Key West. Obidoa and Chidozie decided to apply sunscreen, but they noticed it wouldn't blend in. "It was frustrating for us because whoever was formulating these products didn't have our skin tone in mind," Chidozie explains. "Growing up, no one told us we had to wear sunscreen, and when we finally realized it was necessary, we still had to deal with not having enough options." 

After returning from their trip, they checked in with their network to confirm they weren't the only ones experiencing this issue. They conducted a survey, and the results showed other women also had trouble finding sunscreens for their melanin-rich skin. Chidozie and Obidoa saw an opportunity to address this problem. Even though they knew little about the beauty industry (Chidozie was working in finance, and Obidoa was working in marketing), they both drew upon their MBA experience and launched Bolden in 2012. "When you see a lack of representation, sometimes it's not up to others, but up to you to make that change," Chidozie says. 

How has the conversation changed around skincare since you entered the industry?

"More people know how important sunscreen is for their skincare routine. At the start of our business, we asked several women about their skincare routine. 1 in 10 told us they wore SPF. Now, that number has increased to 1 in 6 women. That's incredible because it shows our message is getting out there about sunscreen use. The industry looks different from when we first launched our sunscreen. There are a lot more options for chemical and mineral sunscreen. The industry is making products more inclusive, and that's a change we are glad to be part of."

What should people consider when launching a business?

"Make sure there's a market for your product. It's easy to get excited about different ideas, but you must ask yourself how your product will differ from other products. Once you identify that, then it's all about starting. It's okay not to have all the answers. Sometimes, people want their business plan to be perfect before they start, but they will wait a long time if they want everything to be perfect first.

Another piece of advice is to find a community. One of the best decisions we made was deciding to work together. Having a partner can help catch your blind spots, and you could have different skill sets to balance each other out. Working with people can be difficult, but it can be a great partnership if you have mutual respect and can work through conflict."

With the beauty business becoming more saturated, how can companies stand out?

"As long as you know who your customer is and solve a problem, then there's an opportunity for you to build your business. We don't think all the problems have been solved. There are millions of brands out there, so you must give your customers a reason to care. There's always going to be room in the market to improve innovation. It's all about differentiating yourself."

Beatrice Dixon, co-founder and CEO of The Honey Pot Company

Beatrice Dixon, co-founder and CEO of The Honey Pot Company

Beatrice Dixon / The Honey Pot Company

Beatrice Dixon's desire to enter the feminine care industry stems from personal experience. When Dixon was younger, she suffered from bacterial vaginosis for eight months. During that time, she says an ancestor visited her in a dream and told her how to heal herself. Dixon used that knowledge to create a herb-based feminine wash in her kitchen. After using it, she noticed her symptoms were gone. Wanting to bring plant-derived feminine care to all, Dixon decided to launch The Honey Pot Company in 2014. "I knew if I was experiencing this, then there was a group of people that also needed my product, and the rest was history," Dixon says. 

What were some of the challenges you faced during your first year?

"One of our biggest challenges was proving our points of differentiation with consumers and gaining their trust. There is strong momentum in the 'better for you' space, with competitive entrants continuously emerging. Vital factors such as obtaining shelf space are not as turn-key. We believe the proof is in the pudding. Once consumers try our products, they become fans. By focusing on community and education, we have found a way to individualize ourselves online and on shelves."

What do you know now that would have been helpful in the beginning?

"I wish I had known creating space between yourself and your business is extremely healthy and needed. You are not singularly defined by your successes or challenges."

How has The Honey Pot Company helped reshape the dialogue around wellness?

"From the start, The Honey Pot Company has focused on creating an inclusive and empowering space for all humans with vaginas to grow on their vaginal wellness journeys. By destigmatizing conversations surrounding the vagina and normalizing the vaginal experiences we've been conditioned to perceive as bad, we have made them feel more comfortable. Additionally, The Honey Pot Co is also strongly rooted in education. Our panel of experts, The Pulse, consistently shares content on our social media and blog, The Journal. They inform our community about topics that help improve menstrual and medical literacy. Through these resources, our social media platforms, and our podcast, The Honey Pot Luck, we've expanded conversations around feminine care and created a space where our community can be seen, heard, and catered to."

Diarrha N'Diaye-Mbaye, founder and CEO of Ami Colé

Diarrha N'Diaye-Mbaye, founder and CEO of Ami Colé

Diarrha N'Diaye-Mbaye / Ami Colé

Diarrha N'Diaye-Mbaye was born into the world of beauty. Her mother migrated from Senegal and opened a hair salon in Harlem, New York. "Growing up, I saw many Black women from different backgrounds get their hair done by my mom," she says. "The salon was a safe space for everyone to talk about their health, body, and the world," she says. N'Diaye-Mbaye's constant presence in the salon would later inspire her to pursue a career in beauty.

While in college at Syracuse University, she worked part-time at Sephora. After graduating, she worked at L'Oreal Paris and Glossier. Eventually, she grew frustrated by the continued lack of inclusivity in the industry. She felt a disconnect between beauty culture and the everyday girl on the streets of Harlem. "Working in New York, you didn't have the luxury of spending hours on your makeup every day," N'Diaye-Mbaye notes. "You needed items you could quickly apply."

In 2019, she decided to take matters into her own hands and launch the makeup brand of her dreams. Over the last three years, Ami Colé has become a rising star in beauty. The brand has carved out a unique lane for itself, creating clean formulas for melanin-rich skin.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started?

"My main challenge, in the beginning, was finding the money to fund my business. From my experience working in the beauty industry, I knew how much it costs to launch a product. When I was launching the brand and raising capital, there were very few examples of success. Not because people weren't successful, but because they weren't being documented. There wasn't enough research out there to show consumer trends and needs. Ultimately, I gathered data by conducting my survey and showing investors there was a need for my products. Even though I had to work a little harder than most, the people I talked to became part of my brand and circle."

What advice would you give to aspiring business owners?

"I suggest over-preparing and finding what is important to your customer base. Many people focus on the financial aspect, but I think the first thing is to determine what you are building and what your customers want. Once you figure out their needs, you can clearly articulate that to the investors. Ask yourself: Are you the person for the job? If you are not the right person, who can you hire to be on your team to fill that gap? I knew the marketing side of the business but wasn't quite as adept on the financial side, so I knew I should hire a financial expert. I think it's important to understand your weaknesses and reach out to people you know can balance out your weaknesses."

With the beauty business becoming more saturated, how can companies stand out?

"New businesses can set themselves apart by identifying market needs. Launching a company that doesn't provide something different to customers doesn't make sense. You have to ask yourself, Who else would need your product? Talk to your friends and get their opinion, so you can adapt their feedback and get a clear perspective on the direction of your business. "

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