Welcome to Byrdie's new series, The Hustle. We're profiling BIPOC women and woman-aligned folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
Considering Hannah Diop's upbringing, launching her natural haircare brand Sienna Naturals was always meant to be. Diop grew up in South Minneapolis and was raised with a keen awareness of the importance of health and wellness. "My mom took a very holistic approach to our lifestyle," she says. "There was always an emphasis on keeping things as natural as possible in terms of what we put in our bodies. That idea extended to our personal care and hair care as well."
However, Diop struggled to find clean hair care products that worked for her curly hair. The shampoos and conditioners her mother would pick up from the local co-op market would leave her textured tresses dry and tangled. "As a little girl growing up in a predominantly white environment in Minnesota, I internalized [the lack of options available to me] and thought there was something wrong with my hair. But, of course, I came to discover it wasn't me. It was the industry that had a problem."
Her frustration with the lack of effective and non-toxic hair care products available to Black people is something that stuck with her through adulthood. Though she worked in corporate America (at companies like HSBC and McKinsey and Company) after graduating from Howard University, Diop always knew she'd channel her unique viewpoint into a beauty brand at some point. In 2012, she finally made the leap, and Sienna Naturals was born. "Black consumers value natural products, but we can't afford to compromise on performance because it will break our hair off," Diop says. "Our mission is to put Black women at the center of clean product innovation."
Ahead, Diop discusses what it's been like building Sienna Naturals, her day-to-day duties as a founder, and the daily rituals that keep her grounded.
What does your day-to-day look like? I know it is ever-changing.
We have five full-time employees and several contractors that support the business. I spend a lot of my time making sure that all areas of the business are running as they need to be and checking in with my team because I'm the CEO. I'm ultimately responsible for Sienna Naturals above all else, and I need to make sure my team feels supported so that they can continue to be motivated to do the good work that we're out here to do.
I'm also thinking strategically and spending time thinking ahead to what’s coming down the pipeline. My responsibility in the company is product development. I'm personally responsible for product development and leading our team of chemists. I also work with our regulatory person because we have our own process that we go through to vet every single vendor and ingredient that we use in our products. A lot of day-to-day is spent trying out products. We always have some product innovation in the pipeline. I've got a drawer full of new products to test and try so we can figure out the product roadmap for the future.
What is the most challenging part of being a founder? What is the most rewarding part?
I think the challenging part is managing a team of people and making sure they feel empowered to do their job. I'm only one person, and I still have to do things, but so much of my time is spent on administrative stuff. I'm usually touching 100 different things lightly and then deep dive on one specific thing.
Trying to find time to deep dive and focus my time is challenging when I'm also trying to balance managing people. But, I think it's also the most rewarding because I can help someone develop professionally and achieve their goals. I've always said Sienna Naturals will be a place where people come who have a proven track record. It's also going to be a place where people come to prove themselves.
What I hear from my team—particularly the Black women on my team—is that having a Black boss is meaningful because they've worked for non-Black bosses and feel like they haven't had that level of care that I have for them. I didn't realize that I would have that impact and it kind of naturally came with the job. But, I think Howard University probably had something to do with that because it is a place where Black talent is recognized for the talent that it is and there are no other strings attached to it. So, I'm very intentional about how we create a work environment.
So many incredible things have happened since you founded the brand. Has there been one singular moment where you just had to sit back and say, "Wow, I built this?"
Yeah, I think it was bringing Issa Rae on and [working with] Target. I applied to Target Takeoff in 2017, and I didn't get in. I applied in 2018, and I got in, and from there, it was one foot in front of another.
Issa Rae is Black excellence. She is incredible. And she doesn't put her name behind something she doesn't believe in. Everyone knows that about her. She's honest, lives in her truth, and is passionate about supporting Black makers, creators, and founders. She chose to partner with me as an indie brand versus going the route of licensing her name on a contract manufacturer. I think her being very intentional and putting her name behind Sienna Naturals when she could have just gotten a big check upfront is one of those moments in time where I was like, “Okay, this is something.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring beauty brand founders, especially Black founders?
As a Black founder, you're going to be doing something different from everyone else. It's not going to look like what it looks like today. And that's because you're bringing a new perspective and a fresh lens to this space. It gets easy to second guess yourself, but keep going. You can validate your assumptions through research. You can get 10 or 20 of your friends to give feedback on something—people love to try free stuff. Feedback will give you a good read on where you're headed.
Another thing is always to try and extrapolate your idea. If you have an idea and you test it, and people like it, what's the potential of the size of that market? When you're starting, you don't have that much research. But, you can find US Census data to give you numbers and to help you extrapolate the value of the market.
I would also say build a rough financial model so you understand "how many of X you need to sell to get to Y." You need to have a sense of your financial projections. I think that's important, and it can help with strategic decision-making.
What imprint do you hope Sienna Naturals leaves on the beauty industry?
Sienna Naturals is a brand that is putting textured hair at the center of clean innovation. I want to be known for that. 60% of consumers have textured hair, and 67% of those customers are looking for a product made for textured hair.
I want people to see [textured hair] can be a dominant force in the industry in general. And I also think that Black-owned businesses should not only be not dominating in textured hair, but we should dominate in beauty across the board. It's time for a new lens and a new perspective. Even when you look at makeup and other categories, it is ripe for a new perspective.
What does beauty mean to you?
Beauty is a feeling. It's a feeling of confidence, and it goes hand-in-hand with your mental health and feeling your best from the inside out. I think of beauty as an internal and an external process. In the morning, I try to do a workout before I start my day. I wake up, get my kids breakfast, make a coffee, and then I do my workout. I need to sweat and release some of that stress before I start my day.
I always incorporate some spirituality in my morning and some gratitude. I really think that helps—that's part of my beauty routine. Then, I do my skincare regimen before I apply makeup. I'm looking at myself on Zoom all day. So I do like to wear a little foundation, eyeliner, and brows. I want to feel good first, but I also want to look good.
What are some of your favorite beauty brands?
Well, I love Mented Cosmetics. There’s also this new brand, Ami Colé and I'm really interested in trying their products. Both of these brands are starting with melanated skin at the center. Many of my mentors and friends have brands in the skincare space, like Jamika Martin at Rosen Skincare. Brown Girl Jane is another one of my favorites. They're moving into the CBD and self-care space.