I got my unexpected start in beauty as a resident (video producer) with one of the largest companies in the digital media space. Before I made the switch to digital media, I was an entrepreneur, having created a brand of greeting cards for women of color to fill a visible void on card-aisle shelves. I was told my work with Mae B was why I was granted an interview, and that my edit test and "unique perspective" landed me the gig.
I had applied for the three-month residency, on a whim, and three weeks after my interview, I was packing two bags and moving from my hometown of Atlanta to Hollywood. My journey felt like a coming of age story playing out in my head. However, nothing could have prepared me for the stressful, micro-aggression filled experience with the company. Mainly because outwardly, the digital media brand touted diversity and inclusion, but working there is a Black person is an entirely different experience.
My white, "liberal" female manager regularly shutdown my weekly video pitches highlighting Black beauty because my ideas needed to be "more broad." Not to mention the "mentorship" and video editing classes I was supposed to receive from my team were non-existent. There were days when my co-workers (including my manager) would come in, walk past me, and not speak a word to me all day—as if I didn't exist. I struggled. Most days, I wanted to quit. But I knew that if I didn't find a way to succeed, there would never be another Black woman offered a position like mine. I stayed late, arrived early, and taught myself how to edit videos via YouTube on the weekends.
In those moments of difficulty, I needed allies on my team and in my department, and a company structure that truly supported Black voices. My collective experience in beauty got me thinking about Black founders, and I wanted to hear from them about what true allyship would look like in beauty and entrepreneurship, since both industries are not always welcoming to Black founders.
I know it's not their job to educate. However, I think their perspectives are valuable to the conversations the world is having since they are creating space for up-and-coming Black founders and help shape the narrative surrounding beauty.
Here, I speak with six Black beauty founders about what authentic allyship looks like in the beauty world and beyond.
Karen Young, Founder + CEO of Oui the People
Her thoughts on allyship: "There are so many hurdles to maneuver to have the conversation about allyship. I want to have people come to me and say, on a very personal level, I actually want to do better, and here are some things that I plan to do, and maybe [ask] what are your thoughts on that? I don't believe that the conversation needs to be fully put off, but you can't put the work on to the person who has been straggling behind, and who has been silently screaming for help the entire time. I do leave my door open, but I watch how people approach when I say that door is open. Every person that I'm following right now is like, these are the books you can read, these are the videos you can watch, so to have people in my inbox going, "Can you tell me what to read or do in order to be better?" is not allyship. Allyship is building personal face to face relationships that are supportive, and that feel a little bit deeper."
Her thoughts on representation within the beauty industry: "I have been in those meetings where I look across the room, and there's just one other person that looks like me, and that means that the decisions being made from small brands to large brands can't be inclusive. Until diversity runs through the veins of a company from the presentation that you see when they drop a photo on Instagram to their actual roundtables when they're sitting down making calls about products and marketing, then you are not, in fact, a diverse brand. I know that it takes work and I think that people are being lazy. That also includes body diversity, gender diversity, and able body diversity, and because it takes work, you've really got to mean it.
"Your $5,000 or $50,000 donations because you felt pushed to do it over the last few days doesn't quite mean that much if you're not actually trying to make sure that you hire a diverse team. Diverse business owners, founders, and perspectives and products are all rolled into Black Lives Matter, in some way—it's a whole spectrum. There is an organization that I just learned about, called Black Futures Lab. I think they're doing some of the deeper work, that's very necessary."
Until diversity runs through the veins of a company from the presentation that you see when they drop a photo on Instagram to their actual roundtables when they're sitting down making calls about products and marketing, then you are not, in fact, a diverse brand.
Blair Armstrong, Founder of GILDED
Her thoughts on allyship: "People that want to be allies should first do the work to learn about the experiences of Black people [and] not remain silent in moments when marginalized people are being mistreated or mischaracterized. [While] acknowledging their own internal biases and working to dismantle them and be proactive about inclusion in their daily lives. In the beauty industry, [that means] using their privilege to foster and support [the] growth and development [of] Black-owned brands and lend their voices and resources to help us to be seen and supported.”
Her thoughts on diversity in beauty: “Black entrepreneurs create brands worthy of attention, press, and funding but may lack the opportunities, resources, connections that are important for some higher levels of success. Offer consults [and] mentorship to actively aid in professional growth, expand personal and business relationships to include Black people, hire Black creatives, and make small changes to the way they conduct their businesses internally. Forming these relationships are beneficial not just to Black people in the beauty industry and Black entrepreneurs but are helpful for our society. [This] provides non-Blacks an opportunity to benefit from [an] appropriate exchange of ideas, creativity, and culture.”
Offer consults [and] mentorship to actively aid in professional growth, expand personal and business relationships to include Black people, hire Black creatives, and make small changes to the way they conduct their businesses internally.
Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, Founders of Mented Cosmetics
KJ's thoughts on allyship: “I think the first and most important [step] is to make your allyship visible. You may think posting on social media or sending articles to friends isn't enough, but the truth is in the fight against racial injustice, we need to make racist people, and their views, actively uncomfortable. Second, and relatedly, when you're making your allyship visible, be specific about what you're doing to stand with us in this fight. Are you donating to organizations fighting for justice? Say so. Are you signing petitions? Say so. Finally, don't discount the personal touch. Reach out to your Black friends and ask not just how they're doing, but [also] what else you can do to help and be clear about the ways you're already pitching in. Being an ally is about more than talking the talk—you've got to be prepared to walk the walk.”
When you're making your allyship visible, be specific about what you're doing to stand with us in this fight.
Amanda's thoughts on allyship: “To be an ally to a Black person in these trying times means that first, you must educate yourself on what it means to be Black in America. Secondly, you must use your non-Black privilege in ways big and small to help. In a work setting, that could mean calling out a co-worker for an inappropriate joke, making sure to include Black people in work outings, or becoming a mentor to help give perspective and opportunity.”
KJ's thoughts on representation in the beauty industry: "There are so many ways non-Black people can use their privilege for good. One simple way is to use your platforms to promote Black-owned businesses and brands. Go the extra mile: Purchase from these brands for yourself and as gifts for your friends. When your brand is working to develop another product, ask the team if they've truly considered deeper skin tones during the product development process. Ultimately you can always ask yourself, "Where do I have access, power, or resources that I can use to center and celebrate Black Americans?"
Amanda's thoughts on representation in the beauty industry: "It can't be said enough that more Black people need a seat at the decision-making table. Beauty brands need to hire more Black people in marketing and product development so that the products and messages are truly inclusive and informed. Venture capital funds need to hire more Black people so they can give a more informed view of the potential of Black-owned startups, which should lead to more capital. There are plenty of ways to help, and they all involve inclusion. Non-Black people will not be able to solve the problem without the perspective and involvement of Black people."
Ultimately you can always ask yourself, "Where do I have access, power, or resources that I can use to center and celebrate Black Americans?"
Abena Boamah, Founder of Hanahana Beauty
Her thoughts on allyship: There have been two brands that have [provided] allyship, and it just hasn't started now: Cocokind, which is owned by Priscilla Tsai, and Glossier. I won a grant from Cocokind, and ever since I won that grant two years ago, she checks in. She even says, "Oh, because our brand has this many people, why don't you do a takeover but make sure you share Hanahana. If you're giving my capital, that's allyship for me. I think it's just embarrassing that these people are shaking in their boots to make one post, and then now it's a performance. We're [Hanahana] not a reactionary brand. We're giving money, and we're doing this already. You guys love this brand. You love the aesthetic. You love that we give money to women in Africa because it just sounds so charity-like, then do something well when it's [about] Black people here."
On representation in the beauty industry: "Shea [butter] is in many products. Who is making that shea? Black women because shea butter comes from West Africa. If we're the producers, if we're the farmers, if we're your buyers, then why are we not in-house with you making those decisions of what is represented? People need to sit down and reflect. Reflect on what your mission actually says you all are doing. What do you actually think about this? Not in this, "we need a week or day of reflection" way. Look back and be honest about what you are doing and your numbers. Who are the people that are increasing your sales, and how does that match your representation? Also, if you're a big company within the beauty industry and you have all this capital, [set up] grants to give to Black entrepreneurs. We have so much power in the beauty world, from how children grow up to how people see themselves. When you look at the dollars, and what is being spent and where it's coming from, it doesn't match the representation in-house or on your social pages. Black dollars are sustaining these brands. How can Black dollars continue to sustain your brands, but you don't represent them in-house, like actually working there. Not just two or three people."
Look back and be honest about what you are doing and your numbers. Who are the people that are increasing your sales, and how does that match your representation?
Lesley Thornton, Founder of Klur Cosmetics
Her thoughts on allyship: “The first step is to recognize Black people are not responsible for dismantling racism, and Black people are not responsible for educating you. Do your own research. Do your own work. I run a business solely in the digital space. Allyship, for me, has been so important because it's what's allowed me to grow. Without having a diverse group of allies, I would not be where I am. Because I only operate online and on the internet, allyship for me on a day-to-day basis, is just sharing the brand. Sharing an interview. Sharing a product. Sharing my ethos and my philosophy and speaking for me when I can't be there to speak for myself—holding space for me. Also, putting your spending power behind Black and brown businesses rather than exploiting Black and Brown culture.”
If you're an editor and Black brands come across your desk, I feel like you have an obligation to take a second look, and not just pass it by.
Her thoughts on diversity in beauty: “The beauty industry is mostly non-Black. I think the first thing that needs to be done is normalizing Black beauty—showcasing Black women who look like Black women and not white-passing. [Next], showcase Black brands that cater to Black women. I think encouraging genuine support will come from simply giving [us] a voice, and allowing us to use a platform that they've created to reach their audience and a different demographic. If you're an editor and Black brands come across your desk, I feel like you have an obligation to take a second look, and not just pass it by."