Welcome to Byrdie's new series, Next Gen, where we profile Gen Z celebrities, influencers, and entrepreneurs. As a collective, members of Gen Z are dynamic trendsetters and culture shifters. And when it comes to beauty and wellness, they have ushered more creativity, inclusivity, and transparency into the industry. In this column, we're stepping into the minds of some of the most notable Gen Z'ers to learn more about how they are redefining beauty, the products they swear by, and their plans for the future.
No conversation about the future of skincare is complete without mention of Topicals. Founded on the principles of psychodermatology (the connection between the mind and skin), the brand is helping people with chronic skincare conditions through science-backed products and mental health advocacy. Since debuting in August 2020, Topicals has become an instant favorite amongst Gen Z'ers for its thoughtful and downright fun approach to the often drab topic of skincare. At the helm of the disruptive brand is CEO Olamide Olowe.
Olowe's interest in skincare began at a young age after dealing with acne, hyperpigmentation, post-barbae folliculitis, and boils. After noticing the continued lack of inclusivity in the chronic skincare category, a seed was planted in Olowe's mind to create the brand she desired growing up.
When Olowe began building Topicals after graduating from UCLA, she came to the table with significant beauty experience despite only being in her early 20s. Before launching her brand, Olowe spent two years developing SheaGirl, a subbrand of SheaMoisture focused on young women. While leading the company's operations as co-founder, Olowe spent her days pitching to major retailers and helping secure investment deals for the brand.
Equipped with insider knowledge from her time with SheaGirl, Olowe was able to hit the ground running with Topicals and make a significant splash from the start. In building the brand, Olowe has made history as the youngest Black woman to raise over $1 million in funding ($2.6M, to be exact). Ahead, she shares her musings on entrepreneurship, Topicals positioning in the skincare market, and the free-spirited nature of Gen Z.
As a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up?
I grew up in a very medical and entrepreneurial household. My dad is a doctor. He owns clinics, and my mom manages the clinics. I grew up wanting to be a dermatologist because I had many chronic skin conditions like ingrown hairs and boils. I was fascinated with products, and I was the girl making DIY concoctions before we realized making skincare in your kitchen was not the best.
I went to UCLA on a track scholarship, and I was a pre-med student. I didn't realize how hard it would be to do both of those things. I realized I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial when I got to college, given my family's background. That's when I had the opportunity to build a brand at SheaMoisture, which helped me discover my love for the business side of beauty.
You helped develop SheaGirl, a subbrand of SheaMoisture focused on young women. What was that experience like?
It was a great experience. We learned a lot quickly. I worked on SheaGirl for two years, and the number one thing I learned about was SheaMoisture's community commerce program. SheaMoisture believes you can do well by doing good. They believe that if you did well as a company, you could reinvest those profits back into the community. That was so fascinating because I didn't know a business could significantly impact people's lives.
SheaMoisture was also so innovative with its marketing and messaging. I think many brands don't ever choose a position or situate themselves in the customer's life. I loved how SheaMoisture positioned themselves in the haircare space for women of color and Black women.
At what point did you have the idea to launch Topicals?
During the fall semester of my senior year, SheaMoisture was acquired. The company had grown so much that they needed a partner to help take it to the next level. In communities of color, I don't think we understand how big of a deal it is for a Black-owned company to be acquired.
After seeing that, I knew I wanted to create a brand that had an emotional affinity with the customer and outlived me. I noticed chronic skincare was an area that wasn't inclusive. So, Topicals started as a kernel of an idea right after graduation in 2018. It took me time to figure out what the brand was going to be. When I stumbled on psychodermatology, which is the study of the connection between skin and your mind, I knew I had found the space I'd been seeking. I wanted to make other people aware of the connection between skin health and mental health.
Topicals debuted last summer during the pandemic. What was it like preparing to launch?
I'm someone who can really compartmentalize and keep it together, but it's been a hard year. I had Covid around this time last year. It was very hard on my body. The stress and isolation of being away from family were also challenging.
It was also hard to get packaging and ingredients because there was a shortage of workers. It was tough to see people say: "This is something we want. We've never seen a brand that made us feel or look at life in this way," and not have the supplies to fulfill the demand. So, it's been a tough year, but it's been rewarding to see what we built has resonated so deeply with people.
You're the CEO of a successful beauty brand at 25-years-old. Do you ever have those moments where you're like, "I'm only 25. What am I doing?" If so, how do you work to overcome those voices of self-doubt in your head?
That's an everyday struggle for me. People think I am so confident, but I'm super goofy. One phrase I have been living by throughout this process is "feel the fear and do it anyway." Everyone is scared, but some people don't let that fear stop them from leaping. Every time we're about to launch something new, I'm like, Oh my gosh, are people going to like this? It's nerve-wracking to put your hard work on display for people to judge. Still, the one thing that's helped me throughout this process is community. People have wrapped their arms around me as a young founder. There are also tons of people who are advocating for Topicals who've never met me. I'm just really fortunate to have community.
How do you hope to make an impact using your platform?
I think privilege plays a huge role in how I've been successful. Gaining access to capital is not something many people know about, so I make an effort to do panels or talk to people who want to raise money. Knowledge is power, and knowing certain things can change your life. I always think, What could more young women of color and Black women do if they knew what existed in the world? I'm very fortunate to have been exposed to SheaMoisture and venture capital because I can now live out my dream. I believe I owe it to others to help them live out their dreams.
What are some of the pieces of advice you often share with other aspiring founders?
A lot of people ask, "How do you get customers? How do you get followers?" I think those things are important, but there are a lot of brands that achieve that, and it doesn't last because they never thought through the consistency part. Half the battle of building a successful business is just showing up every day. Ninety-nine percent of people won't show up every day or keep pushing when it gets tough.
I also tell people you have to understand your customer to build the solution they need. A lot of young founders think all they need is pretty packaging to make their brand pop. I have to sit them down and say, "Yeah, you do have to have good packaging, but you don't have to be everything to everyone. You have to be everything to one person." It's crucial to figure out who your customer is. Figure out where they vacation, what music they listen to, and their pathway of purchase. Those things will help you better understand how to build your brand.
How do you hope Topicals makes an impact in the skincare industry?
Topicals has always been about choice. That is something that gets glossed over in skincare. We have always focused on psychodermatology and giving people access to knowledge to help them make informed decisions. By doing that, some people will buy the product. Some people will opt into our informational resources around mental health.
We've always promoted the idea of "funner flare-ups." It's about making flare-ups less painful and less frequent versus saying you need to have perfect skin or love yourself the way you are. It's about making the choice that's best for you. We will give you all of the resources and products, and then you get to decide what you want to do.
What do you appreciate most about being a part of Gen-Z?
Gen Z is so much fun. We don't take anything too seriously. I think everyone wants everything to be cut and dry, but life is fluid and messy. I think about this when I think about why so many Gen Z people have migrated to platforms like TikTok. It's because you don't have to have the perfect feed on TikTok—you have to be yourself. That is the message Topicals wants to continue to push forward and what I hope the beauty industry becomes. So many messages are still trying to tell people "be this" or "feel this," but Gen Z is all about being whoever you want and feeling however you want to feel.
What’s next for Topicals?
You can expect us to keep making products for underserved chronic skin conditions. On the other side of things, we hope to build more experiences that allow people to understand the connection between skin health and mental health. We just launched a hotline that explores the idea of psychodermatology.