How many times have you heard a CEO say that “capitalism is tied to oppression” in a conversation surrounding the launch of a brand? I’ve interviewed probably 100 or more brand founders and executives over the course of my career, and I’ll tell you: I’ve heard it once. From Olamide Olowe, the 23-year-old co-founder and CEO of Topicals, a new skin-care brand she founded with fellow 23-year-old Claudia Teng (who serves as the company’s CPO) that’s seeking to change the conversation around chronic skin conditions and democratize access to quality care for them.
Even before its official launch in August of 2020, Topicals established itself as a different kind of beauty brand. On June 6, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police and amidst nationwide protests that saw law enforcement using extreme measures to subdue demonstrators, Topicals took to its social channels to share a thread about how to care for skin after being tear gassed. At a time when corporations — beauty and otherwise — were sharing empty platitudes, vague promises to start thinking about diversity and a barrage of black squares, Topicals had no time for that bullshit. It wanted to help people in a real, tangible way, and to do so through skin care.
Despite being in their early 20s, both founders brought years of experience to the business. Olowe co-created a beauty brand called SheaGIRL, which targeted tween consumers under parent company SheaMoisture, as an undergraduate student at UCLA. “I did that for two years, pitched to major retailers like Walmart, Target and Ulta, learned everything about how to build a brand for an underserved consumer,” she says. She also got a glimpse into the company’s mission of “doing well by doing good,” and it was this experience that drove her to create her own company in a similar vein.
Teng, for her part, spent her high school and undergraduate years working at the Stanford University Department of Clinical Research, studying such topics as non-melanoma skin cancers, eczema and a rare genetic disease called epidermolysis bullosa. To date, she holds six publications in medical journals, with another one pending review.
“Working in clinical research for so long taught me a ton of things about how to think through drug development, how to run a clinical trial and patient pain points,” says Teng. She grew frustrated seeing the lack of access many people had to quality medical care, and also by an egregious lack of diversity in the trials. “My entire time there, we didn’t enroll a single Black participant in any of our trials, which you would think would be really important, especially for dermatology-related clinical trials,” she says.
A fortuitous meeting through a mutual friend brought them together, and in 2019 they began to build what would become Topicals. From launch, Topicals has also incorporated a charitable component into its business, donating 1% of profits to mental health organizations such as the JED Foundation, Therapy for Black Girls, Sad Girls Club and Fearless Femme 100. In its first month alone, it contributed more than $11,000 to these causes.
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Topicals’ existing product lineup comprises only two SKUs: Faded, a serum that targets hyperpigmentation, and Like Butter, a hydrating mask formulated to calm inflammation and eczema flare-ups. Not counting a limited-edition stint at Nordstrom, Topicals is sold entirely direct-to-consumer, and it counts only three people (including the two co-founders) as full-time employees. But despite its lean startup status, it’s getting major attention: It’s backed by a superstar list of investors from the VC world, as well as celebrities including Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji. And in just one conversation with its young, ambitious, mission-driven founders, it’s abundantly clear: Topicals is just getting started.
Ahead, Olowe and Teng share how Topicals came to be, why the brand won’t shy away from bold political statements, how they’re prioritizing diversity within their company and the advice they have for aspiring Gen-Z entrepreneurs.
Tell me about your backgrounds and how you came together to create Topicals.
Olowe: I got recruited to attend UCLA on scholarship because I was a track athlete, so I grew up pretty seriously training for track, but I also was super in love with dermatology and skin care because I grew up with a myriad of different skin conditions: I had acne, hyperpigmentation, folliculitis barbae — which is like ingrown hairs that can become boils — you name it, I had it. My experience with SheaMoisture helped me to realize I really wanted to start a brand, but this time I wanted it to be focused in a category that was near and dear to my heart, which was chronic skin [issues]. I graduated in 2018, so that August was when the idea [for Topicals] began to really form. I spent the rest of that year researching, figuring out what the idea was going to be. Then, at the top of the year, in 2019, I got introduced to Claudia through a mutual friend.
Teng: I had really severe eczema, so I was in and out of the doctor’s office all the time. I remember just being super embarrassed, carrying around my topical steroids at school or going to sleepovers. I started working at the Stanford University Department of Clinical Research when I was in high school. I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad, and I was able to continue my research [at Stanford] throughout college and post-graduation as well.
I noticed there were huge disparities in people’s access to health care. I was voicing my frustrations to the mutual friend that Olamide mentioned, and he told me that Olamide, who he’d met through a program that they did together at Harvard Business School, was trying to start a skin-care company that democratized people’s access to medicine-backed skin care. I thought that was amazing, and we just really connected and bonded over the shared experience of growing up with a skin condition and feeling isolated from the beauty community for a variety of reasons.
How would you describe the mission of Topicals?
Olowe: We want to transform the way people feel about skin in a myriad of different ways, one being through effective and safe product. All of our products have been tested from the lightest shade to the darkest shade [of skin tones]. Every single ingredient we use has clinical research to back its efficacy.
We also want to change the conversation around skin, to shift it [away] from aspiring to ‘perfect’ skin — because we know that that’s not realistic. We know that people with chronic skin conditions are two-to-six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety, so we donate a percentage of our revenue to mental health organizations.
Why was it important to you to include this charitable component, and to do so from launch?
Olowe: During my experience at SheaMoisture, there was a department in the company called Community Commerce, which was all about, ‘How can we do well by doing good?’ A lot of companies do social good for a tax write off or as an afterthought, but SheaMoisture always did that as a lead, and I felt like at Topicals we could do the same, especially because our community is at higher risk for mental health conditions.
After coming up with the idea for Topicals, where did you start in terms of actually building it into reality?
Teng: We thought it was important to first listen to our community and figure out what they needed, because they’re people who have felt alienated from the skin-care community because of their skin type or tone.
The first thing that we did was build a small community of beta group users that we could bounce ideas off, and we used that community to test-drive our first product, which was the earlier version of Faded, which is our hyperpigmentation serum. We got great feedback from them and found that what was underlying all of their hyperpigmentation were other chronic skin conditions.
We also built our brand and aesthetic community-first. Back at the start of Topicals, when we were cash-strapped and trying to figure things out, we knew that it was going to be important for us to talk to our consumer base, so we focused on using Twitter as a platform, rather than Instagram, because we knew it was a place where you didn’t need to have aesthetic or branding together yet. We started conversations to get people talking about skin conditions and focusing on democratizing people’s access to education around skin care through conversations on Twitter.
You have a really impressive list of investors. What was the fundraising process like for you, how did you build capital and what does your board of investors look like today?
Olowe: It took two years for us to fundraise and launch the business. We pitched to everyone — literally everyone — and a lot of people turned us down. One investor called what we were doing ‘dormant demand,’ and said because it’s so taboo to talk about it openly, you don’t know the numbers around how many people have it. I also think people had seen so many beauty brands launch over the last few years that they didn’t see a skin-care brand being anything new.
We’re so glad that we did weather the storm and wait to find investors that were perfect for us, because we eventually did find ones who really understood. We were so excited to have Lerer Hippeau led our seed round, and we had participation from Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Hannah Bronfman, Bozoma Saint John and the CEOs of Casper, Warby Parker, Allbirds, Bombas and Harry’s. We’re really excited to have investment power not only on the celebrity side, but also expertise on the CEO side. Obviously times have changed, so we’re not going to do exactly what they did, but we take their advice, and kind of add the Gen-Z flavor to it. I think the combination of those two, plus having access to powerful women in Hollywood, has really helped us catapult as a brand.
Was it important to you to have a diverse board of investors with an emphasis on people of color?
Olowe: As a Black woman, I’m conscious of the fact that when my brand becomes successful, whoever is an investor in that brand also becomes more successful and gains wealth. So I was adamant — I thought it was my duty to make sure we had Black women on the cap table, and we really got as many Black women involved as we possibly could. We were able to work with our lead investor Lerer Hippeau to make sure our cap table was diverse, and they were all for it and did the bulk of the work introducing us to a lot of the Black funds. We wanted to choose investors who understood that quality is better than quantity and who really care about diversity, not just on a surface level, but sharing money, sharing a cap table with them.
In terms of what the Topicals team looks like now, how big is it, and how important is it to you to have people of color represented there as well?
Olowe: Our team is still really small, officially it’s still just three of us: myself, Claudia and our operations manager. We have some part-time people, some contractors, and we just started an internship program working with college students. Claudia and I are both 23, and we got our start with what we’re doing now because we were super excited to branch out in college, so we want to — especially while Covid is going on — help students learn from a young age. Our team is probably around 95 percent people of color. We get such a rich set of ideas that are culturally relevant, politically relevant, and I think you only get that when you have people who haven’t always had a seat at the table before.
What is your retail plan for the brand?
Olowe: We sold with Nordstrom online through their Pop-In, which was a limited time pop-up shop. We want to be where our customer is. Our customer is sometimes online, sometimes in stores, so what we’re doing is figuring out through our community crowdsourcing where they’d like to see us. We want to be careful about where we go, because for us the messaging is so important. We want to find partners who can hold up the microphone for us to spread our message, alongside selling product. So far we’ve been doing that on our own channels and are looking for more partners who can help us do that. That may look like retail partners, it may not.
Who is the target or ideal Topicals consumer?
Teng: If we had to categorize it, I guess we’d call it Gen-Z, but we don’t see Gen-Z as really an age demographic, so much as a psycho-demographic. When we think of the ideal Topicals consumer, we think of someone who is not tied to the idea that ‘perfect skin,’ whatever that may be, is a necessity. Someone who is willing to have critical conversations about where the beauty community is lacking right now, the fact that we haven’t necessarily seen women of color or different skin types in ads or skin-care representation thus far. People who are willing to have conversations about how their skin affects them on a larger scale, like politically and in other ways besides just strictly and literally tied to skin care.
On that subject, Topicals made it clear, even before its official launch, that it won’t shy away from getting involved in political conversations. The brand posted on Instagram and Twitter about how to care for skin after being teargassed while protesting, which was a really bold and impactful thing to post when so many brands were making lukewarm statements. Tell me about that choice.
Olowe: Capitalism is tied to oppression. And if our government is not going to step in [and help combat oppression], businesses are going to have to become a second type of government or a second type of haven for people. With companies making so much money, they can definitely do good with the work that they do.
Claudia and I are both women of color, and when you see people who look like you being oppressed, being gunned down, being teargassed — for us it was super emotional to watch what was going on. We had planned to launch around that time [when George Floyd had been murdered], but we pushed our launch back and shifted our marketing budget to just donate the money to mental health. It affects us mentally as well. You get worn down, day after day, seeing these things, and we will continue to lead the company in a way that uplifts our community and gives them a voice when they haven’t had one.
We’re so excited to also have allies who may not be people of color, but who see what’s going on and really want to be a part of changing that. We try to make it as easy as possible for our customer [to do so], because by loving our product and supporting our brand, you then support mental health causes, and you support other initiatives we do to further people of color.
Are there any other brands — not necessarily in the beauty space — that you admire or that have inspired you?
Teng: We both really look up to Parade. I love what they’re doing with donating to Planned Parenthood, and I also love the way they’re changing the conversations around people’s bodies and how we express ourselves through something as simple as underwear, but also on a larger scale.
Olowe: I also like Bread Beauty Supply. I think they’re doing something similar in terms of changing the conversation around hair, particularly for Black women or women with curly hair. A lot of curly hair brands want to give you ‘the perfect curl’ and Bread is all about fluff and the idea that frizz is okay, hair is not perfect. One more that I think is really cool is Rosen Skincare, and they’re an acne brand. I went to college with Jamika [Martin], the CEO, and she’s really changing the conversation about acne, shifting it away from negative words and stereotypes about having acne, and I think she’s doing a really great job with that.
What specific challenges did you face launching during the pandemic, and how did you cope or adapt?
Olowe: Our initial launch got delayed — when I talked about delaying it in June, that was the second time — because it was when Covid first hit and we had some supply chain issues. We took that time to build more community; we launched a game called Skin, Sun & Stars around that time — that was a mashup of your horoscope and skin-care advice. For people with chronic skin conditions, the word “fun” has never entered their skin-care vocabularies. With that game, it was about finding ingredients based on your skin condition and your horoscope. Our community reacted really well to having fun while also learning things that were medical and science-backed.
On that note, your packaging is definitely fun — it’s colorful, it’s aesthetically appealing and something people want to have on their vanities and post on Instagram. How does that play into making treating chronic skin conditions more fun?
Teng: Our rallying call is ‘funner flare-ups,’ and what we mean when we say that is most chronic skin conditions are permanent in that you’re going to have them for the rest of your life. So if you know that you are going to probably have it for the foreseeable future, why treat it like a burden or a chore when the rest of your skin-care routine is focused on self-care and feels luxurious? Why does that one part of your routine have to be so sterile and clinical and burdensome? We took that rallying call and applied it to our aesthetic and the way that we tackle packaging and branding, which is why you see us use so much color.
Something else that we’re trying to do is reclaim the experience of using the ugly, white clinical looking tubes that you get from your doctor’s office. Growing up, I felt really embarrassed to pull that out of my bag. So we wanted to use that same aluminum tube packaging, both because it’s more sustainable and because it’s reclaiming this shared experience. We wanted to make it fun and colorful and something that you would feel proud to pull out of your bag or take with you to a sleepover and not have to feel embarrassed about.
What advice do you have for other young entrepreneurs wanting to start a business at a young age?
Teng: Because we heard so many ‘no’s from investors and from people who at first didn’t understand what we were trying to do, it was easy for us to doubt ourselves and internalize some of what we thought was the reason for their rejection, which was our age. But it’s important to remember that you bring a unique, valuable perspective to whatever problem you’re trying to to tackle. It’s so important to have conviction in yourself and in your ability, and to believe wholeheartedly in your idea. That’s not to say that people’s criticism isn’t warranted — I think it’s always important to really pressure test yourself and your company to make sure that it’s the best that it can be — but as a young person in a world where a lot of executives and people who hold power are much older, it’s easy to doubt yourself. I think it’s really important to have the North Star be the problem that you’re solving and have conviction in your ability to solve that problem.
This interview has been edited for clarity.