“The most annoying question I get when people look at my brand, Nyakio, is, ‘Well, is it only for Black people?'” beauty entrepreneur Nyakio Grieco told me back in December when she was launching Thirteen Lune, a new beauty e-commerce venture that stocks 90% brown- and Black-owned brands. She also runs a namesake skin-care brand, which Target picked up in 2020 after she’d spent the previous 18 years trying to garner interest from big-box retailers.
Today, the interest from mainstream retailers in Black-owned brands is finally there. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last spring, and the ensuing upswell of support for the Black community, commitments to supporting Black-owned businesses became almost commonplace, performative though some of them might have been. We’ve seen chains like Sephora and Bluemercury taking the 15 Percent Pledge, and Nordstrom launching a curated shop-in-shop by Black creatives and committing to generating $500 million in sales from brands owned, operated or designed by Black and Latinx people by 2025, and Target adding a special badge to designate its significant Black-owned or -founded beauty offering.
It’s a huge step forward for Black entrepreneurs getting the shelf space they always deserved, but unfortunately, these opportunities don’t just erase generations of systemic racism, or the misconceptions people still have about products created by Black folks.
Jacqueline Carrington is the founder of People of Color Beauty, a nail polish line that has seen a big lift in demand and sales over the past year. “The social climate and impact of 2020 has had a profound impact on our brand,” she tells me. In April, she’d already started to see growth due to people beginning to do their own nails at home in lockdown. “In June, after the murder of George Floyd and the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, we started to get flooded with press and different opportunities, as calls to support Black-owned businesses took flight.”
Carrington created her polish formula to complement the various shades of brown skin. Of course, nail polish is nail polish regardless of the user’s skin color and anyone can use her brand’s products, but not everyone seems to realize that.
“A common misconception about our brand is that the term ‘people of color’ is only for Black people,” she says. “People may assume that because of the brand name and being Black-owned, that we are only for Black consumers.”
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Jamika Martin, founder of Rosen Skincare, has seen similar confusion around her line of acne-targeting products, which can be found at Target, Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom and more. In her Instagram stories, Martin politely called out an article that claimed she created her brand in response to “a lack of innovation and skin-care products catering to Black skin,” when that was actually not the case: In fact, she had never positioned her products as catering to Black skin, specifically; they’re for anyone with acne.
“More often than not, people automatically lump in the ‘she started this brand because there weren’t options for Black people’ narrative into my founding story, when that’s literally never been a part of the journey,” Martin tells me. “Rosen just often gets assumed to mainly benefit Black folks when it comes to our formulas and products.”
“The most common misconception is that Black people only make products for other Black people, it’s crazy to me that it’s still asked,” echoes Grieco. “I’m so grateful for Thirteen Lune because we’re really helping to change that narrative, hopefully for good.” Thirteen Lune promotes the idea that even if a Black beauty founder does create products with common Black skin or hair needs in mind, it’s through a lens of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. In other words, while a white founder might build a whole line of products created with only her own smooth, straight hair type in mind, an inclusively-minded Black founder might build a line of products with her textured hair type in mind, that would also work for those without textured hair.
“Just like a business from any other race can create a product or service that serves a diverse customer base, so can a Black-owned business,” notes Carrington. “No one seems to question other races if their product or service can be used by someone else outside of that race, so why is that asked of Black-owned businesses?”
Part of the problem could be the constant grouping together of Black-owned brands on dedicated lists or in sections of a website or retail store. While the objective may have been to make it easier for shoppers to identify and support those brands, a potential downside is the messaging that those products aren’t for everyone.
“There was lots of press about Black-owned businesses, in which the brands were only grouped among other Black-owned brands,” says Carrington. “It is important to showcase, shop and talk about brands just for being a great brand/product/service, versus only because it is Black-owned.”
Of course, this misconception about who Black-owned brands are for isn’t the only issue that could temper their success at the retail level. Black-owned brands also tend to be underfunded, which makes it more difficult for them to compete with other, more established brands, even if they’re sitting on the same store shelves.
“We are still challenged in the way of funding to build our business in a way that our [white] colleagues and counterparts aren’t,” explains Grieco. “A lot of times you’ll get these opportunities to go on shelves at national retailers, but you’re not coming into the stores with large marketing budgets.” This creates an unequal playing field where the Black-owned brands may not perform as well as their white counterparts simply due to a lack of marketing.
Along with Grieco, someone else trying to address this issue is Jaé Joseph, who co-founded Black Apothecary Office (BAO), an incubator for Black beauty and wellness brands which is developing a fund to invest in 100 founders of color. He sees a lack funding and support as being the most pressing issue still facing Black-owned brands.
“I feel a lot of them are reaching a ceiling; there’s barriers to entry to distribution and manufacturing channels, having visibility in these big box stores as well as the marketing that’s put behind certain brands…are not the same,” he says. Marketing aside, brands also often need the capital to be able to manufacture enough product upfront to guarantee the orders from those big retailers.
Hopefully, with funds and incubators for Black-owned brands popping up almost as frequently as retail opportunities, that will become less of a challenge. “There’s just a lot more opportunity from a fundraising perspective, particularly when you’re looking at some of the larger VCs,” says Grieco. “There’s an opportunity to really be catalysts for change and to extend the opportunity for investing in some incredible Black talent and brands.”
But for now, as they begin taking on more independent Black-owned brands, retailers need to consider whether or not they’re setting them up for success. And likewise, founders should be thoughtful about the retail arrangements they enter into.
“My advice would be, do your homework,” says Grieco. “Look at how these retailers are supporting Black-owned brands and — especially if you’re coming into it without a large marketing budget — ask them, ‘How will you best help me to support the brand from a marketing standpoint so that I have the best chance for success?'”
Martin shares that while the mass retailer isn’t perfect, she’s felt particularly supported in her relationship with Target. “I’ve felt supported as a Black founder by Target since 2018, from Black History vendor fairs or them paying for me to attend AfroTech with them,” she says. “I think really being able to do the behind the scenes work, like their Entrepreneurship Advisory Council I’m currently a part of, is the best thing you can do as a retailer right now.”
Retailers might also want think about how they’re highlighting those Black-owned brands, and if they could inadvertently be marginalizing them (even if they aren’t literally locking those products up as stores like Walgreens and CVS did with multicultural products until recently). “Retailers interested in highlighting Black-owned brands should continue to do so in a way that celebrates the brand itself, and not just the fact that it is Black-owned,” offers Carrington. “We want to be highlighted for bringing a great product or service to the marketplace.”
Martin says she feels grateful for the press and retail opportunities she’s been able to take advantage of ever since last spring, but it’s complicated. “I think one of the most frustrating parts of the opportunities is having a wave of retailers now want to carry us, solely because we’re Black-owned,” she says. “Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to let my pride get in the way of my bag and our goals for Rosen, but it’s just interesting that we’re now worthy of their shelf space.”
This persistent emphasis on Blackness on the part of press and retailers can be frustrating for Martin and other founders who want consumers to understand their products are for everyone. At the same time, as Grieco points out, it’s not like there’s a dearth of opportunity within the Black and brown communities. The beauty industry has always profited off of Black women, who statistically spend more on skin-care, hair-care and cosmetic products than other groups.
“When you look at the spend that’s being made toward beauty from Black and brown consumers, I’m really excited for these brands to know that we as communities love to support one another and have such spending power… It’s not about being a Black or brown founder that’s trying to go in and fight bias that is unwinnable; it’s about tapping into, building community with those who really want to move the needle for change — and speaking to your own community, who has been unseen and underserved for so long.”