I think that rich sense of culture really shines through in the brand. Everything from the packaging to the colors is so on point. I know you have also worked with other big brands such as Revlon and L’Oreal before. How did this period of your life really play into the creation of your own brand?
It played a huge role. I think for me, I wouldn’t have created my brand if I hadn’t had those experiences, good and bad. Because, the good news is, I couldn’t have been a beauty entrepreneur and created what I did in such a short time if I hadn’t practiced and learned from these businesses. I hear a lot of people say they want to break the rules, but you have to know the rules to break them. My experiences there helped me understand the rules. Then I had to figure out which parts of those rules I hated and which parts of those rules I liked. So I learned all the right things – the structure, the discipline, the patience, the way they bring things to life, and the amazing part of it all. I learned so much. i always say that [this brand] is my work and my art. If I can’t wake up every day and love it and do it to the best of my ability, then how can I fall asleep at night? I am very proud of what I do. My goal has always been to do something more and live a meaningful life when [traditionally] women were just supposed to serve a man. Whatever work I did, I was very dedicated because I always wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that we could [always] be more [than that].
When I entered these companies, I was like a sponge. I learned everything I could learn, even about supply chains when I wasn’t working in that department. The bad part was the trauma I endured in those places. And the understanding that if I was sitting in these structures and they didn’t make the world a better place, I couldn’t continue to sit there. And really, that’s what inspired me to burst. I realized that I would never change this ship, I would never turn it upside down. The powers that be were too strong and too big. During my corporate career, even if you had a sexual abuse complaint against a man at the top, you were the one who went there instead. They would give you payment to leave, and that person would stay. It was these crazy toxic structures that made me break out – it wasn’t because I didn’t want to work hard. I have always worked hard. It was just that I knew there had to be a better way to do this. My organization will never be perfect, but I can always create a space where no one will be discriminated against. It was really a big point for me. I left to go and create and participate in the establishment of a new world where we can have organizations (especially in the beauty industry) that are ethical and that can also be profitable. Until someone models this, no one will follow. That’s what I’m excited to continue doing with Uoma Beauty.
I read another interview where you talked about getting six to twelve of your own models into a lab for product development, because most products (like foundation) designed for darker skin types don’t are not even applied to human skin. I’m sure this is just one example of the many challenges people of color face when starting a beauty brand. I would love to hear about these experiences from you and the challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur of color. How did you handle these challenges?
When I start to think about my challenges, there are in so many areas. You are always fighting against biases, especially from the point of view of retailers. You will always educate. If you are lucky, they are ready to receive this education. In most cases, they are not. When you throw [a product], everyone assumes you are an ethnic brand. This never happens to white women. No one ever tells them that. It affects you everywhere. It affects you from the retailer’s point of view, from the investor’s point of view and from the consumer’s point of view. Often, when consumers hear it’s a black-owned brand, they assume it’s an ethnic brand and walk away. This is every infrastructure touchpoint.
If you look at a lot of some of the biggest black-owned brands now, they don’t even talk about color. They don’t even reference their darkness, and they just walk away from it because it’s the best way to do it. So you can imagine how many founders have encountered this when launching a brand. Even during product development, I started telling labs not to show me a formula if it’s the wrong color. It’s insulting to me that you asked for my money but showed me a foundation formula in a light shade and didn’t do the dark ones. Even working with scientists to allow them to create darker shades was a challenge in itself. Upon entering the lab in Milan where I manufacture, I did not find any models [of color] in any agency. I had to go cast in the streets and via WhatsApp.
There are always obstacles you cross every step of the way. And sometimes it will seep into your organization, even into your teams. As soon as you are a woman of color, people are very offended when they receive instructions from you. A friend of mine did some analysis and found that Glassdoor reviews of color founders are generally negative. And you always have to be the one who stays calm, especially with men – a lot of them don’t want to listen to a woman. Some days it’s exhausting. You fight, you educate and everything is more difficult. So it’s not easy being a woman of color in a seat, because you end up being labeled as aggressive.