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 that you also worked with other major brands such as Revlon and L’Oréal previously. How did that time in your life really play into the creation of your own brand as well?
It played a huge role. I think for me, I wouldn’t have created my brand if I didn’t have those experiences, both good and bad. Because, the good news is, I wouldn’t have been able to be a beauty entrepreneur and create what I’ve done in such a short period of time if I didn’t practice and learn from those companies. I hear a lot of people say they want to be rule breakers, but you have to know the rules to break them. My experiences there helped me understand the rules. Then, I had to figure out what parts of these rules I hated and what parts of these rules I loved. So I learned all the good things—the structure, discipline, patience, how they bring things to life, and the amazing part about the business 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 do I go to sleep at night? I take a lot of pride in what I do. My goal has always been to do something more and lead a meaningful life when [traditionally] women were just supposed to serve a man. Whatever job I went into, I was very dedicated because I always wanted to prove to myself and everybody else that we can [always] be more [than that].
When I went into these companies, I was like a sponge. I learned everything I could learn—even about supply chains when I didn’t work in that department. The bad part was the trauma that I endured in these places. And the understanding that if I was sitting in these structures and they weren’t making the world a better place, I couldn’t continue to sit there. And really, that’s what inspired me to break out. I realized that I would never change that ship—I would never turn it around. The powers that be were too solid and too big. During my corporate career, even if you had a sexual abuse complaint against a man at the top, you would be the one who went instead. They’d give you a payout for you to go, and that person would stay. It was those crazy toxic structures that made me break out—it wasn’t about me not wanting to work hard. I’ve always worked hard. It was just that I knew there had to be a better way to do this. My organization is never going to be perfect, but I can always create a space where nobody is being discriminated against. That was a really big point for me. I left to go create and be part of setting up a new world where we can have organizations (especially within the beauty industry) that are ethical and can also be profitable. Until somebody models that, nobody’s going to follow. That’s what I’m excited to continue to do with Uoma Beauty.
I read another interview where you talked about taking in anywhere from six to 12 of your own models into a lab for product development because most products (like foundation) made for darker skin tones aren’t even swatched on human skin. I’m sure that’s just one example of the many challenges that people of color face when starting a beauty brand. I would love to hear about those experiences from you and the challenges that you faced being an entrepreneur of color. How did you handle those challenges?
When I start thinking of my challenges, there are some in so many areas. You’re always fighting with biases, especially from a retailer perspective. You will always be educating. If you’re lucky, they’re ready to receive that education. In most cases, they aren’t. When you’re launching [a product], everybody assumes you’re an ethnic brand. That never happens to white women. Nobody ever says that to them. That affects you everywhere. It affects you from a retailer perspective, an investor perspective, and a consumer perspective. Often, when consumers hear it’s a Black-owned brand, they assume it’s an ethnic brand and walk away. That is every single touchpoint in the infrastructure.
If you looked 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 Blackness, and they just stay away from it because that’s the best way to do it. So you can imagine how many founders have ever encountered that when launching a brand. Even during product development, I started to tell labs not to present me a formula if it’s not the right color. It’s insulting to me that you would ask for my money but are showing me a foundation formula in a light shade and telling me you don’t make the dark ones. Even working with scientists to enable them to make darker shades was a challenge in itself. Going into the lab in Milan that I manufacture in, I couldn’t find models [of color] at any agency. I had to go and cast on the streets and through WhatsApp.
There are always hurdles that you’re going through every step of the way. And sometimes it will seep into your organization—even on your teams. The second you’re a woman of color, people get very offended when taking instructions from you. A friend of mine did an analysis and found that the Glassdoor reviews of female founders of color are usually negative. And you always have to be the one staying calm, especially with men—a lot of them don’t want to listen to a woman. Some days, it’s exhausting. You’re fighting, you’re educating, and everything is harder. So it is not easy being a woman of color on a seat, because you end up being labeled aggressive.