There’s no question that the beauty industry is changing at a rapid pace. More specifically, the theme of inclusion has spread like wildfire with beauty gurus such as Jackie Aina calling out high profile-brands regarding their lack of shades for women of color.
Many brands are eager to include a wider range of shades to appeal to the black demographic as black shoppers spent nine times more than non-black counterparts on ethnic hair and beauty products in 2017, according to a Nielsen Report published in February of last year.
Thankfully, two enterprising women took note of this growing trend and combined their love of beauty and hair-care to create a space catered specifically to the needs of women of color. Enter Brown Beauty Co-Op.
I got lucky and had the chance to sit down with Brown Beauty Co-Op founders Amaya Smith, also the creator of Product Junkie, and Kimberly Smith of beauty retailer Marjani, to discuss how they combined forces to create Brown Beauty Co-Op and what their plans are for the future.
21Ninety: How did the idea for Brown Beauty Co-Op come to be?
Kimberly Smith: The idea came about with both of us having separate dreams of how we wanted to enter the beauty space. I started an online e-commerce store catered to women of color named Marjani about two years ago, and the intent was always to have a brick and mortar space for the business.
Joining with Amaya, and knowing her goal of wanting to have her hair boutique, we began the conversation around March of last year about co-partnering and opening a space together. From March is pretty much grew from there!
21N: Have you always been in the beauty and wellness sphere, or was that a recent development?
Amaya Smith: I don’t come from the beauty wellness space at all, I come from the world of political communications and PR, but I have had this dream for the past seven to eight years of wanting to own a beauty retail store.
I really got into the natural hair movement after going natural almost 20 years ago. I was involved in the community of naturals who were always talking online and sharing information. There was a shared communal space there, but I was never able to find a similar space in actual retail stores that I went to.
I remember going to one natural hair meet-up at Oyin Handmade in Baltimore when she was starting out, but other than that there weren’t that many spaces for us to actually get shared knowledge, get products, and commune with other women of color who were either transitioning or going through the natural hair process.
I also just kind of loved beauty stores. It’s my thing! I love finding new products, I feel like it’s an acceptable luxury for me. You can buy a new lipstick and feel like it changed your day or made you happy. So, I was always kind of feeling like, why wasn’t there a specific space for us? Other than going to the corner beauty supply store which didn’t really feel adequate.
KS: Similarly to Amaya, beauty isn’t my industry. I am a healthcare attorney, and that was my full-time career prior to opening the Brown Beauty Co-Op. So I approach this business as a consumer, and think about what do I want to see when I shop?
I love going to beauty stores and love spending money on different beauty products. However, I was finding that the amount of money I was spending wasn’t really commensurate with the level of services, or the products I was receiving in the big box retailers or other larger beauty boutiques.
So, approaching this business was really as a customer first. What is it that we really want, and what is it that we really need? And thus began the whole process of wanting to open up something that I felt, for far too long, was kind of missing in the marketplace.
21N: So, when you guys came up with the idea in March of 2018, how long did it take from the conception of the idea to the creation of the brick and mortar store?
KS: I think it went pretty quickly. We came up with the idea in March, and there were a lot of similarities as to what we thought we could do together in the space — like the vision that we had as far as the décor and layout — we were kind of spot on in some of the ideas we were throwing out. The only thing we were thinking of, is how do we have it go beyond retail?
We brainstormed about what we could do to make it more of an experiential space versus just a strictly retail space, and it's not just a beauty supply store, it’s more than that. Then we found the space in June, so it took just a few months to get things rolling! It happened really quickly, probably quicker than most might think.
21N: Can you explain in more detail the concept of Brown Beauty Co-Op, and what makes it different than other salons and beauty stores?
AS: I think the concept is a little indicative in the name. We are pretty clear in our marketing and our branding that we are catering to women of color and people of color, and our concept is curated brands from both of our stores. Brands by people of color and for people of color.
We are cooperative in that we are two separate businesses. Kim and I run our companies underneath the umbrella of Brown Beauty Co-Op, but we have separate processes for curating our selections. Kim does the skincare and makeup, and I focus on the hair care aspect.
In addition, as Kim mentioned, there’s an emphasis on providing a community space for women of color and people of color to actually do events, to learn more about beauty, to get introduced to new brands and to get their makeup done. We’re doing a series of events coming up, and we have a skincare event coming up next weekend as well as a mental health wellness event coming up. We want to be more than just a retail space — we want to integrate the needs that we know women of color have into one holistic beauty space as well.
Another piece of our business is incubation. We want to provide a space for emerging brands to actually debut their brands and get space in an actual retail store, which is oftentimes rare these days. I think people feel like the overhead or the barrier is so high that [selling] online is the only option.
For beauty a big hurdle is to be able to try, smell, look and feel the product in person, so we want to give people an opportunity to be able to use the Brown Beauty Co-Op as a platform to be able to grow their own brands.
21N: Where do you source your products from?
A: Oh, all over the globe! We love to highlight creators here in D.C., but as far as where we curate from we curate from here in D.C., nationally, and we have a lot of international brands— from the U.K., Sweden, and Australia.
There are really no bounds as far as where we want to curate from. For us the bottom line is that the product works, it’s effective, it’s hitting our target, and it’s something that’s new to the market that we can help launch as well, so there are many factors.
21N: So it seems like the process of setting up the brick and mortar store was pretty easy –
KS: No it wasn’t easy! (laughs). I would say that the process happened quickly, but it wasn’t easy. When it comes to commercial space, you can’t really wait on a space – when you find one you have to move on it, which is why it happened quickly for us.
I’m an attorney so we were able to cut that out of the equation as well, as I was able to do all of our contracts myself. Because we had a lot of resources on our end it kind of cut the time that it would have taken someone else to do it. So, that’s why when we found the space it was like okay – we have to move on it. If we don’t someone else is going to get it – and, it could have taken us another year!
So, for all the people that are interested in opening — whether it’s a retail space or any space that involves commercial real estate — you just have to have the right resources, whether you pay for them or tap into friends.
21N: Kimberly, how did your experience with Marjani assist you in the creative process with the Brown Beauty Co-Op, and how are you integrating the two businesses?
KS: With me and Marjani, the great thing is that I already had the framework up. I was already doing retail, and I already had the name out, so it was just a matter of finding a physical home for it. There are still different things that I want to do and grow with Marjani, so this is just the next step. Both businesses can stand on their own, but they’re helping one another. Marjani is boosting Brown Beauty Co-Op, and Brown Beauty Co-Op is boosting Marjani.
21N: That’s awesome! So what are some of your bestselling products, and did that change when you opened Brown Beauty Co-op?
KS: Yes! So I think what’s changed is that now you can actually try the products. Our bestselling items would be the color cosmetics, like the concealers, the foundations and the powders.
Before when I was online I would do pop-ups and foundation matching events, and I really wanted people to be able to actually try the products. It’s hard to match yourself when you’re just looking at a product through your screen! So now when people are coming in, it's like “Okay, hey, I get to walk around and know that I have options when I’m looking for foundations.” So those are definitely one of our top sellers, category wise.
For skincare, a lot of people are looking to create an actual regimen, so a lot of our cleansers and toners are doing really well.
21N: So I know the beauty sphere is always changing — what do you see coming up next as far as trends in the industry? Is there anything you’re looking to add to your collection that you may not have previously considered?
KS: So right now in the process of my buying, I’m basically looking at some gaps in what we’re offering. We’re looking to add more eyeshadows and eyeshadow pallets, and that is something that is really on trend right now. It’s about who’s dropping the next on-trend pallet, and we’re looking to add some different pallets that have a lot of pigmentation and are really suited for various skin tones.
And I mean lips are a staple, but it’s always changing — every season there’s always some new finish that’s coming out, so we’re keeping our eyes out for different shades that are going to pop for the spring.
As far as skincare, people really want to feel that their regimen is catered towards them. For this reason, it’s really great to work with smaller brands that do small batches so that when women come in they can get something that is tailored towards them. They can get certain ingredients or different essential oils that work for their particular skin type.
Also, people are really into what oils and ingredients are in the products and really picking and choosing from different brands what is best for their skin type. So yeah, I don’t think people are really loyal to a specific brand, versus the actual ingredients in the products.
21N: So what makes D.C. the ideal place for this type of venture?
KS: Aside from the fact that we both live and work in the area, it was just ideal for us to be here. Quite honestly for me, it’s a “duh!” How is it that in what used to be called “The Chocolate City” there is a demographic of so many women of color, and we don’t have a store that’s catered to us?
To me, it’s kind of surprising that, one, other stores have not recognized this, and two, that there has not been a store like this before that catered to us. To me, it’s like why hasn’t this happened a long time ago? It should have happened! (laughs)
So the demographic here in the DMV really speaks to a business like this, and really, not to just be in one location, but to have multiple locations to cater to the money that’s being spent by this particular demographic.
21N: So how has the reception of Brown Beauty Co-Op been in the area, and what kind of feedback are you getting?
KS: The feedback has been overwhelming — and overwhelming on the positive side. When we started doing the pre-buzz to the grand opening, it was the excitement of "we can’t wait, it’s about time!" etc. When we finally opened the door, we got a really warm reception.
When we opened this space we wanted it to feel like a community, so when you come in you feel at home, you feel comfortable, and you walk out with connections being made, and that’s something that’s actually happened.
When customers come in, they’re not only able to talk to us, the owners, but they’re able to talk to other women that look like them and have the same experiences as them when it comes to beauty. They can really talk about what’s going on and feel like it’s in a safe and affirmative environment.
So the feedback has been great, and something we envisioned, but obviously it’s great when you actually see it in practice.
21N: How do you think the beauty industry is changing regarding the inclusion of women of color, and do you think there’s still room for growth?
KS: I do think it’s changing with what everyone’s calling “The Fenty Effect.” I think more brands are becoming aware that women of color are not a niche market. We are a demographic that spends, and we should be catered to, but at the same time, I think there’s still so much more room to grow in that area. There are still many women right now who can not find the right shades of foundation depending on where they live, and there are still brands that are very slow to speak to the different skincare needs of women of color, so there’s a lot of room. There’s still a far way to go to make sure that there are plenty of options for us when we’re shopping.
21N: What plans do you have for 2019, and where do you see yourselves at the end of the year?
KS: Our plan right now is to focus on hosting more events, and as Amaya mentioned earlier, our first event is going to be on January 19th. The events we have in the states will be focused on beauty and around women of color in general — so it could be beauty, it could be mental health awareness and it could be self-care. That’s something that we really want to build upon on the course of this year.
This year is really about growing and making sure this location is amazing. So yes, we’d love to have multiple locations, but I think what people don’t realize about starting a business is that you start thinking so far in the future that you don’t really try to build a strong foundation now. In 2020 we’ll be thinking about expansion and all that, but now we just want to make sure this is a solid location.
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