Meet The Black Entrepreneurs Fighting Discrimination In The Beauty Supply Sector
Beauty supply stores are staples of the Black community, places where women stock up on haircare items like relaxers, edge control, extensions, wigs and a hodgepodge of other products.
Quantity, though, doesn’t necessarily equal quality. Brittney Ogike, who grew up going to beauty supply stores, felt the beauty supply retail environment was seriously wanting. Aside from discriminatory practices of hyper-surveillance of shoppers by store staff, she thought guidance was nonexistent. “We’re left to fend for ourselves,” says Ogike. “Everything is scattered and unorganized. There’s no design in the space…and it’s been like that for decades, ever since I was a child.”
One incident in the summer of 2018 left a particularly bad taste in her mouth. “I was shopping with my grandmother for a wig at my local beauty supply store and the treatment was just not the best,” recounts Ogike. “It was unfriendly, they couldn’t help us, and they pretty much acted like we didn’t know what we were talking about. When you’re shopping for beauty, especially a wig for my grandmother who’s a cancer survivor, it’s a pretty delicate, sensitive experience, and you want to handle that with care, and they absolutely did not do that.”
Ogike’s negative experience compelled her to start a beauty supply store that was different. In 2019, she opened BeautyBeez in Los Angeles with the idea that “we deserve better.” “Because, at the end of the day, we do,” she says. “Black women spend the most dollars in the beauty category, but I feel like we’re oftentimes neglected.”
Ogike is a member of a growing group of Black entrepreneurs shaking up the $2.5 billion Black haircare market to improve opportunities for their fellow Black Americans. Of the 9,000 beauty supply stores the Black Owned Beauty Supply Organization estimates are in the United States, about 3,000 are owned by Black people. The remainder are predominately owned by Koreans. “Koreans used to have 12,000 stores nationally 15 to 20 years ago, but they are now closing a lot of their stores because they have gotten older and their children do not want to take over the business,” says BOBSA founder Sam Ennon. Ties to their native country, a hub for wig manufacturing, distribution and financing, paved the way for Korean immigrants to enter the U.S. beauty supply store segment.
“So many people have gone into business and gone out because they weren’t able to get what they needed.”
The path for Black entrepreneurs to enter the segment has been riddled with roadblocks. For example, they run into difficulties finding haircare product distributors that will work with them without onerous impediments. Mahisha Dellinger, founder of the haircare brand Curls, chronicled the problem in “Mind Your Business With Mahisha,” her television show on OWN The Oprah Winfrey Network. In it, she visited The Girl Cave, a five-unit beauty supply retailer in LA owned by Lia Dias. Dellinger says, “I noticed that she had really old, decrepit products and only one bottle of Curls. She said she couldn’t get what she needed.”
Black-owned beauty supply stores can’t get the products they need because distributors catering primarily to Korean-owned beauty supply stores require them to pre-pay for goods and pick them up rather than have them shipped, and limit their ability to receive strong sellers. “There’s just a big gap in treatment,” says Dellinger. To combat the uneven treatment, she’s embarked on an initiative called United We Stand: Strategic Alliance With Black-Owned Beauty Supply Stores enabling Black-owned beauty supply stores to access products via a distributor partnership. Dellinger linked Dias up with her distributor partner, which is white-owned, to fill The Girl Cave’s shelves.
Dellinger emphasizes the distribution initiative isn’t about pitting Blacks against Koreans. It’s about leveling the playing field. “So many people have gone into business and gone out because they weren’t able to get what they needed,” she says. “Having this connection will help them get a partner that will help them grow, not by giving them any preferred treatment, but just by being fair.”
Janice Fredericks is very familiar with the hurdles Black-owned beauty supply stores face. She grappled with them at Fabulous Freddy’s, a beauty supply store she owned a decade ago in Queens, N.Y. She would call vendors and be hung up on once they realized she wasn’t Korean. In order to get inventory, she had to team up with another Black beauty supply store owner that had existing vendor accounts. In turn, she began assisting other Black women wanting to follow her footsteps into the beauty supply world through her Retail Genius program. “If they were doing it on their own, they probably would still be trying to get in,” says Fredericks. She’s counseled 100 women who’ve opened beauty supply stores in 48 states.
“I think that’s what it’s all about: Stepping into the space and creating opportunities for others.”
BOBSA also aids with inventory as well as securing financing, another challenge for Black beauty supply store owners. As Business of Fashion outlined in a recent article about beauty supply stores, Korean-owned banks often provide loans to entrepreneurs in their communities encountering language and cultural barriers in dealing with leading national banks. The publication specifies that OneUnited Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in the country, has $650 million in assets. In contrast, Bank of Hope, the largest Korean American-owned bank in the U.S., has $16 billion in assets. Ennon says, “Koreans control the money that was made in our industry, and they kept it amongst themselves and did not use traditional banks.”
Ogike relied on her personal savings to launch her business, a common practice for Black beauty supply store owners. As BeautyBeez grows, she might consider seeking funding. For now, she’s focused on perfecting her elevated retail concept. “I wanted it to be a mix of or a combination of the experience that you get at a Sephora or an Ulta with the essentials of a beauty supply store,” she says. Part of her plan is to onboard and publicize Black-owned beauty brands. The approach is an effective selling tool with BeautyBeez’s mainly minority shoppers. She prefers to interact with brands directly, a tactic allowing her to avoid the issues that arise from negotiating with distributors.
“Brands offer more flexibility in ordering, and we’re also able to establish better relationships with them and cross-promote,” she says. “It’s been a real benefit for us.”
Black-owned beauty supply stores carrying Black-owned brands is critical moving forward, according to Fredericks. “The Black dollar can continue to circulate within our community,” she says. “That’s important for us, to really build up these stores so that we have a community where we can actually buy products that are made from Black women as well.”
Ogike adds that, similar to Korean beauty supply store owners, Black businesspeople should open doors for each other. “I hope [BeautyBeez] shifts consumer behavior and makes our culture and community demand more and better from these stores that profit off of us, but neglect us at the same time,” she says. “I hope it inspires Black people to get into beauty and create the change we wish to see. I think that’s what it’s all about: Stepping into the space and creating opportunities for others.”
- Of the 9,000 beauty supply stores the Black Owned Beauty Supply Organization estimates are in the United States, about 3,000 are owned by Black people. The remainder are predominately owned by Koreans.
- Korean immigrants have created an ecosystem around beauty supply stores in the U.S. that includes distributors. For Black beauty supply stores, those distributors can be difficult to work with. The distributors give them unfavorable terms and restrict them from getting the hottest haircare items.
- Curls founder Mahisha Dellinger has established the initiative United We Stand: Strategic Alliance With Black-Owned Beauty Supply Stores to help Black beauty supply store owners obtain product inventory.
- BeautyBeez owner Brittney Ogike skips distributors and forges relationships directly with brands. She likes to stock her elevated beauty supply store with Black-owned brands.
- Financing can be a hurdle for aspiring Black beauty store owners. Korean-owned banks often provide loans to entrepreneurs in their communities encountering language and cultural barriers in dealing with leading national banks. Those banks have larger asset pools than Black-owned banks. Black beauty store owners commonly have to rely on their personal savings to fund their businesses.
- BOBSA assists Black beauty supply store owners with access to capital and inventory.