BLK + GRN’s Purpose Is Much Bigger Than Selling Beauty Products
It’s not usual for the idea of revolution to come up in a discussion of beauty products, but Kristian Henderson isn’t a usual e-commerce entrepreneur. The founder of BLK + GRN as well as a public health professor and millennial lifestyle expert, she’s selling products to help black women embrace wellness while growing black-owned brands and addressing injustices that have plagued the global supply chain. Henderson acknowledges the objectives may be big for a small website. She’s definitely not cowed by obstacles on the road to achieve them. “I’m a mission-driven person. I try to think about ways that I can leave the world in a slightly better place than it was when I was here,” she says. “BLK + GRN is a way to create change, make people healthier and get them more attuned to their bodies through supporting small businesses.” Beauty Independent talked to Henderson about BLK + GRN’s brand criteria, its customers, improving beauty companies and shopping for the greater good.
What’s your career path been like?
I grew up in Little Rock, Ark. I was an overachiever. In high school, I wanted to be a physician. I got into Yale, and I started classes to be a physician. I realized I didn’t like biology. It just wasn’t for me, so I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I was interested in health and business. I thought, “How could I combine the two?” My first thought was health administration, and I got my master’s degree in health policy and administration from Yale, taking one additional year. After that, I went to John Hopkins as an administrative fellow with the purpose of learning how to run a hospital. I was a hospital administrator for about six years. Hospitals are businesses that have to balance margin with mission, but hospitals sometimes get to people too late, and I started to have disagreements with them. I really wanted to help people stay healthy. It’s telling that, in BLK + GRN, I’ve started a business that also has to balance margin and mission. BLK + GRN addresses two movements at once. My target market is black women, and I wanted to connect them to products that are healthier alternatives to the cleaning supplies, makeup and other personal care products they might be using. For a lot of black women, there’s been a movement toward natural hair. They’ve recognized the dangers of chemical relaxers and, from an emotional standpoint, are breaking free of having to fit a very specific aesthetic. In the process of doing that, they are cognizant of products beyond haircare. BLK + GRN helps women find natural options beyond haircare.
How did the concept for BLK + GRN crystallize?
One of my gifts is that I don’t procrastinate. I had the idea one afternoon and a website the next morning. It’s not the version of the website I have today. I personally was looking for these products. I was finding these amazing brands, and my friends, family and colleagues kept asking me to send them lists of brands. I thought, “There has to be a better way of doing this.” At first, I put them all up on the website. It just ended up as a list of brands, and I wanted to make them easier to purchase. A lot of the brands weren’t in major retailers. They all had individual websites, and people would have to buy from different websites if they wanted from many of them. I thought that there needed to be a retailer bringing all of these brands together to solve the shipping issue that was a deterrent from people trying all the brands. We did a soft launch in October 2017, and our official launch is Feb. 2. We are still in the pilot phase. We have 15 vendors and 50 products. There’s probably 200 vendors that we are reaching out to.
What’s the core mission of BLK + GRN?
Our core mission is connecting people with high-quality, toxin-free products that support wellness, and to cultivate forward-thinking black artisans and entrepreneurs. Our vision outside of the mission is to radically disrupt the global economy to equitably include small, black-owned businesses by empowering artisans to grow and scale their businesses. We will revolutionize holistic health by providing people with a customer-centered platform to discover products from all-natural, black-owned brands.
Who is the BLK + GRN customer?
We have named our ideal customer Zora. Zora is discerning. She’s confident, and she’s conscious. She’s the type of person who reads 10 reviews before she makes a choice. She’s thoughtful. She’s listening to podcasts. Zora has a handful of influencers she really loves, and she takes their advice. The way we have been reaching her is through partnering with influencers and creating our own podcast to provide information on the latest and greatest new products.
How do you discover brands?
There are a lot of different ways. Social media is a big way. I will read on one person’s page about a product they like and then I will find another product. I go down a rabbit hole, sending links to my team. There are a lot of fabulous Facebook groups with makers, and sometimes I will post that I’m checking out products in a category. Because we want to find indie brands that are small, we have to dig deep to find them. I will ask people about what they’re loving in case they tell me something I don’t know about.
What brands are right for BLK + GRN?
We like brands that are high quality, and they either need to be vegan, organic, non-toxic, cruelty-free, made with plant-based ingredients or sustainable. Products that fit more than one of those categories, we love even more. We also like products that are different. We love when we see an entrepreneur that’s being creative and identifying gaps for products that other people haven’t identified yet. We are suckers for pretty packaging, too. There are products that we love, but we don’t love the packaging. We tell the artisan, “When you go through the next round of packaging updates, reach back out to us.” We take packaging very seriously.
What are some of your bestselling brands?
One of the brands that is doing really well is Brown & Coconut. It’s a skincare line out of Boston. People go gaga over their face wash. It’s been selling very quickly. Also, we have a jewelry brand that hand makes jewelry out of brass called Mahnal. The second we listed it on our platform, they sold out. She [founder Shayba Diaz Muhammad] has a background in fashion design and really loved minimalist, simple jewelry. She wanted to do something with that aesthetic featuring women of color. We have an all-natural, plant-based cleaning brand called Pur Home. The founder [Angela Richardson] has a sensitivity to scents. She created products because she was having a hard time finding high-quality products with scents that didn’t aggravate her. She has unscented options and, when she does add scents, they are so pleasant. They make you really want to wash the dishes.
What is your top merchandise category?
Right now, beauty is driving the business and skincare is driving it the most, although jewelry is also performing well. For women of color, their hair is what started them rethinking their products, and they are naturally moving on to other things in their bathroom. Then, they will move on to the rest of their house.
How do you prefer brands pursue BLK + GRN?
We have an application link on our website where brands can fill out an application. If we think they’re a good fit, we will follow back up with them and walk them through the steps of sending samples to our experts to check out their ingredients. One of the things we try to pay attention to is the idea of a living wage. We like our brands to source from areas and producers that are paying a living wage. A lot of ingredients come from international sources, and we have a preference for brands that work directly with collectives or farmers that supply ingredients. For instance, we have a company called Hanahana. It’s a shea butter beauty company that works directly with women in Ghana. We can make connections for our brands. I had a couple of brands who were buying shea through secondary and tertiary sources. We helped them get their shea directly. We want to get in the weeds and make sure we understand the full supply chain.
Why is it so important to you to delve into sourcing?
We take our mission — the idea of supporting black-owned businesses — seriously, and we take it all the way down to the level of where you are sourcing your ingredients. Africa is very resource rich and a lot of these raw ingredients come from the continent and, at times, the process of getting the ingredients can be exploitative. We want to help our vendors not be exploitative. Sometimes they don’t know what’s going on. We educate them on the options. We want to make sure we are building sustainable companies from the very beginning.
What does the onboarding process look like?
After brands complete an application, we have a phone call with them where we ask them questions to get an idea of their volume, where they are sourcing ingredients from, and what’s their mission and vision. After that phone call, if it seems like it’s a good match, we ask for samples. Someone on our team samples the products. We give that person 30 days to evaluate them. They look at everything from the packaging to how it feels. The person writes a wrap-up on the products and recommends whether we should carry them or not. With our pre-launch, we have been putting some products on the platform without inventory to see if they move. The vendor will send the products to the customers directly. If the products move, we will pull the trigger on bringing in inventory.
What margins do you work with?
Margins are tight, tighter than [50%]. We are working with indie brands, and the way that works is they make money driving down the cost of their inputs. The way you drive down the cost of your inputs is by driving units in bulk. A lot of our brands can’t buy thousands of units, so they buy lower quantities that are more expensive, which pushes up their costs and, then, it pushes up their prices for a retailer. Our margins get squeezed. On top of the actual products, there is a lot of money that has to be put into PR, marketing and working with influencers.
What’s the key to developing a long-term relationship with BLK + GRN?
A lot of the brands we are looking to work with are small. We have come across brands that we really like, but we still can’t work with them because they are not really companies yet. It’s a person who created a product, but they aren’t consistent with communication or fulfilling orders, and perhaps their products aren’t consistent. When those business pieces aren’t there, it can make it difficult to partner with brands. That has been an issue, but we also want to help those brands grow. What we do that other retailers don’t do is share information. We tell them, “Here are some areas you need to improve, and we would love to offer you a platform after you address those.” Some people might not get better if they don’t get feedback.
BLK + GRN is just getting off the ground, but what’s a benchmark for your business?
What I would like to see happen is for us to get to at least 200 orders a month at $50 each. That comes down to six to seven orders a day. If we could reach that in our first year, I would feel successful.
What has surprised you about what’s captivating your customer so far?
One of the big drivers for this platform was wanting people to try out different vendors and save on shipping by not having to buy from multiple websites. I have been shocked by the number of people who buy one product. I was expecting skincare to be a leader for a while, but I’ve been surprised by how fast jewelry caught on. I have also been surprised by all the amazing influencers that have found out about what we are doing and are talking about it on their own.
Where do you stand on Amazon for the brands you carry?
Some of our brands do retail in other places besides BLK + GRN. Our goal is to establish exclusive relationships, so the only place you could get them is BLK + GRN as well as having exclusive scents or pieces. Amazon solves problems that exist. The downside is that it can push the smaller guy out of business because it’s really hard to compete with Amazon. There’s a segment of the population that cares about buying small and supporting local companies. One of the things I like to say is, “It’s not just about the product you are purchasing, but it’s also about the retailer you are purchasing it from.” When we talk about shop small, it’s not only about supporting small brands. It’s about supporting small indie platforms and retailers.
You have curated lists of black-owned businesses in various cities. Why?
The lists are more on the services side and less on the products side. When I travel to a new city, I think, “Can somebody tell me where the black-owned yoga studios, juice bars and vegan restaurants are?” I have looked for these lists, and there’s so much hodgepodge on the internet that it’s hard to find something curated. That is something we would like to continue to build across the U.S. to connect people with service businesses in their areas.
What techniques are you trying to bring in customers?
I’m really excited about events, pop-up shops and partnerships. We love helping other businesses grow. We live in the generation of the entrepreneur, and there are so many small indie magazines that are that are popping up that might have a readership of 500, but their readership is engaged. We are working with them to curate products that link back to BLK + GRN to connect their readers to us. We are thinking of ways to invest our time and dollars in businesses versus traditional search engine optimization, and pumping money into Google AdWords. We want to be more organic, and we will see if that works.
Have you made a pivot in your business so far that’s improved it?
When I first started, I wasn’t even planning on selling products. I was just going to link out, wait six to nine months, and grow from there. I was talking to an advisor, and he said, “Why are you waiting? Do it now.” I think that was very good advice to start selling products and carve out our piece of the market. If we get somebody who loves our face wash, laundry detergent or dish soap – those products that are used regularly – we can build repeat customers.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned early on about what it takes to be an e-tailer today?
People price compare, so you have to make sure your prices are competitive. Any time I’ve listed the wrong price for something, people know it immediately. They know how much it is supposed to cost and, if they see it on your website for lower, they snap it up immediately. People are willing to pay a little more for quality, but they need a lot of information. We are working on building our product descriptions so customers can make better decisions about what products are best for them.
What are immediate goals for BLK + GRN?
Our number-one goal right now is raising awareness. We need people to know that we exist. So, I’m just getting our name out there as much as possible, and getting people to buy products on the platform and have good experiences with it.