What It’s Really Like To Pitch Retailers As A Black Beauty Entrepreneur

In this edition of Beauty Independent’s ongoing series posing questions to beauty entrepreneurs, we ask 20 founders: As a Black brand owner, what’s it been like for you to pitch retailers, and how do you think they could change to have more diverse brand rosters?

JAMIKA MARTIN Founder, Rosen Skincare

This is one of the areas that I feel most impacted as a Black female founder. We're currently carried in Urban Outfitters and hoping to secure some more folks, but I definitely noticed a big discrepancy early on between other brands launching in certain retailers versus ours. It has always felt like my brand had to be better, further along, or I had to work harder to get the same recognition as some other founders who were much smaller, earlier or less ready than I was. 

I think a great step retailers can take on this front is not only allowing more shelf space for Black-owned brands, but including more Black people within the buying decisions (past just multicultural products) to give more founders a fighting chance.

Jessika Carter-Ross Owner and Founder, Madam J Beauty

This is such a loaded question. Initially, it reminds me of the income disparity I've been predisposed to as a Black woman. More often than not, retailers have requested lump sums of money and products that I just don't have access to. My brand currently doesn't have debt and, being that I have student loans to pay off, I want to keep any type of debt to a minimum. 

I reach out to new retailers on a weekly basis whether that be through email, a phone call or social media. As a Black woman, I feel like a lot of retailers don't take into account the resources we actually have. I'm sorry, but $8,000 to attend a trade show in hopes of securing shelf space in a major retailer is a bit of a reach for me. I think change to include more diversity would be offering more opportunities for Black-owned brands based on the quality of the brand versus wanting thousands of dollars just to have a conversation.

Beatrice Dixon Founder and CEO, The Honey Pot

My experience hasn't been the typical experience because I have a background in retail and understand what buyers are looking for. I speak their language, which only makes their job easier. So, they have all been very receptive to the pitch because I come into the room with knowledge of how the industry works. As for how the industry can change, there needs to be more Black or minority decision-makers on the retail side so minority-owned businesses can get the extra attention and opportunity to pitch.

Jennifer Edwards Creator and Chemist, Refinne

Awesome question. We’ve gone out of our own way to build an inclusive, multicultural clean beauty brand. Not all of the outlets and retailers I come into contact with are as welcoming. We’ve definitely had to fight our way through exclusion, but we’re clear on our mission to support the wellness of women and that has carried us through despite some who try to get in our way.  

We also created our own online space for e-commerce that no one can take away from us.  Supporting Black-owned indie brands is a must.  Feature us in your online stores, on shelves, at events and in your images. There are some beauty brands out there serving the Black community that are owned by major global corporations that are not financially giving back to our communities.

MARY-ANDRÉE ARDOUIN-GUERRIER Founder and CEO, Loving Culture

The one thing that really stands out when pitching to some retailers is how my product and its positioning may be misconceived because of my race and the product type even after I have conveyed the fact that it is not a product exclusively for Black customers. I have a very unique consumer segment. Our consumer base is more focused on clean, vegan, sustainable and ethically-based beauty.

Specifically, our revitalizing organic hair oil is a unique product that can be used on various hair types and textures in many different ways. It requires education. Hair oils often get a bad wrap because of the misconception that it will clog pores and is not for thinner textured hair or it is only used for sealing natural hair. The key is how the oil is used and the type of oil. 

Overall, it is important that retailers take the time to open themselves up to the dynamic aspects of beauty that exist worldwide and not be quick to want to put Black-owned products on a shelf that limits our ability to be seen and experienced. Black-owned products are not always limited for use by only Black customers.

LAUREN NAPIER Founder, Lauren Napier Beauty

My experience as a Black founder has been unique. I have been told, “Your name doesn’t sound Black,” or “This doesn’t look like a Black brand.” These are racist statements, full stop. What it says to me is there is prejudice, a prejudgment by the retail and buying community on how Black-owned brands look and feel. Black people like nice things, we enjoy luxury products. We are not a monolith. Lauren Napier Beauty is a luxury brand and an elevated experience because this is my experience. 

I was able to navigate this because I am resilient and microaggressions are ambient. I was able to push back because Lauren Napier Beauty’s quality and point of difference is unique to the beauty and skincare space. There are a litany of ways to end this cycle, the answer is resetting internal operations. Hire buyers with a more expansive point of view who share experiences with a larger and more inclusive customer base.

MELINDA HERRON Founder, 103 Collection

Last year, we had a meeting with a big-box retailer, and it was an eye-opening experience. That meeting made us restructure our business to incorporate retail opportunities and also rebrand our company to be shelf ready. I believe that these retailers are very interested in Black-owned brands, but they need to allow more opportunities for smaller brands to enter the retail space. 

They can try a limited number of test stores, in-store pop-ups, social media support and highlight more Black business owners. Reducing the cost of shelf space to new brands for a four-week period during the test market and also sponsoring community events so the partnership can highlight the community engagement are ways that they could include more diversity.

Sharon Chuter Founder, UOMA Beauty

I have to note that my experience is not typical. I had the advantage of being in the industry beforehand, pitching to retailers for 13 years before I presented to Ulta. This is not something that is true for most Black founders. My experience was really good. I met Ulta by chance at an event. I met David [Kimbell, president of Ulta], who I didn’t know at the time, [was] the CMO, and he introduced me to his team members and then I was invited to pitch at their HQ. 

I pitched to a room full of 12 or 14 women who were lovely and friendly. The head of integrated marketing at Ulta, Karla [Davis], is a Black woman, and it made me feel immediately at ease and more comfortable. I remember that I kept looking to her during my presentation to see how she was reacting. It showed me the importance of having diversity in a room. Their response was quick and instant. They loved us. Same with Selfridges.

Retailers need to do more work on their diversity, absolutely. This is where unconscious bias comes into play. Black businesses aren’t very well understood, and we are all grouped together. You would never expect Lancôme to be grouped with a Glossier. They are in completely different categories. One isn’t better or worse. They just literally are in different categories, but Black brands are almost always benchmarked together, regardless of the level of product. 

I’ve been told I can’t get into Sephora because Fenty is sold there. Why? There are lots of white-owned brands that are sold side by side at Sephora. Too Faced and Benefit can live in the same store, why can’t two Black brands? Having one doesn’t mean you can't have the other. It shouldn’t be a matter of, “Oh, we already have a Black brand, so that box is checked off.” Retailers should be looking at the concept of the brands, not whether or not they are Black-owned. They also need to provide support to the Black brands they do bring in. 

Retailers could do a better job when it comes to the attention they give to emerging brands. A lot of the time, they let the emerging brands fend for themselves while they support and market the larger brands. The larger brands don’t need it. The loyal customers of the brand will find it regardless of where it is placed in a store. It’s time to give consumers what they’re asking for: unique stories, not the same ones we literally see in every single store layout.

Tami Blake Founder and Formulator, Free + True

My brand is just over a year old. Throughout that first year, we focused on meeting buyers via trade shows. As a biracial Black and Japanese founder, I'm obviously a brand that celebrates diversity and inclusion. My hope is that buyers will recognize that my products are amazing and give me the same opportunities as other brands. Regardless of race, my goal has always been to work hard to get my brand in front of as many buyers as possible. I understand that it takes time for retailers to get to know me and the brand, and that "not right now" doesn't mean "never."  

Beauty consumers are diverse, which means bringing in Black-owned brands and brands of color is good for business. Retailers can promote more diversity by hiring Black buyers, making an effort to seek out brands that are Black-owned, and by promoting more diversity in marketing images and on executive teams. Representation from all walks of life helps organizations thrive and brings the advantage of diverse cultural perspectives. We've all seen brands face backlash for failed, racist ad campaigns because they didn't have diverse representation on the leadership team.

As a consumer, I am always motivated to support brands that promote diversity. I grew up in San Francisco and had a friend from every continent on the planet. Diversity is in my DNA. It's part of my life experience, and I use that cultural lens in all of my decision making as a brand founder. I've been blessed with that advantage. In 2020, I'd like to see retailers take it a step beyond advertising and hire more diversity on the executive and management levels. I'd also like to see more mainstream retailers take the 15% Pledge because it's really a win-win for all.

Yoki Kiva Hanley Owner and President, Itiba Beauty

It has been exceedingly difficult pitching to retailers as a Black-owned brand. Yes, I am a Black woman, and I own a skincare product, but my products are not only for Black women or women of color. If you have skin, then the products that I make are for you, regardless of the color of your skin. 

I remember one time I was pitching to a department store in the States. Everything was going well. They were showing interest, and we were moving along nicely. They had requested a bio to include a headshot to move along to the next step. I literally did not hear back from the buyer or anyone associated with the store again after they received the bio. My emails and phone calls went virtually unanswered. That was my first experience and, sad to say, it was not my last. It is frustrating to be denied even a look because of the color of your skin. 

How could companies include more diversity? This is a tough one because I look at what Sephora just did with saying that they are dedicating 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. While that is a nice gesture, what else are they doing? Are they also making sure that Black people are buyers and executives within the company, thereby ensuring that more Black-owned brands will have a chance of being seen and heard? 

Our buying power is immense! And yet we are the most underrepresented segment on the shelves, whether for products made for Black women or products made by Black women. What other companies, including Sephora, can do is make themselves accountable for actively seeking out Black-owned brands and bringing them into the stores and onto the shelves. And they can do that by ensuring that their buyers are Black people, and that their executives are also Black women and men. 

Also, just because a brand is Black-owned, does not necessarily mean that the products are geared only for Black people or people of color. Many Black-owned brands, like myself, make products for people with a specific skin type like sensitive skin, dry skin, oily skin, someone suffering from eczema and the like. Those are problems that everyone suffers from, not just Black people. Basically, if you have skin, you can use the products. 

It hurts me when someone says, “I think your products are great, but it wouldn’t work for someone like me.” When I ask them why, of course, the response is because they are not Black. My response is always, “But you have skin, so this product is just what you need.”

Calvin Quallis Founder and CEO, Scotch Porter

As a Black-owned brand that is inclusive and addresses the need state of a range of men with different colors and diverse textures, I find it a bit limiting to be placed in a box that tags us as a brand for just Black people. We proudly feature and highlight Black and brown men as it’s important to see people that look like me and our team, but our customer base is made up of a wide spectrum of diverse races and ethnicities. Therefore, decisions on distribution should be reflective of reach.

Anne Beal Founder, AbsoluteJOI

We are a clean beauty brand, and I think clean beauty retailers don’t know whether or not there is a demand from Black consumers for clean products. Honestly, we’ve done best with small, Black-owned specialty retailers who seem more willing to try new brands. When we first got into a general, non-ethnic retailer, our products sold out within one week without marketing! The store owner told us customers came in asking for Black-owned brands, and he was finally able to meet their needs. 

I think retailers need to be willing to take a chance on new brands and need to deliberately seek out diverse brand owners. They should also be mindful of imagery and staff to make sure they are representative. Especially in clean beauty, the imagery is often not inclusive, and both customers and brands looking for one another may not feel welcome when walking into retail shops.

Funlayo Alabi CEO and Co-Founder, Shea Radiance

I’ll share a personal story on what it’s like to be a Black-owned beauty brand navigating the retail world. Last year, I pitched our line of body care products to a regional retail chain. I had done my research and knew they didn’t carry products like ours. I knew this could be a great opportunity to help them expand their natural product offerings. The body care buyer liked our products, but told me he couldn’t bring them in because they had another brand that was doing something similar. 

I asked him about the brand and did more research on my own. My research showed that the only thing we had in common was that both brands were owned by Black women. Our unique selling propositions, brand stories, packaging and product formulations were different. Without saying it directly, the gatekeeper had decided that only one Black beauty brand could exist in his store. In some perverse way, his selection was not based on building a functional assortment of products, but the race of the brand owners. I brought the issue to the buyer’s attention and went even further to explain that, beyond my pain of dealing with this bias, he was hurting his stores.

Here’s what retailers are missing when they limit their product offerings. Just as K-Beauty products are not limited to women of Korean heritage, but deliver value to customers of all ethnicities, so it is with products created by women of color. Retailers do all their customers a disservice when they do not offer a variety of solutions. Black-owned beauty brands are known for creativity and innovation driven by a need to create beauty solutions that are missing in the marketplace. These solutions not only meet the needs of Black customers, but that of a diverse group of potential customers.

Black customers' needs are marginalized when retailers limit the number of brands they have access to. Why should Black customers have only one or two options to choose from while white customers have access to unlimited options? Like our white counterparts, Black customers have diverse beauty needs that cannot possibly be met by just one brand.

My conclusion is that forward-thinking retailers will work on removing the blinders of ethnic and racial bias. They will embrace the ethos of #PullupOrShutUp and consider the merits of the 15% Pledge. They understand that, to remain relevant and sustainable, they must do the right thing. Ultimately, they know that diversifying the beauty landscape means more satisfied customers, thriving brands and more profits.

Melody Bockelman Founder, Private Label Insider

In 2018, I had the opportunity to present a brand to 10 different buyers at a well-known beauty trade show in Vegas. The Black-owned celebrity brand was well prepared, had an amazing pitch deck, and invested in both print materials and samples. We prepared for several months working with a team of experts for our one-on-one meetings.  

We spent all day meeting buyers from American Eagle, Anthropologie, Barneys, Follain, Detox Market, Macy’s, Nordstrom, HSN and QVC, an opportunity that we were thrilled to have!  However, it felt like only a handful of the stores could “see” a place for us in their retail space. Some of the feedback that we received was we were too “urban” for them or not a clean enough brand.  

Out of the 10 buyers, only Macy’s could see some opportunities for having in-store demos and collaborations with the brand as they were in the process of rolling out Market by Macy’s and appreciated the value of the brand. The other striking thing was there was only one Black buyer out of the 10! We all hugged as she was thrilled to see a Black-owned brand during the expo.   

In the end, despite being prepared, all of the buyers passed. I truly believe that they passed because they weren’t looking at the opportunities that Black brands could bring to them and automatically dismissed the brand as “urban” and “ethnic,” and not a fit. Their focus was pretty narrow on looking for brands that were similar to what they currently had on the shelves. 

Retailers need to do better. Retailers need to think bigger and broader. The beauty industry has to do better. Let’s start here: Retailers need to include more diversity on their teams. The one Black buyer was excited to see us in the private rooms because we were an anomaly. We were the only brand of color that made it into the buyer room amongst thousands of brands at the show.  

Retailers need more education for their teams. Fundamentally, most Black-owned brands [have] clean, healthy, and well-made products from brand owners who are dedicated to the highest standard of ingredients. We have always been clean before clean was a thing. Many Black founders start brands because they have sensitivities and need clean, simple ingredients. 

A broader idea of beauty [is needed]. Black-owned brands are not just for Black people. The majority of the Black-owned brands are created with clean ingredients and designed to solve a problem in the marketplace that affects the majority of human beings. Labeling Black-owned brands as “urban” or “ethnic,” and putting us in a corner is short-changing both the brand owner and consumers. 

Retailers need to be more intentional. I would love to see retailers make an intentional effort to include, mentor and seek out Black-owned brands. This brand owner was lucky that she could afford the investment to be in that room. For many Black-owned brands, it would be cost prohibitive. There is an opportunity for retailers who are committed to change to create a mentorship program that intentionally works with up-and-coming Black owned brands to prepare them to be on their shelves. I've been in the beauty space since 2004. It is time to even the playing field and consider Black founders as equal and valuable partners in the beauty space.

Dionne Phillips Founder, D'Lashes

As a Black-owned brand, my experience pitching to retailers has been daunting. First, there are not enough representatives for smaller brands moving into the larger retail space to help with buyer guidance. My experience has been trying to locate and pinpoint the ever-changing retail buyers. Due to the constant revolving door of buyers and the lack of knowledge about Black-owned brands, we rarely get seen. 

There’s also not enough resources available to help Black-owned brands understand the scaling aspect for getting into retail. Smaller, amazing brands moving into big-box retailers don’t have the product capacity to meet store demands. They also don't fully understand the proper process which is needed to be in that particular retail store. There is so much information online to read, but there’s not a direct resource to meet and greet retail buyers. 

My journey has been a challenge due to the lack of information and resources, available capital to scale and, of course, buyers aware of Black-owned brands. They have to understand that the Black and brown consumer buys nine times as much as our non-Black consumer. We don’t get seen. It’s usually a small little shelf at the bottom in the back of the store to maybe find a product you were looking for. We don’t get much shelf space at all. 

I’m never surprised walking into a CVS or Walgreens that there are the little “Black sections.” It always makes me sad. We are trend setters! So, why don’t we have huge sections in stores that represent us? So, to change that, there needs to be more buyer knowledge that African Americans spend $1.2 trillion each year, and that number is projected to rise beyond $1.5 trillion by 2021.   

We need larger shelf space of “inclusion” in retail for that awareness, not only diversity. There’s a difference! Some retail buyer portals are starting to pop up online, but they don't provide much information or cost way too much to access. The guidance for retail buyers is lacking, and your brand ends up not being approved due to this lack of information. 

Retail buyers can change that by not only having diversity, but inclusion of Black-owned brands. They could possibly bring in someone from headquarters, who has had the experience and challenge of trying to get their products into retail. There needs to be more awareness of diverse buyers to introduce Black brands to accelerators, investors, etc., to help guide the process of getting into retail. My daily challenge is educating and making introductions to buyers that I find online.

Jasmine Lewis Founder and CEO, Vie Beauty

We actually just launched our first product, 30ROSES, in April, so this is a new space for us. With the push for diversity and inclusion, I feel like it has given us more of an opportunity to be seen and acknowledged as opposed to maybe a few months ago. Retailers have taken the 15% pledge along with offering programs that are opening the doors to more indie Black brands, but there has to be a long-term action plan to keep us there.

It is extremely expensive to be on the shelves in the retail space and, oftentimes, we do not have capital for a larger marketing budget or supply chain unlike other brands so creating a plan, support system and resources in the first year will yield a high success rate for us. Support would come in the form of accessing in-house marketing campaigns, budgets to create mainstream ads or even resources that we can tap into to keep the space with the retailer for years to come. 

Championing inclusion and diversity is an opportunity for the retailers to cultivate a relationship with the brands in order to speak to their values for customers. It doesn’t just stop at the brands that they are including, but also the work culture and commitment to welcoming a diverse shopping clientele in their stores. 

Retailers can‘t just place Black brands to meet “numbers,” they have to be willing to actually invest time and value in our brands in order for us to sustain being there.

Shani Darden Founder, Shani Darden Skin Care

I’m thrilled to see retailers like Sephora are prioritizing diversity when thinking about what brands they carry and determining their assortments. I think seeing more diversity at the leadership level will really bring a wider range of perspectives to the table and will have a trickle down effect on how well retailers are at creating a more diverse customer experience. The past month, we’ve garnered a lot of momentum for change, and I’m hoping it will result in real change.

Adodo Robinson Founder, Delali Robinson Cosmetics

I have not pitched to retailers personally. I did, however, attend a few workshops and spoke to entrepreneurs that have, which gave me mixed feelings about that approach for my brand, especially when it comes to the size of inventory required and investment for a small starter brand like mine.

EnJunaya Canton Founder, Zuhuri Beauty

My experience pitching to retailers when I first began was very discouraging. I learned many retailers only focused on partnering with larger Black-owned brands well-known through celebrity endorsements or trends due to their sponsorship or ability to offer thousands of units to begin a partnership. It has also been a challenge because many of us have to literally fight for a very small amount of space in retail stores. It is exhausting and emotionally draining.

Since being in business and scaling over the past four years with these and other obstacles, I began changing my focus on how to reach my target audience. I realized that I wanted to partner with companies that  consistently showcase their love for people of various cultures and who have long-term partnerships with Black-owned brands. Currently, the largest percentage of my partners are Black-owned beauty stores. I refuse to keep fighting to try to be the one brand that Sally's, Macy's, Nordstrom's, Target, CVS, Sephora, Ulta, Planet Beauty, Walmart, etc., showcase when I know there are other smaller retailers of all races who love Black-owned businesses, brands and products.

Even if you break it down into profit, retailers are aware of the spending habits of Black people, especially in hair, skincare and makeup. Even if they do not accept us for even that reason, then we can all clearly understand why they do not. It is not a priority for them to include us.

Selam Kelati Founder, I+I Botanicals

We have clean and effective skincare products. Our brand is intentionally designed to create products that contain natural and healthy ingredients and is enclosed in environmentally-friendly packaging. While we know we have a well-rounded brand, when pitching our brand to retailers, I find myself overly prepared, and I never miss a beat.

As a Black business owner, I am well aware of the presumptions we are facing every day. Many false generalizations have been force-fed to the industry. As far as showing up at pitches, I am at a disadvantage before I make a pitch, so I approach it like everything else in my life. My bar as a Black woman is always set higher than any other race, so I know I have to always set myself apart from my competitors, double-, triple-check everything, and dot all my i's and cross my t's.

In order for retailers to have more diverse brand rosters, first they need to recognize the disparity and economic inequality among Black businesses versus others. Black brands are constantly struggling with the cost of getting products on retail shelves, the unfavorable payment terms and the requirements for ongoing promotions. While the #15PercentPledge movement is encouraging, retailers need to change within themselves by having more diverse decision makers bringing new brands to their stores.

Creating shelf space for diversity not only helps the brands and the retailers, it also gives consumers access to potential beauty solutions. Bottom line, it is a win win for everyone.

If you have a question you’d like Beauty Independent to ask beauty entrepreneurs, please send it to [email protected].