In The Post-Girlboss Era, What Role Should A Brand Founder Play?

In a recent tweet, business content creator Dulma Altan wrote, “Don’t be the face of your brand. Be the Chief Evangelist. The first requires making the brand story about you as an aspirational figure (e.g. ‘Girlboss era’ brands) but the second is about being a brand ambassador telling the story of the brand, products, and customer.”

Inspired by the tweet, for the latest edition of our ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we asked 19 beauty entrepreneurs, executives, investors, consultants and other experts the following question: With the era of the girlboss ending, what role for and image of a founder, particularly a female founder, do you think will resonate with consumers?

Rachel Roberts Mattox Founder, Oyl + Water 

The girlboss movement, which has been trending for nearly 10 years, was well-intended. It ignited conversations about equality in the workplace, boosted confidence, and celebrated a handful of huge success stories of usually young, beautiful women who launched, scaled, and sold their companies.

But the era was always going to end. It was a milestone on a very long journey towards equality. And true equality comes when we don't need to qualify our leadership role or abilities. Just as Sophia Amoruso ushered in #girlboss, it's going to take female founders to change the conversation and refocus the spotlight on their customers, not themselves.

My goal in supporting founders is to help them build relevant brands for a specific segment of the market, meeting an unmet need and filling a void in their lives. A founder should become obsessed with understanding their customers' lifestyles, behaviors, and values. Their product pipeline and marketing campaigns should be data-informed and customer-centric.

If they are the "face" of the company, they should use their platform to evangelize, as Altan suggests, and to educate and to engage, with an end goal of knowing their customers even better and building a wildly relevant brand. What resonates with a customer is a brand that understands that customer, period.

Founders who can launch, scale and sustain a brand that evolves as their customers evolve, and galvanize a customer base and team that align around shared values is the kind of role model we need now.

Cristina Nuñez Co-Founder and General Partner, True Beauty Ventures

Brand founders above anything else are storytellers. Consumers must see them, hear them, and believe them. The role of the founder is more important than ever for indie beauty brands and is a top investment consideration for True Beauty Ventures.

Founders not only bring a level of credibility to the brand story, but they also act as a conduit between brand and consumer. Particularly in a world of high customer acquisition costs, a founder that creates, engages, and inspires is a huge unlock for brand awareness, conversion, and growth. Consider them your brand’s “free” secret weapon.

Madeline Kaplan Principal, Selva Ventures

I don’t think there is one right way to get your brand message out there. There are many examples of successful brands led by founders who have not been the public face of the brand. That being said, I have a ton of admiration for anyone willing to take a risk, become an entrepreneur and build something.

Founder stories can inspire not only new customers but the next generation of great founders and brands. I think the recent negative press around some of the lead "girlboss" brands is a bit too harsh and counterproductive in moving forward our mission to see more diverse and great founders shaping the future of consumer.

Divya Gugnani Co-Founder and CEO, Wander Beauty

I believe we’re moving into a new era of showing what’s real versus a curated assortment or highlight reel of your life. In the beginning, what resonated with our audience was a polished, aspirational persona complete with curated cappuccinos and filtered photos of the perfect life, but now that’s shifted towards a peek behind the scenes where we share who we are and what we do to bring the brand to life, daily.

With the growth of authenticity-based apps like BeReal, I think founders and business owners should tap into what’s really happening in the moment and show their customers, fans and followers a glimpse into what’s real. There is so much beauty in running a business, but there are also complicated, difficult parts, too, and I believe consumers want to see it all.

Aggie Burnett Founder, AB Creative

I think the personal founder story is important only as it pertains to the transformation or journey of the customer. If it helps to tell the story of how the products will support the customer in some way, then great. If it helps acknowledge to the customer the experience or struggle they've had with their skin, hair, nails, etc., then great.

However, if it's just for the sake of being an aspirational figure, then no I don't think this resonates with customers anymore. Consumers are becoming tired of being influenced by others and just want a brand that can empower them to be the best version of themselves. A brand that can focus on the customer as the hero of that journey will flourish in current times.

Tina Bou-Saba Co-Founder and Co-Managing Partner, Verity Venture Partners

I never liked the girlboss framing. To me, it always felt so cringey. Like, why are we calling this woman a “girl,” and why are we creating unrealistic expectations that practically set her up to fail? Being a female leader in our society is already so challenging.

Even though “girlboss” may have begun with good intentions, in reality it was just another trap in which to ensnare the ambitious female leader. Good riddance to the girlboss! Today’s brand founders should lead with empathy, humility and honesty. We celebrate founders who share the reality behind both victories and challenges, and we believe that consumers do, too.

Rebecca Bartlett Founder and Creative Director, Bartlett Brands

Consumers are not connected to female-founded brands just because of "girlboss." Strong brands are a manifestation of a human, with a clear point of view, personality and voice. Founders play a critical role in the development of a brand's creative expression and the emotional connection with consumers.

When we create founder brands at Bartlett Brands, we build the brand to be able to stand without the founder as "the face" by borrowing the founder's life philosophy and attributes to give the brand a clearly differentiated and meaningful perspective. Consumer connection to female-founded brands will remain strong when brands successfully embody what resonates most from their founders.

Many of the female founders in the upcoming indie brands are positioned as “a friend of the consumer” rather than a figure that is out of reach. Being a founder comes with an abundance of responsibilities. Not only are you expected to lead a brand and team, but, more often than not, the founder is the personality or at least the first brand ambassador. It carries weight for the founder to be an authority, to share their realities, but also be attainable to their community. A

founder has created the brand, usually to solve a gap in the market that they couldn’t find for themselves. That means there will be others who are searching for the same. A strong founder can be relatable, informative and attainable. They will resonate with the consumer when they are truly authentic and share highs, lows, wins and losses at the same time as putting the consumer first.

Jamila Bannister Managing Director, JBannister Branding

More than aspiring to be like a founder, I think the brands that are thriving understand that it's the story of the collective that matters more than anything else. Fenty Beauty is a great example of this. It would have been so easy to create a brand around Rihanna's story, but they cleverly made it about every underserved beauty consumer on the market.

Fenty chose one problem the underserved beauty consumer was experiencing, created a narrative based on consumer feedback, and has been dominating the market since its inception. Very few celebrity beauty brands have been able to replicate this success. Founders should leverage their influence and relationships to bring additional visibility, help their brand penetrate and secure more opportunities for growth.

Fiona Co Chan Founder and CEO, Youthforia

As we are moving into a post-girlboss era, I think having a founder showing up and being authentic as possible will resonate most with consumers. That "girlboss era" female founder evokes an image of highly stylized photoshoots and measured press quotes.

I think what resonates now is just being very authentic. A lot of the day to day of running and growing a business is very unglamorous, and it's nice to be able to share with your community what it's like to actually try to grow a brand, all the wins and all the losses.

Yarden Horwitz Co-Founder, Spate

The previous generation of female founders had to put in the work to prove that women can be taken seriously as leaders. Often, that required taking on a persona that portrayed more traditional qualities of perceived leadership (i.e., using a low tone of voice, authoritative language, extroversion) in order to be accepted as a business leader.

I’m excited to be part of this next generation of female founders that are able to embrace traits that are more typically associated with feminine leadership such as empathy in the workplace. Leading with empathy enables a founder to truly put people (customers and teammates) first.

Not only will this next generation of female founders feel more comfortable in their natural leadership styles, but they will also thrive as brand ambassadors (and Chief Evangelists) in constantly striving to make their customers and teams feel seen and supported.

Rather than having to focus so much on her own image, the next-gen female founder will be able to focus more on relationships with her customers and teams. In doing so, she will empower these people to be the face of the brand with their own stories. These stories will not only be more authentic and relatable to others, but will also lead to more scalable reach on social media platforms.

Of course, in the age of social media, founders may still feel the pressure to have a stronger online presence. Hero Cosmetics founder Ju Rhyu shows us that your presence does not need to be about you, but rather about your company. Sharing learnings, best practices, client “aha moments,” and team wins is a presence that resonates well with today’s viewers, who are turning to social media for educational purposes and inspiration.

Sonia Elyss Founder and Digital Marketing Strategist, Sonia Elyss Consulting

Finding a way to walk the line between a brand with no founder story and a brand where the founder is the entire story is a difficult one, but something that is needed now more than ever. Female founders should be present and forward facing, but consumers also really resonate to seeing the entire team. Sharing the spotlight and conveying that success isn’t a one-woman show is something people can really relate to.

I don’t think founders need to have the social media celebrity status that they did previously in the girlboss era. Consumers are still looking for a face and story they can connect to, but it’s only one piece of a much larger pie. Ingredients that work, peer reviews, sustainability and so much more are now on the table for consideration before purchasing.

Charlene Valledor Co-Founder and President, SOS Beauty

First of all, I’m happy to see the term “girlboss” being retired. Although I’m sure it was coined with good intentions, the term infantilizes women in leadership positions and minimizes their standing to some sort of spokesperson role.

I think the role for any founder, whether male or female, has always been to be the most passionate, tenacious, advocate for not just the brand, but for the mission behind the brand. This is the founder’s role not just to the consumers, but to their internal team at the company and to investors as well. The role is not about them as individuals, but about the culture that he or she inspires and creates within the organization and among the consumer base.

Tyler Williams Founder and CEO, Nouveau Communications

The "girlboss" era and the era of glorifying hustle culture are one in the same, women just got the sexist nickname. One of the most interesting characteristics of the girlboss era was the merging roles of brand founder/CEO and celebrity face.

Founders were expected to be celebrity ambassadors for their own brands. It reached such a tipping point that I have often found in new business meetings that up-and-coming founders (of all genders) were anticipating leveraging their business to become famous or, at least, someone known within the business world.

With the "never not working" mantra of extreme hustle culture no longer en vogue, brand founders will have to adapt their outward messaging in order to connect with consumers. Instead of selling "grind" as an aspirational lifestyle, the modern consumer is much more interested in radical transparency, just look at Mallory Ottariano's recent success on TikTok.

Mission-driven founders who aren't afraid to show bumps in the road will have much more success connecting with customers in the short term.

Ashleigh Barker Head of Beauty and Director in the Consumer Group, Lincoln International

I don’t see where we are as the end of the “girlboss” era. If anything, I think it’s now the status quo, and consumers are continuing to seek out brands backed by individuals with whom they relate to, respect, and aspire to become or identify with, and the nature of the beauty and personal care industry is one that lends itself to elevating the often-female founder story.

However, authenticity and a brand’s mission or purpose for existing are still at the core of any founder story regardless of bringing gender into the fold. Just being a founder or face of the brand won’t be enough for lasting success. Being the evangelist, however, is what drives engagement and community around a brand and keeps its “why,” it’s reason for existing at the forefront of brand messaging.

The biggest challenge facing founder-led brands as they scale and mature is that the founder and how they told the story of their brand to consumers at the beginning begins to fade into the background. It’s no longer a message about why a certain new product is being launched and what’s unique about, it becomes a volume play to get as much product into the hands of as many customers as possible. But this isn’t always the case.

Many brands that have gone on to achieve success have a founder that is still very much a spokesperson for the brand, even if they are no longer running the day-to-day. Staying true to a brand’s purpose and mission is what allows them to continue to resonate with consumers long after the newness wears off.

Danielle Gronich Co-Founder and CEO, Clearstem Skincare

The role of all founders should focus on customer impact, innovation, emotional intelligence and authenticity. Customers deserve to have their lives improved by using our products or services, and it's the job of any good founder to focus on their "why" and help people understand that their product is the best "how.” This role of educator, friend and listener is what will resonate with audiences most, especially if it has some raw authenticity and a relatable founder story.

For female founders especially, I am personally excited for the "girlboss" and "bossbitch" thing to fade away. My co-founder and I like credit for what we've made, not what we were born with. We are just founders. To automatically contextualize by gender is to trivialize, and it distracts from the real founder traits like integrity, innovation and sacrifice.

Rachel Martin Founder and CEO, RemCal Insights

The role of leadership is changing and that's impacting what people want to see in the brands they invest in. It's less about the leader being a “girlboss” and celebrating women rising to the top, but more about leading with emotional intelligence regardless of gender.

Consumers want to connect with the founder because they believe in the founder's mission, why they created the brand. Consumers often prefer local brands because they feel like the founder knows their audience, probably has coffee with them, shops at the same grocery store, etc.

Consumers roll their eyes at celebrity brands. The consumer sentiment is, “Just another big name, out to make more money.” Consumers want to see more people “like me” starting brands. Instead of a “celebrities, they're just like us” page in US Weekly, we need a “founders, they're just like us” in the beauty sphere.

There's also an overall sentiment that, under the current unstable and volatile economic conditions, it becomes even more crucial to lead with emotional intelligence. Consumers would like to see founders who are able to maintain stability within their companies and in relationships with consumers.

In this regard, consumers want to feel support from founders. They want to make sure that, although companies know about some consumers having hard times, favorite brands won't leave their customers behind.

One brand that I feel has been very humble since the beginning of the pandemic (even before!) is Cocokind. The founder Priscilla Tsai speaks from the heart in every stakeholder email.

In the beginning of 2020, she sent out a newsletter with the subject line “All hands,” and it was all about how her customers are the key stakeholders, not investors. It was an email about how she's going to be transparent about the things they're working on, challenges they're having, etc. They continue to impress me!

Diamond Hawkins Founder, Pothos Beauty

I am for sure a Chief Evangelist! To build a business that will make impact and scale for a new future, I believe it is important to build brands that champion others as well as ourselves.

I like to think of myself and Pothos Beauty as the "hypebeast" and "cheerleaders" of our customers, brand partners and the movement for inclusion, meaning to include. With this in mind, brands will not only be able to grow with the support of a space where people see themselves, but expand with stories of their community who is loyal to them.

The approach I like to take when leading Pothos Beauty as an Evangelist is looking at the platform as a club for all my friends and friends to come, a space where people can just be. I get great joy from cheering our partners and customers on and connecting with our audience! Everyone deserves to feel connected and relatable to others. After it's all about unity.

We say at Pothos Beauty, “This is a WE thing.” For everyone, it is just as much your company as mine! I couldn't do this alone, so why not build a company that feels good and believes in togetherness and community. (Secret: It makes it a lot easier to build.)

Conor Begley CSO, CreatorIQ

Aspirational messaging is no longer the ticket to success that it once was for beauty brands. Creators and consumers today want to feel seen and heard by brands, and seek out products that accommodate their unique needs and preferences.

Rather than curating an unattainable, aspirational image, an effective founder today is the steward of a community. They listen to their consumers, and are continually refining their products and messaging to meet audience members where they are, as they are.

One founder who embodies this best practice is Shai Eisenman of gen Z skincare brand Bubble. Even before launching, Eisenman conducted extensive focus group research with teens to understand their product preferences. The Bubble team continues to maintain an open feedback loop with its target consumer base, working with 1,500 gen Zers every few months to better align its product roadmap and marketing strategy with its community’s objectives. As a result, Bubble has seen a 41% year-over-year expansion of its creator community, and 47% YoY increase in share of voice over the past 12 months.

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