Black women hold so much more power in beauty than we sometimes wield. So when Sephora held a panel of Black beauty bosses discussing representation and inclusion within the industry at its Hudson Yards store in New York City, it was a beautiful reminder.

Hosted by New York Times best-selling author, former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, and Project Runway judge Elaine Welteroth, the conversation included Nancy Twine, founder of Briogeo; KJ Miller, cofounder and co-CEO of Mented Cosmetics; and Sarah Curtis-Henry, general manager of Fresh, North America.

The panel allowed a mix of guests that included Sephora beauty insiders, the media and mall attendees to lean into the discussion, which dug deeply into the personal experiences of Black women in the beauty industry. Much of the conversation was centered on the fact that Black women are now having (and creating) their seats at the table and that they have to use their voices and influence to move the needle on diversity and inclusion, elevating them from being mere buzzwords that are thrown around to pillars for brands.

Diversity for many major brands used to mean sprinkling of a few people of color in their staffs. But now, with social media and the shift in the directive now coming from the consumer instead of the brands, there’s a demand that they acknowledge and embrace their client base.

Beyoncé allegedly walked out of a pitch meeting with Reebok earlier this year because there were no Black people on the team who would have been working on her line. Reebok denied that it was the reason for the singer taking her athleisure wear to Adidas instead, but it still sent a very clear message to brands: diversity and inclusion is a business imperative that can cost you millions if you get it wrong.

Sarah Curtis-Henry understands this point all too well. She has previously held leadership positions at Guerlain, Clinique and Estée Lauder. In her role at Fresh, she leads an expansive team across several departments, including strategy, business development, finance and operations, sales, e-commerce, PR and customer service. Credited as the VP who will take your call when you need advice on your emerging brand, she believes in paying it forward to bring more representation to the table.

“I’ve leveraged being in the room and my increasing authority to put myself on the line for these conversations,” she said. “I feel that my job is to speak on behalf of those who aren’t represented, because I’m one of them.”

For cofounders KJ Miller and Amanda Johnson, Mented Cosmetics came out of a personal need for a nude lipstick that actually matched their darker skin tones. They were fed up with not seeing themselves in beauty lines that were marketed to them.

“This idea of one size fits all beauty was exactly why my partner and I started our company,” she said. “We just wanted to be able to participate. We just wanted to be able to pull a lipstick out that was our natural color. That should be easy, and yet it was so difficult.”

The two Harvard Business School grads didn’t take their issue to an already established brand. They learned how to make lipstick in their kitchen, took the formulations to a chemist and created their own seat at the beauty industry table.

While the beauty industry has made many strides toward diversity and inclusion over the past decade (more so than the fashion industry, as Welteroth pointed out), there’s still a lot of room for growth. Instagram accounts like Estee Laundry and Diet Prada have taken on the task of calling out brands for bad behavior where racism, classism, sexism, cultural appropriation and the like are concerned. And the panelists agree that these issues need to be addressed, but they also think it can become dangerous when it begins to cross the line into cancel culture. 

“I think at the end of the day, everyone is human. And I think it’s about having an honest conversation, owning it, and saying, ‘You know what? That was blind of me, or that was ignorant of me,’” said Nancy Twine, who started Briogeo to fill a void for a clean hair care brand that catered to a diverse clientele. “And it’s not only about owning it, but having introspection and really thinking hard about what you need to be doing going forward to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

And while you don’t want to be the brand associated with a foundation range mocked by consumers as 50 shades of beige, it doesn’t have to be the death of your brand as communities of color are concerned.

Sephora found itself in that same spotlight this spring after singer SZA tweeted that she had been racially profiled by an employee in one of its Calabasas stores. One month later the company held a countrywide shutdown of all its stores across the U.S. for an employee workshop on inclusion and belonging.

The shutdown was part of a larger change for Sephora as it had recently launched a brand-new manifesto, titled “We Belong to Something Beautiful.” The first chapter of the Belong campaign launched in June called “Identify As We,” which focused on gender fluidity and inclusion. And just last week the second part of the campaign, Color Up Close, launched. Part two “honors the diversity of all clients and implements a series of actions to ignite immediate and long-term improvements.”

It zeroes in on the need for brands not only to offer a variety of shade ranges for the consumer but also to embrace their diverse backgrounds as part of the brand’s community. Color Up Close also includes initiatives that include ongoing employee education on inclusion, a $1 million donation to five civic and human rights organizations, and a new COLOR iQ experience with improved color-matching technology.

As guests shuffled out of the event, a Sephora campaign photo featuring several models was their last impression. One of the models is JoAni Johnson, the Black silver-haired 67-year-old who began her modeling career just a few years ago. Her presence is an example of the type of inclusion that we need more of, and her inclusion offers hope that we are moving in the right direction.

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