Two Harvard Business School graduates talk about the realities of starting a cosmetics business created for and by Black women.
KJ Miller and Amanda Johnson knew they wanted to work together after graduating Harvard Business School, but they didn’t have any idea on the type of business to launch. Finally, after many months of meeting up to discuss life hacks, the duo realized the beauty industry needed cosmetics for women of color. They grabbed a few hot plates, a glass of pinot and began mixing shades in their kitchen. Six shades later, Mented Cosmetics was born.
“We knew we were on to something when makeup artists were requesting our samples,” says Johnson. “We had a great team, an idea we were passionate about and a product that people were demanding. It was then we knew we were ready for launch.”
All lipsticks are vegan, paraben-free, non-toxic, cruelty free and proudly made in the USA. Here, the dream team talks how they’re on a mission to revolutionize the way the beauty industry sees women of color.
ESSENCE: Having the funding to start a makeup company can be a challenge. How did you raise money?
KJ: It’s no secret that raising money for a new venture can be difficult—especially for women of color. According to a recent report by First Round Capital, women of color receive only .2% of venture capital, and Mented is fortunate enough to be a part of that .2%. Raising money can be a long, arduous process, and it’s one I think a lot of women of color shy away from because the odds feel (and often are) stacked against us.
But I knew the only way we’d feel comfortable leaving our full-time jobs was if we raised money upfront, and this knowledge is what kept us going. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to mine your network. You’d be surprised how well connected you are—but you’ll have to dig through your 2nd/3rd connections on LinkedIn to carve a path to the angel and venture investors who will be of most help to you.
ESSENCE: Has starting your own business been everything you expected? What does having a Black-owned business mean to you?
KJ Miller: It's been much more than I ever expected. It is such a blessing to wake up every morning excited about your work, and it's immensely satisfying to be able to positively affect other people of color along the way. It means the world to me to not only be running a Black-owned enterprise, but to have the opportunity to hire women of color as our employees and interns, cast women of color in our photo and video shoots, work with manufacturers and warehouses run by people of color, give our time and resources to minority-focused charities...the list goes on.
As an entrepreneur, I've been focused not just on our success, but on our ability to spread the wealth amongst our community. It’s an awesome thing to be able to do.
Amanda Johnson: I didn’t know I wanted to start a business until I had an idea I was passionate about. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur, simply as a problem solver, and now the problem of beauty inclusivity has become my white whale. For me entrepreneurship is all about sacrifice, passion and dedication to a dream that gives you meaning.
It’s all been worth it to see our dream become a reality and build this great community of women of color who are all dedicated to growing Mented with us. As a Black business owner, there are high expectations, but I think they are well deserved because it is up to all of us to keep our communities growing.
ESSENCE: What is the beauty industry missing these days?
KJ Miller: Diversity is the obvious answer, and I think that's particularly true when it comes to everyday, natural beauty looks. Women of color are often backed into the "bold" corner when it comes to beauty, because so many brands don't really know what to do with deeper skin tones other than drape them in bright, fierce colors. I love a bold look as much as the next girl, but that's not my everyday. Women of color deserve soft, natural, every day beauty looks just as much as Caucasian women, and Mented exists to fill that gap.
Amanda Johnson: The beauty industry is missing product innovation. For every holographic and glitter trend, there are basic products missing for women of color. The industry has forgotten about the almost 40% of US women who aren’t white. Relegating deeper skin tones to the last three unflattering shades in a product assortment is unfair and ridiculous.
The beauty industry has not taken into account the nuances and undertones for women of color. It’s a lazy way to do business that abandons a whole swath of consumers that are eager to participate in beauty. We need to start more beauty businesses targeting women of color and large corporations need to hire more women of color that can provide different perspectives, this will ultimately lead to more choices for the consumer. At Mented we believe that every woman should be able to find herself in the world of beauty and we mean to be a major influence in that becoming a reality.
ESSENCE: Do you have plans to expand the business?
KJ Miller: Absolutely! We've got a lot of awesome products in the works, including our incredible nude lipgloss line that's launching this fall. We survey our customers regularly, and we get asked all the time "When will you be launching eye shadow? When will you be launching foundation?"
We always answer "It's coming, don't worry!" We are focused on building a brand that feels like a home for women of color, and continued product development is a big part of that journey.
ESSENCE: What separates your business from competitors?
KJ Miller: I think what truly sets Mented apart is our focus on classic, timeless beauty. We're not chasing trends—you're never going to hear us touting the latest unicorn lip plumping serum. As fun as beauty trends can be, we think there are plenty of brands to turn to for that.
We're focused on building a brand that women can turn to for all of their foundational needs—the everyday nude lip you wear without thinking, the classic nude nail polish that's perfect for any setting. These are the items we think women will keep returning to, and we want to be there when they do.
Amanda Johnson: We had a problem and we decided to solve it. We are a part of the community we serve and we are passionate about working with our community to create a new type of beauty brand. That passion and authenticity is what will separate us from competitors for years to come.
We are making great products that actually solve the needs of our community and we are showcasing the beauty of diversity by highlighting women of various skin tones. We are revolutionizing the way women of color see themselves in beauty and the way the beauty industry sees women of color.
ESSENCE: Have you partnered with any celebrities? If so, who? If not, are their plans?
Amanda Johnson: Absolutely! It’s always a nerve-racking process to send the product you love out in the world for it to be judged by the experts. We’ve been incredibly fortunate that some amazing online beauty gurus have loved our product including, Jackie Aina and Evelyn from the Internets. We would love to have all of Black Hollywood in Mented products one day and we’re working on that becoming a reality.
ESSENCE: What would your top piece of advice be to someone who is thinking of starting their own beauty business?
KJ: First, know your audience. One of the things that has helped us tremendously is being hyper-focused on our core customer—we're not trying to be everything to everybody. Women of color are our priority, and though we have white customers (who we love!), we make our decisions with our target customer clearly in mind. The other thing I would say is you have to be really clear about what problem you're solving.
One of our earliest marketing campaigns had a picture of four gorgeous women of color with the tagline, "Finally, nudes for the rest of us." This ad worked because it quickly identified the issue we're addressing—women of color have been left out of the nude beauty landscape for too long. If you can be clear on what you're bringing to the table, and who you're going after, you'll set yourself up for success.
Amanda Johnson: My advice would be to do it. Start the process and just go for it. If you’re passionate about the idea, you will hustle to make your dreams come true. And if it’s not the business for you, it will quickly become apparent. The beauty industry is crowded and you have to provide a true differentiator so consumers are compelled to try your product. Gone are the days where you can just put your name on a general product and make millions. The point is that you must be more optimistic than fearful about your idea and you have to have the bravery to start.
KJ & Amanda's Top 4 Beauty Must-Haves
ESSENCE: YouTube beauty gurus are on the rise. What does this mean for the future of your business?
Amanda Johnson: Mented really got its start thanks to the influencers and makeup artists on Instagram that believed in our dream. We would send our handmade product to influencers for feedback and they loved the product and shared it with their followers. So we are excited that the journey of Mented is shared with these incredible social gurus that are forgoing a new path in beauty. They are pioneers and we can’t wait to see what future collaborations look like.