At the start of 2020, Eunice Cofie-Obeng was on track to launch nine new products for her skin-care brand Nuekie.
That was, of course, before the coronavirus pandemic upended business plans around the world. In Cofie-Obeng's case, not receiving the bottles, jars, pump dispensers, and other packaging items sourced from manufacturers overseas was a tremendous setback.
"A lot of those businesses in China shut down," she explains to Allure, adding that the closures were sudden and without notice. "We would constantly email or call, and no one was responding."
Be it Black-owned beauty businesses like Nuekie, or anyone else who set yearly goals for their enterprise, no one could have imagined or truly prepared for an economic disruption like COVID-19. In spite of the pandemic, however, many Black beauty entrepreneurs are feeling optimistic about the future of their businesses, according to a new economic data study from global think tank Ready to Beauty.
The study, "Readiness is the New Green," brought together more than 70 Black beauty business founders, executives, and thought leaders to take an economic snapshot of the U.S. beauty industry from their perspective, Ready to Beauty founder Corey Huggins tells Allure. In a similar fashion, Ready to Beauty brought together more than 70 professionals from the general beauty market, to compare and contrast data findings. The general beauty market panel, which included current and former students from The Fashion Institute of Technology’s Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management graduate program, was made up of people with leadership positions in the beauty industry, according to Huggins.
Tadrya Mitchell Jackson, head of marketing at The Lip Bar (TLB), says the company doubled its business in 2020, adding that the brand saw success in quickly adapting to the disruption caused by the pandemic. After pushing back several product launches as a result, she says the brand’s digital messaging changed "to reflect a sensitivity and compassion for what our customers were experiencing." Mitchell Jackson says they then boosted morale with product giveaways before announcing new product launches. Cofie-Obeng solved her packaging problem by joining forces with other Black-owned businesses to share and trade materials they needed amongst themselves.
Both brands also saw a boost in business from the Buy Black movement, which came out of social unrest and national headlines surrounding the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year.
"We saw support from non-Black customers, we saw support from even non-Black influencers, who I think did a really good job boosting and supporting Black businesses across the board," says Mitchell Jackson. "We definitely rode the tailwind of that into the end of 2020."
The support for Black-owned businesses must continue, though, in order for lasting change to occur, says Cheryl Grace, former senior vice president of global marketing, shopper, and community engagement at NielsenIQ.
Grace, currently a strategic adviser to Ready to Beauty's data study and author of the study's foreword, was assisted by a team of researchers from Nielsen for the qualitative data review. She says there are a number of instances that showed a disconnect between what the Black panel participants say they need from the industry and what members of the general market panel presumed they need.
When it came to the resources to conduct business, key findings of the study highlight one of those differences in perceptions.
"Specifically, 93 percent of the general market panel believe that the beauty industry should be assisting Black/African American entrepreneurs and brands with mentoring and business management skills development," according to the study.
When the Black beauty brand owners were asked the same question, 92 percent pointed instead to investments and/or working capital as the top economic reform needed to better assist Black-owned brands, with mentoring and improving business skills coming in at second (77 percent).
"And unless there's a study like this that points to and pinpoints those discrepancies so that more courageous conversations are going to be had, you're never going to find a way to level the playing field," Grace notes.
Leveling the playing field includes Black people having a seat in rooms where important industry decisions are being made, she says. Last year, cosmetic companies responded to the #PullUpOrShutUp challenge, with some openly admitting there is work to be done in hiring more Black employees, particularly in leadership positions.
"So I just want to make sure that 2020 goes beyond those flash-in-the-pan commitments and social media proclamations to long-term change," says Grace.
There are Black-owned beauty brands seeing that momentum from 2020 continue into the new year, like Janell Stephens, CEO of the brand Camille Rose. Stephens has been offered grants to advertise in the circular ads of some of the stores that carry her product, and those stores have made coveted shelf space more available to her.
"I've seen that [advertising] discounts are being given and breaks are being given to smaller brands like mine," she explains. "Before, they would charge a [Unilever] the same amount they would charge a Camille Rose. It's impossible for us to compete that way, and they're realizing that."
The study notes that, for Black-owned beauty businesses, "access to capital will be the great equalizer and allow for all things to be made possible."
However, when it came to how those same panelists would rate their relationship with their banking officer since the pandemic, the top two responses are "OK" (35 percent) and "Not Applicable" (33 percent), suggesting that either there is no person-to-person relationship at their respective bank and, if there is, it's base level, the study notes.
This played out in the pandemic in the case of the U.S. Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, says William Towns, adjunct professor of social impact at Northwestern University. He says Black people have historically experienced challenges related to connections and relationships with banks or lending institutions.
"When these opportunities to find support during a crisis or a pandemic happen, it's really the banking relationship managers and that team that's reaching out to the businesses themselves," explained Towns. "When you don’t have that relationship, by the time you begin to find out PPP is available, you’re too late."
After missing the first PPP round, Cofie-Obeng connected with a mentor, who then linked her with his banker so she could have everything in place for the second round. Three months into the new year, Mitchell Jackson says what she's optimistic about when it comes to achieving equity in the beauty industry is that companies are recognizing the importance of it.
"I think that intentionally the market has really moved toward helping smaller Black businesses, funding smaller Black businesses, providing that expertise," she says.
If it can be measured, it can be managed — that's the slogan Grace keeps top of mind now that this new economic data study is being released to the public. Black-owned beauty businesses have stated what they need to see lasting change in the industry. She says now, the ball is in the general beauty market's court.