This Is Harvard’s Next Black Beauty Startup

This Is Harvard’s Next Black Beauty Startup

Photo Credit: Andrew Fennell

When I first received my box of Mented nude lip colors, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be like all the promises I’ve heard from other brands—that “this would be perfect” for my brown skin? At first glance, all the colors looked the same, that is until I tried one on. Not only did it conform to my pigmentation, but it looked completely natural. For the past few weeks, it has become my go-to, when I don’t feel like grabbing anything more, but still need a little something—like for quick runs to a casual takeout spot.

Mented Founders K.J. Miller and Amanda E. Johnson shared with me how they got started, and why putting on their “white man hat” helped them get funded.

BLACK ENTERPRISE: Why nude colors? Explain your inspiration to stick to this niche. What problem does it fix?

At Mented, which is short for “pigmented,” we’re all about celebrating the everyday beauty, and we think a nude lip is the epitome of the timeless, clean, beauty looks. Women of color are often backed into corners when it comes to makeup, because with a lot of brands, only the brightest, boldest shades show up on our skin. We love a high-glam look as much as the next girl, but most of us aren’t putting on a smoky eye and metallic lipstick every day.  We all want a makeup routine that enhances, not conceals, our natural beauty, and our nude lipsticks are designed to do just that.

BE: How much money did you start with?  How did you raise those funds?

In the beginning, when we were handmaking all of our samples, we used our own capital. We’re both pretty frugal people, and we relied on our savings to bootstrap the business, which was really more of an experiment at that stage. We probably spent around $10-15K in those early days. After we had tested our shades with consumers and makeup artists all over the country, we realized we really had a product that people loved and were clamoring for. That’s when we decided to raise more formal funding.

We raised our pre-seed round of $400K the traditional way—hitting the pavement, networking like mad women, and calling on friends and family. Raising capital is truly a grind, and it’s one that minority entrepreneurs are often left out of, because no one tells us how to play the game.

BE: Every brand has an ideal customer, which it knows in and out. Who is your ideal customer?  Describe her—what’s her life like?

 

 

Our gal is a professional woman of color, who loves looking great every day but doesn’t want to deal with a lot of fuss to make it happen. She’s got a million things on her plate— whether it’s work, grad school, kids, a side hustle—and she’s certainly not spending an hour on her makeup every day. Her go-to products are easy, one-step, and fully pigmented.

BE: How has attending Harvard helped you in your startup journey? Does it really give you an edge?

Everyone says this, but in truth, the real value of a Harvard degree is the network. We think the best time to have a Harvard degree in your back pocket is when you’re raising capital, because the network is truly invaluable. The majority of the funds we’ve raised have either come directly from Harvard Business School alums or via introductions provided by HBS alums. That said, the Harvard degree may help get a foot in the door with investors and advisors, but the vast majority of the work to secure those relationships isn’t something they teach at any business school. Getting comfortable with networking, pitching, and selling takes time and practice—we definitely stumbled our way through it in the beginning.

BE: What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

Miller: “Put your white man hat on.” Our advisor told us this when we were first starting to raise funds, because I had expressed doubt in our ability to raise so much. There are a lot of systemic and institutional reasons people of color are left out of the fundraising game. However, the result of being left out for so long is that, even when we are at the table, we sometimes lack the confidence to seek the funds and the valuation we deserve. That’s why our advisor told us to “put our white man hats on”; when you know you’ve done the work and you have the experience, you should be able to walk into the room with just as much confidence as anyone else.

Johnson: Do what you love. So often, people of color toe the line and play it safe when it comes to their career. I was tired of playing the corporate game, and I wanted to find something to be excited about every day. I got into this business, because I felt like every woman should feel beautiful and be included. I hear from women every day, [who affirm that] what we’re doing matters. I use that support and purpose to fuel myself.

BE: How do you plan to scale your business, and what’s next?

Eyes are up next, because everywhere we go, we hear women of color saying that they’re tired of buying eyeshadow palettes, only to have two or three of the shades look good on them. As long as every product is a solution to a problem—not just another item in a collection—we believe we’ll be successful.