Leslie Roberson has an eye for beauty. As a former corporate recruiter for the likes of Meta, CNO Financial Group, and Wayfair, she built expertise in spotting the talent of tomorrow, while working as a model gave her insight into not only the vast power and potential of beauty, but a behind-the-scenes look at the demands of the industry. The convergence of those two talents found its natural place in Roberson founding the Black Beauty Collective in May 2022, following a resounding response to an Instagram callout to Black brand founders.
Despite no outside funding, things were off to a booming start. “I put this post up on a Tuesday. By Friday, my calendar was booked for six weeks. I met with entrepreneurs all day, every day, understanding what their needs were, what I was planning to do with this collective, and then inviting them to apply to join,” she explains. This was followed by a tour across seven US cities. To date, Roberson has met up with 500 entrepreneurs in total, and the number keeps growing.
The enterprise consists of a physical store—400 square feet of prime real estate in the Hyde Park area of Chicago’s South Side—and an online storefront. Current brands in the Black Beauty Collective lineup, which is already at over 50 names and counting, include natural haircare brands Jrue Locs and Bea Natural Essentials, multicultural skincare company Marla Rene, clean color cosmetics range Bixa Beauty Inc., self-empowerment focused makeup line Aberrant Beaute, and plant-based, dry skin-focused brand Bella Virtu Organics.
With a founder-first and community approach, the Black Beauty Collective is lowering the barriers to entry. There have been discussions in the industry about making more shelf space and representation for the Black beauty consumer, and companies like Sephora, Black Ambition Grant, and Ulta started initiatives to provide funding and mentorship for brand owners, but access to capital still remains a significant challenge.
According the research done by Mckinsey’s Institute for Black Economic Mobility, in the US alone, Black consumers spend $6.6 billion on beauty, making up for 11.1% of the total US beauty market. And yet, Black beauty brands only capture 2.5% of industry revenue, raising a median of $13 million in venture capital compared to the $20 million of non-Black brands. Black consumers are 2.2x more likely to assume that products from Black beauty brands work for them, but only 4% to 7% of the brands carried by retailers are Black-owned.
Roberson witnessed this disparity firsthand from a young age, but with it came a desire to take action. “I grew up in the ’90s and you'd only see so many faces of Black women represented. I grew up reading all the magazines that were targeted towards teenagers like Seventeen, that was probably [the source of] my early fascination with beauty and what it meant and could be,” Roberson recalls to BeautyMatter. “I’m the third of four girls, and my older sister was super into fashion, hair, beauty, and makeup. We would only get fixed up so many times a year, so because of that I developed this, ‘Oh, I wish I could’ spirit inside of me.”
That spirit started to take flight as she began modeling, which furthered her passion for beauty; “this individual desire to be a part of something stunning,” as she calls it. “I love textures, colors, vibrancy. Beauty is this all-encompassing thing for me,” she explains. Founding the luxury linen rental company, the Velvet Collection, in 2021, Roberson further gave her knack for aesthetic expression an outlet. The company found a home in the Hyde Park neighborhood, the same venue which was to become the home of the Black Beauty Collective. An impromptu conversation with a friend identifed the lack of beauty stores in the area, which set the entrepreneur off on what was to become the Black Beauty collective. Her experience with the Velvet Collection proved to be an indispensible basis for creating an inviting retail experience.
“The beauty store that you traditionally see in Black communities is a different model; it feels very warehouse-y, it’s not a shopping experience. I was coming out of the luxury space, where the way you communicate with customers is always top of mind. I had been doing big events for like 400 to 500 people, celebrities, and the who’s who of Chicago, and had already made a name for myself in this hyper visual space,” she explains.
Doing market research at the existing beauty storefront in Chicago, Roberson noticed a lack of Black founder representation, which activated her recruitment experience in shining a spotlight on underrepresented individuals. “In talent acquisition, I specialize in diversifying teams. That's what I'm passionate about is identifying people of color, women, veterans, people with disabilities, to join an organization; that untapped pipeline of talent to make sure we have representation, because it makes teams stronger,” she says.
During a conversation with a beauty boutique manager, she realized that Black-owned brands were only designated to a curated sample box in-store, with no shelf space given. “It really started my wheels rolling in terms of researching where there's a gap in the industry because I'm interested to know where the bottlenecks exist. Why is there such a gap? It’s because of lack of funding, lack of access to capital, lack of VC capital raises, lack of access to even loans for your business,” she explains.
With research data in hand, Roberson began speaking to fellow beauty entrepreneurs and learning the challenges they faced in building brand awareness. “I thought to myself, why not use my background and the things that I've been able to accomplish to help other entrepreneurs and create a level of visibility for them. Instead of creating a not-for-profit, I decided to create a space where they scale into retail: get marketing, PR, social support, but also access to resources,” she notes.
Fenty Beauty was able to gain ample Sephora shelf space due to a celebrity founder and LVMH-backing, but this isn’t the reality for most beauty entrepreneurs. The Black Beauty Collective offers them shelf space for as little as $100 a month, with brand owners receiving 100% of their sales profits.
When it comes to selecting its members, the application is a four-step process diving into the brand’s marketing strategy, a panel interview, product review, and media assets. “Anybody can have a product, but knowing how to run and operate a business is a different thing,” she remarks. The Black Beauty Collective has criteria exploring impact, product innovation, strong leadership skills, identifying and providing a solution for a specific pain point within the industry, sustainable practices, and a detail-oriented plan for the execution of future business perspectives. In return, the Black Beauty Collective offers successful candidates not only a digital and physical showcase to scale their business, but also mentorship, strategy, and marketing expertise.
Over 1,000 applications have been submitted since the founding of the collective. The company offers two tiers of support structures: one for scaling businesses in the retail space, and the other with said shelf space in addition to marketing support, including publication features, as well as targeted email and influencer marketing. Roberson calls the support system a “real-time incubator.”
“In my opinion, the retail shelf space is probably the third or fourth benefit on the list, because their brand is being shared on an entirely different platform to a different audience. The followers on our Black Beauty Collective page are intentionally there because they want to shop Black,” she adds. Roberson also is conscious about making sure all brands get an equal share of the press spotlight.
“We rotate and grab different brands at different points depending on what the topic is,” she explains, citing a May skincare event that put nine entrepreneurs of the Black Beauty Collective in front of different editors, journalists, and influencers. “My role in this, holistically, is to act to identify opportunity. A lot of it is getting in front of the right people, but a small business owner, a lot of times, doesn't have the capacity to do that or know where to begin. That is what it is that I spend my days doing: creating an opportunity for the entrepreneur and being the voice at the table because they don't have a seat,” she says.
Its Chicago storefront is where 80 to 90% of the Black Beauty Collective’s customer traffic takes place. Roberson is currently working on driving the company’s e-commerce platform to similar visitor levels. When it came to the retail experience, she emphasized hiring a sales team with backgrounds in cosmetology, esthetics, and makeup artistry to properly assist shoppers.
“One of the greatest challenges as a Black consumer is to find products that work for our hair and skin, and then the likelihood of someone being there [in-store] to answer questions. One of the things I was really cognizant of is ensuring that I hired a sales team that had the background to answer and accommodate all customers that walked in,” she explains. It’s this individualized approach that means those entering the Black Beauty Collective’s flagship are having prolonged and deep engagement with the brands they are encountering, sampling included. “That's why people come into the store and are there for an hour, an hour and a half, touching and feeling everything because they feel welcomed into a space and are appreciated and valued while they're there. That's extremely important to me,” Roberson states.
The entrepreneur sees the community premise of the Black Beauty Collective as one of its biggest strengths in boosting brand presence. “Black consumers oftentimes, even though we're the trendsetters, we’re overlooked in terms of our needs. We have been desperate for something like this, that lets you walk in and support Black entrepreneurs through products you can use,” she says. “There's a tremendous opportunity for the Black consumer who is thrilled to be a part of something like this. Everybody who comes in [to the store] and talks to me, the first thing they ask is, ‘How come this has not existed before?’”
For the coming year, a marketing campaign expansion, pop-ups, and Brookyln storefront, due to open by the end of 2023, are in the works. “I'm really looking forward to a couple years to come. I'm grateful to be in this position, but I'm really interested in the success of these businesses, and how this kind of a platform can help them scale their businesses. If we can help them scale in terms of the sales and visibility, it's a win for both the entrepreneur and the Black Beauty Collective,” Roberson remarks. With wins all-around, and a thriving community to enable it all, The Black Beauty Collective has an exciting and fruitful future head.
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