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Making Diversity Happen with Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, CEO of Brain Trust

It's a Matter Of...Brain Trust

July 7, 2022
July 7, 2022

If you have big dreams of scaling, passion will only get you so far. Many minority business owners lack access to long term resources to help them navigate big partnerships, and sustain growth for the long haul. Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, Founder and CEO of Brain Trust, is on a mission to provide beauty and lifestyle founders with the resources they need to amplify, sustain and grow to become the next generation of the world’s most coveted brands. She joins Kelly Kovack to discuss how she is ensuring that the future of beauty and wellness is representative of the true diversity of beauty consumers.

[beginning of recorded audio]

Kelly Kovack: This episode is presented by Univar Solutions.

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Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Hi, I’m Kendra Bracken-Ferguson and I’m the Founder and CEO of BrainTrust Founders Studio. And to me, It’s A Matter Of BrainTrust.

Kelly Kovack: Representation matters. So does access, education, capital, and scale. I’m Kelly Kovack, Founder of BeautyMatter. While passion is a universal fuel for start-ups, if you have big dreams of scaling, passion will only get you so far. Many minority founders lack access to long-term resources to help them navigate big partnerships and sustain business growth for the long haul. There’s a group of founders fighting the good fight to grow and sustain their brands while creating pathways of support for newer founders. 

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, the CEO and Founder of BrainTrust, is ensuring that the next generation of beauty and wellness founders have sustainability.

So hello, Kendra! Thank you so much for joining us today.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Oh my gosh, Kelly, I’m just honored to be here. I love your work, I love everything that you’re doing at BeautyMatter, so this is a treat.

Kelly Kovack: Aw, thank you so much. Kendra, you were, and are, a digital pioneer. You were carving out business opportunities for bloggers in your first business, Digital Brand Architects, or DBA, and then, in the influencer space. You know, we’ve seen the rise of the creator community, or the creator economy, come full circle with influencers sort of building this power and now leveraging the power to launch their own brands. I’d love to get your take on the evolution of, I guess, the rise of the creator community, where we’re at now. And then sort of give your perspective on what’s next. Because it feels like once governments are paying attention to the creator community and making sure they get their text, you know that it’s something, right? So it feels like there’s going to be a significant sort of next evolution.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Oh my gosh, that’s such a great statement. You know, whenever there’s an entire rule about you and legal proceedings, that you have arrived.

Kelly Kovack: Exactly.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: It’s so true. You know, it’s fascinating to watch this space, to watch the evolution. The first company I co-founded, Digital brand Architects back in 2010, we were really at the forefront in terms of calling ourselves managers to bloggers. And even before that, my first clients when I started my career were Black Planet, Mi Gente, and Asian Avenue. And I bring that up because back then, creators, you know, people that had a voice, that had a platform, it wasn’t something new. It was just the evolution of what platform or channel are you using to get your point across. And even back in the day, those sites were so niched, and so the creators on those sites were niched and it was communities of interest that were really driving the influence across the larger industry. 

So when you fast-forward and you think about when we started DBA, there was no Pinterest, there was no Instagram, and over time, we started representing “Power Pinners.” And every time a new platform came up, we had to think about, what’s this new layer of influence? Who are the new creators who are going to drive these platforms to success? Because without the creators, the platforms, they’re nothing; they’re just another being that exists. 

And so when we think about the creator economy, we think about all of the jobs that have been created, all of the new entrepreneurs who are really shaping the future trends, who are driving culture. We think about the fact that influencers will always be here. The type and form of influencers, the platform that they leverage to build their brands will change, but as long as there are people who can influence or drive someone to buy a product or take action, the creator economy will always exist. 

And I think that what’s exciting is there’s so many different industries in which creators are thriving and succeeding and leading those industries into more economic success and opportunities and just building things that we wouldn’t even have imagined because they now have the platform and the voice to drive change across whatever industry they’re in.

Kelly Kovack: It’s fascinating. You know, I like to call it historical perspective. But influence has always been around. I think social media gave it a power to magnify the importance. But even in the days of print publications, when I was at Bliss back in 1996, we used influencers. They weren’t called influencers then, but we had no money, so we needed people to talk about us. When the emergence of bloggers happened, I remember putting PR strategies together and clients were like, I don’t want bloggers at this event. I only want print editors. And there was this period of time where you had to do this education of, like, yes, but no one is reading that print publication. I get that it’s fancy and glossy. Everyone is reading these bloggers. And it really wasn’t that long ago.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: It’s so fascinating that you say that, because I remember I was the first director of digital media at Ralph Lauren and so I launched the brand across different social platforms. And one of the things, when we really started getting heavy into bloggers, I would sit with David Lauren for hours and we would just be looking at blogger sites. Having to talk to the head of e-commerce about the fact that some of the bloggers had more traffic to their blogs than And that this was an opportunity to expand the awareness. Even if you are a billion-dollar global company, in order to grow, you still have to create more customers. You still have to build your shared voice in your audience. 

And so when you thought about the fact that, oh my goodness, this blogger has more traffic, more engagement, than a massive company, that was the trigger that started to get, I think, people to say, oh my goodness, I have to look at something here. Because if the holy grail of building a brand is scaling, how do you scale if you don’t have the means to do it yourself? And so I completely agree with you. And even when we think about the future of what we’re seeing and product development, it would make sense that an influencer could look at their platform and say, I’m driving this much for someone else, I’m driving this much engagement, I’m driving this much sales. Let me transition that into something that I’m passionate about at the product level. 

And I think that the transition from influencer to product development seems to be a bit more seamless than, to your point, even when we think about traditional editors, which are vitally important, valuable, and still exist, it’s a different way of thinking and a different way that you’ve been indoctrinated to build your career from the traditional sense of journalism to the entrepreneurial sense of influencer.

Kelly Kovack: Yeah. I am dying to ask you your thoughts on the metaverse and NFTs, because it sort of came out of nowhere, you know, it went from zero to a thousand. And sort of from the outside looking in, there are sort of two camps of one, being a distraction, and then you have people who are all in on the other side of the equation. So being sort of a visionary in the digital space, I’m really curious to get your take on what’s happening there.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Oh my goodness.

Kelly Kovack: It’s kind of a loaded question, I know.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: No, it is. And you know what’s so crazy is that when I was doing my 20-20-20 what do I need to learn list, which I knew I was already behind, the number-one thing was I just need to get closer with the metaverse and NFTs and Web 3. And of course we’ve being talking about it for years, but it was like it exploded. And so now, I’ve been really trying to get educated. There was a stat in Forrester that 76% of US B-to-C market plan to invest marketing budgets toward the metaverse.

Kelly Kovack: I saw that too, today.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Right? I know it’s crazy because I saw your question and I was like, oh, let me make sure I pile this away in my brain. 

Kelly Kovack: No, I find it really fascinating because I think it’s only a matter of time. And I kind of feel like there’s this later that’s been created because so many of the big brands were caught flat on their feet with social media and influencers and that first generation. And I think they will never make that mistake again. So maybe they’re moving too fast, I don’t know. In my opinion, it’s sort of like we make money selling things in the real world and it doesn’t feel like the infrastructure to monetize the metaverse or NFTs is really there yet. So unless you have a big team, I think it definitely has the potential of being distracting at this point. But that’s just kind of where I’m at, it could change tomorrow.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: But I do agree with you because I think that there’s this notion of I want to be innovative, right? I’ve been talking to different executives in companies, like, where does the metaverse, Web 3, NFTs sit? And the marketing team is like, I have goals that I have to hit, and to your point, it can be distracting, right? And then you now have a Chief Innovation Officer, a Head of Innovation, who gets to play and is encouraged to look at all of these trends and to determine where the business goes. And so I think there’s this opportunity to test and learn different things depending on where you are in your business, but I also think that it’s part of the marketing funnel that is more about innovation and awareness and less about conversion and revenue in terms of where your business sits. And so as you’re thinking about, where do I put my time and energy as a business owner—and I work a lot with small businesses—that it becomes much harder to become involved with. 

But I do think that for all of us in this space, keeping an eye on it, testing it, I’ve invested in Boss Beauties, they’re actually a client of BrainTrust, my agency. And I’m fascinated because their mission is so rooted in social impact, in women, in girls, and when I thought about being part of something that puts me into an innovative category and space, I’m learning. But the underlying mission of what they want to do in terms of expanding the growth and the power and the wealth creation around women through innovative solutions like NFTs, that’s what gets me excited. 

So I’m trying to connect it with my passion to learning and then putting on my business lens and working with clients who are in the metaverse and NFTs to say, how do we evolve? And then even to your point about the greater economy, what does that look like through the lens of leveraging brands or creating with partners to create NFTs? Is that sustainable? The creator is already trying to own and monetize their own content, so how do NFTs play into that? 

And then the last thing, to your point, is the physical meets digital and how much digital content and items do we need outside of the physical world in which we live and which we operate. And I get a little nervous about going too far, shifting everything into the metaverse, when we’re all still living, breathing human beings, and we all still live here.

Kelly Kovack: Yeah. The thing that makes the most sense to me, I always try and boil down complex things to sort of the simplest explanation. The thing that makes sense to me now is that NFTs become the new GWP. So you buy something in the real world and you get sort of the digital equivalent, if you are in the metaverse, to sort of signal affinity with that brand. But yeah, thank you for sharing your thoughts on that because everyone is sort of at a different place kind of in embracing the opportunity. So, everyone that I know is kind of a forward thinker, it’s kind of the first question I ask them. I’m constantly kind of gauging where I’m at.

Going back to creators, there are so many celebrities and influencers launching beauty and wellness brands that come to market in a number of ways. So I think the bar to entry of creating a beauty brand has never been lower. There are platforms, there are incubators. There’s a million ways to bring a brand to market. Some of these brands are well founded, others are bootstrapping. But the number of launches literally makes the mind spin. You’ve monetized over 200 influencer-driven brands. What’s your take on this current trend?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: So it’s interesting because where there’s an opportunity and where there’s a visionary, and an entrepreneur in the center, you’re always going to have room for innovation and for new products, right? And I think for us in the beauty industry—like, I love reading all of the beauty launches that are coming out, and it takes me back to kind of my love of the founder and the person behind the brands. Because there will always be multiple skincare companies, right? So it kind of falls down to, what’s the point of view? What does it do? How does it service my needs? And, does it actually work? And that becomes rooted in the founder and their story and what their unique point of view is. 

And so I think it’s interesting, especially having launched brands with celebrities, having launched brands with influencers, having launched brands with thought leaders, it’s such a different mindset and a lens of how you’re going to drive the brand forward. And just because you’re a celebrity doesn’t mean that your brand has any more potential than any brand. What it means is through the celebrity you have a platform to launch, but in order to sustain, get yourself to profitability, there’s so much more that’s involved. 

And so I’m actually really thinking about—I’ve been very focused on, especially with our new platform, looking at founders through the lens of people who have this passion, this drive, this knowledge, this insight to create a brand and then figuring out competitively where it sits, how do you grow it, and then what do you need to survive. I’ve been less following this notion of celebrities are really the only ones who can drive successful brands right now. 

I think that there is some celebrity fatigue that’s coming in different categories, and I do think that it takes the right celebrity to align with a brand and also for the celebrity to be involved in understanding the business. As a leader, we need a team. I have a m aster’s; that doesn’t mean that I can write a financial model. But it means that I have a team. But it also means that as a founder, as a leader, as a CEO, you still are accountable for your business: understanding your business, how your business moves, how your business makes money, all of the different pieces, and putting a team together who can drive to that.

And so I’m more interested in who are the people who are sitting at the helm of their businesses and can truly drive and direct their team forward? If that’s a celebrity who has that skill set, great. If that’s an influencer who has it, if that’s a chemist, I am obsessed with Ron Robinson and BeautyStat. So talk about the different people who can take their skill set, their POV, and bring a brand to market but then scale that brand to profitability.

Kelly Kovack: Yeah, you know, I think that there—it’s not a new perception, but the idea that you can just show up with a brand and all of a sudden, Estée Lauder shows up with a billion-dollar check. That is not the trajectory of most brands. So to your point, while celebrities or influencers may have massive social following, the fact remains: building a brand and scaling a business, it’s a really competitive market, whether you’re a celebrity or not. I also have a lot of people who approach me like, do you want to get involved in this? And there’s a celebrity or an influencer. My first question is: what’s their involvement? If it’s, oh, well, we had to pay them a million dollars, I’m like, I’m out. If that’s where the conversation started, you will not succeed. Because to your point, the celebrities, or the influencers, need to be all in. It’s just way too competitive.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: And it’s really interesting because I have had that situation as well; you and I do work together. And it’s fascinating because I’ve said, okay, I need to sit down with this person. I need them to explain it. I don’t need five people on their team to explain it or to present it to me. I need to sit down and I need you to be able to articulate it. Or, the reality is that there is nothing wrong with licensing deals. Everyone is on ownership, and I know we talk about ownership, but are you owning something that you are truly owning because you’re the center of it and it is truly your vision, and there’s going to be this great profitable story and this exit? Or, are you better off licensing something? Still, if money is your end game, still building something successfully but putting yourself in the right place. 

So I think that we have been glamorized by ownership, when for some people, they’re just not in a place to be owners. And I think that celebrities have been pushed into this notion of ownership, ownership, build your own brand, when to your point, that may not be right for you, but you may be a great ambassador. This may be a great licensed business for you. And I think we just went so far into this notion of everybody gets to create a brand—and you get a brand, and you get a brand, and you get a brand—that we’ve lost sight of building a brand is hard and you have to understand it. You have to live it, breathe it, and you have to scale it. Because at the end of the day, it’s you as much as it is your team. 

And especially for a celebrity, you built this career, so now you’re going to put it into the hands of this product. Is that really the right thing for you? And having the ability to take a step back and really think this true and organic lens and be a truth teller about where you should show up in the process of building a brand.

Kelly Kovack: Yeah. There are some brilliant celebrity brands that have launched, and then there are others that just feel like it’s very opportunistic. It’s almost like, ah, let’s see what happens!

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Kelly Kovack: So I want to pivot just a little bit and talk about what you’re doing now. So you’ve had the distinction of being one of only a hundred Black women ever to raise over a million dollars in investment in your first company. The inequities in access to capital for Black female founders is well documented. Last October you launched BrainTrust Founders Studio. Can you share a little bit about the new venture?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Oh my gosh, Kelly! Ah! It’s so exciting. And it’s funny because it really was a culmination of my career. Being a founder, having raised money, having sold a business, transitioned and tried to buy a business back, investing now in other businesses, and really talking to founders, I was so inspired. But I was also overwhelmed by the amount of founders who needed help. And of course, going through COVID and everything with Black Lives Matter, it just amplified this notion. 

So for me, it was like, okay, there were more Black businesses created than ever in history, but at the same time, more Black businesses didn’t make it through COVID. More Black businesses didn’t have the reserves to survive. More Black businesses are receiving funding less than any other business, but we’re the ones that are leading the trends, we’re driving the culture, we’re outspending. 

When we think about the beauty and wellness category, a trillion-dollar industry, the number-one leader is ethnic care products. So for me, it was about, okay, I know that we’re lacking access. How do we now solve that? And how do we do it as community? Because community has always been the way that we’ve been able to thrive. And so the BrainTrust Founders Studio was really born out of my notion to help, and knowing that I couldn’t do it myself. I started my agency, BrainTrust, through this notion of I want to work with smart people that I trust to solve problems. And so whenever it became time to figure out, how do we solve problems to give founders access, resources, a community, and capital, that led me to BrainTrust Founders Studio. And so we are a membership-based platform for Black-identifying beauty and wellness founders across 20 different categories of beauty and wellness. 

And we invite founders in, whether they’re starting, so we have a start tier; a grow tier—founders that have a business, they’re in market, they’re trying to get to the next level; through to our accelerate tier, where we’re trying to work with them on understanding the differentiated sources of capital that exist. Because we also know that venture funding is not right for all businesses. And to your point earlier, not all businesses are going to be acquired by Estée or have a billion-dollar exit. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t built a great business and that you can generate your own generational wealth and generational inheritance. 

And so that’s really what we have been focused on at BrainTrust Founders Studio, and making sure that we can create an ecosystem of not just the resources, but the tools, the education, the mentorship, the community, and these different sources to help businesses grow and accelerate.

Kelly Kovack: It feels like it came together so fast. What you’ve amassed in such a short period of time—or it feels like a short period of time to me, anyway, is so impressive.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Thank you, Kelly. It’s funny because it has been in the works for a year and a half, literally, we started thinking about it. I was going back and forth and talking to different people about how to put it together. And so because I was already working in the space—I mean, we worked together through BeautyUnited, which is a nonprofit focused on diversifying the beauty industry. And so in 2020, we did our first mentorship program with 50 Black and Indigenous mentees and then 50 leaders across the beauty industry, and of course BeautyMatter was our partner in making that happen. 

So I was already doing the work. It wasn’t necessarily formalized, but my whole career has been about helping and talking to founders. Through my podcast, Business of the Beat, every week I’m talking to founders: what’s working in your business? What’s not working? What do you need? The ability to take all of that and then spend over a year looking at the business: how do we do that? Thanks to our corporate partners, as I’m calling them saying we want to try this, and then being able to launch. And we’re still—I like to say we’re still in beta. We’re coming out of beta, where we’ve been testing and listening. And so as we open up the platform to more founders, the goal is to grow, scale, listen, and then provide what they need to be successful.

Kelly Kovack: I think it’s cool and I know exactly how you feel because BeautyMatter is a little bit like that for me. Spending 20 years building and advising brands to now running a media platform and have half of the industry think I’m a journalist is strange to me. But really, all that experience and the successes and the failures make me uniquely qualified to do what I’m doing now. So it’s kind of cool when your career kind of comes together to do something differentiated to make a difference.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: We’re so aligned. That’s exactly what it is. I’m a huge believer, I lean on my faith for all things. And so when I think about this journey and I take a second to reflect and pray and meditate on it, I’m like, oh, it makes sense that this is what you’re doing. To your point, you spent the last 20 years, the gift of gab, my friend, talking to people and offering up help and mentorship. And I think it’s also interesting, even when you talk about being a journalist and a leader and everything that BeautyMatter is, it’s my source of news and information, but it’s also such a community. And this notion of titles, like am I journalist? Am I CEO? Am I an executive? Am I this and that? And having to lean into that in this next chapter of what my professional world looks like combined with my personal passion for just helping and building a platform in which I can do that.

Kelly Kovack: Yeah. I want to talk a little about the Black Lives Matter movement because it created the impetus for the industry to take a serious look at systemic inequities in the beauty and wellness industry. In your opinion, what initiatives are having the most meaningful impact? Because I feel like, to some extent, there was a lot of forward-facing marketing recognizing we can do better than being inclusive in our marketing. And to some extent, that’s a little bit of window dressing and the industry needed to dig deeper, and I think we are, but I also think it’s an evolution. And I also feel that it’s not been easy for some founders to kind of find a safe place to ask questions because you misspeak and this thing that now exists, called call-out culture, sort of crucifies you no matter what your intentions are. So it’s been really difficult for a lot of brands to navigate, and so I’m really curious to get your take on where we’re at and what’s working. And, have we made progress, I guess.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson:

 Yeah, and I literally was taking a breath, and exhaling, because there’s so many pieces to that. There’s so many components, there’s so much emotion, there’s so much recovery, and there’s so much empathy just across the board. It is very emotional. And with that emotion, we still have to keep moving forward and we still have to be accountable. And so for me, especially, what I’ve been inspired by—there’s a few different things. I fund women of color. I think they have done a phenomenal job of seeing a need, giving an opportunity to women of color, and helping them with funding. And really, we talk about data. They looked at the data, they saw that they had more women of color on their platform but they were receiving less funding, so they made a change. We think about Sharon [Chuter] and Pull Up For Change; running her own beauty brand but saying, this is not okay. And having the wherewithal and the strength to challenge brands to pull up and to show what’s happening because a lot of times people say, I was unaware. I didn’t know you couldn’t say that. I had never heard that before. I didn’t know that when you say, I don’t see color, that’s offensive. I didn’t know about cultural appropriation. I didn’t know that there weren’t any Black leaders on the board or in any level of leadership in a global company, or any people of color. And so I applaud because now we’ve said, you have to talk about it. And we’re not talking about it to point fingers in the long term, we’re talking about it to drive change. 

And then we think about the Fifteen Percent Pledge. I had the honor of joining their annual gala and working with a lot of the retailers who have taken the pledge. And I so applaud Aurora [James] and her team because again, it’s about, how do we have the conversation? How do we pull up and talk about it? How do we commit to 15% shelf space and talk about it? Because if we can’t talk about it and we can’t acknowledge what’s happened, then we can’t move forward. And so when I think about Black Lives Matter, it gave us the opportunity to have a shared conversation as a nation, as a country, to say, here’s what was wrong. Here’s how we make it right. We’re going to call it out so we can fix it and we can heal together. 

And then I think to your point, there’s people like Rachel [Roff] from Urban Skin RX, who created a company for melanated skin and then had backlash for it because she didn’t look like the customer she was serving. But, on the flip side, we have these brands who don’t have any people of color and they are capitalizing off of people of color. And so what’s fair, what’s equal, and how are we treating people? Cancel culture is awful. There has to be a point of redemption. There has to be a point of forgiveness. And I’m sorry, it goes back to “he is without sin casts the first stone.” Like, we’ve all done things we aren’t proud of. We have to learn; we have to move forward as an industry, as a society, as a nation.

So I think about the work that’s been done by my peers: Pull Up For Change, Eye for Women of Color, Fifteen Percent Pledge, even the work that we’re doing at BeautyUnited to really say, like, let’s come together. And we all have a different lens but we’re all connected in this notion that we want equity, we want parity, and we want to have a seat at the table. I think there’s been things that have been done good; we have a long way to go. You have all these companies and corporations that have made these commitments. I really want to go back and say, hey, you made these commitments, let’s talk about what that looks like in the long term. Because it’s not okay if a brand goes into a retailer under a pledge and they’re out six months later. Or, their business can’t even figure out inventory because the margins are so bad. And so you’ve gotten credit for it, but what happens in the long term? What are the results to all of this? And then the brands that have made commitments but haven’t said anything about what is happening, how do we hold everybody accountable? Because it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to execute. 

So that’s where I think we have to have a part two of what does this look like? What have we accomplished? What do we want to do? And how does 15% lead to 50%?

Kelly Kovack: I’ve had, during all of this, I mean, we’ve had a lot of conversations around the Fifteen Percent Pledge and the potential implications. To your point, if the founders don’t have the infrastructure and the funding to support being at a major retailer, it is a fast way to no longer having a business, so what have we accomplished? But I’ve also had interesting conversations—we’re talking a lot about C-suite and marketing, but with a lot of product developers. And with the founder of 456, we had the most amazing conversation because she really changed her thinking. She thought that big beauty brands needed to be more diverse and they needed to fix these systemic problems in sort of how products are developed and brought to market. And then she came full circle and she said, I’m not sure they can. I think maybe it’s small businesses that need to change. 

The same thing is happening on the supply side. So the infrastructure for creating diverse products, from the inception, doesn’t exist. Products are being created for white skin, they’re being tested on white skin, and so here we have founders, they’re during their own R&D, she’s doing her own testing, and so she’s sort of creating the solution. And I kind of feel like there are this group of brands that are building products for melanin-rich skin. And I’m going to make a prediction that they will be the next group of brands acquired [Kendra cheers].
 No, really, because I think that there are founders that understand the needs of melanin-rich skin in a way that a big beauty brand doesn’t. And that has to be okay. The expectation that all brands need to serve all people, A, it’s not financially possible, and B, it’s a really bad business model. It’s never worked, it’s not going to work now. 

So I think brands that are also serving niches need to be allowed to serve those niches and not be told, you’re not diverse enough.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Oh my gosh, I love this and completely agree. And I think that’s where there’s room on the shelf for all of these different brands to be successful and thrive. Because we did—we used to say the riches were in the niches, right? And it has to be okay that there are certain things for certain people, and that’s what it is. I think when we think about skin tones, skin color, there is a difference, there just is. That’s why when people say, I don’t see color, it’s like, but you have to because it actually exists. And I do believe that there is an opportunity—you know, there’s something interesting that I’m finding with founders. 

We work with a great founder, Rachel Lambo, CEO of Sade Baron, and she never wanted to show her face for her brand. It wasn’t until Black Lives Matter that she felt comfortable stepping out and showing who she was, because as Black founders, we’re always pigeonholed as this is just for Black people, when it’s actually for anyone who has this type of a need, no matter what they look like. So she was sharing that for the first time, she was able to step out and show who she was, and her mom, who is her co-founder, and how liberating it was, right? And how she then also was faced with this shift in terms of, is this just for Black people because you’re Black? And you don’t see that on the other side when someone of another race, a white person develops a brand, it’s not like, oh, that’s just for white people! You know what I mean? So it has to go into, what does this product serve? What does the product do? Does it fit for you? 

And I love 4.5.6 and this notion of let’s use science and let’s create something for darker skin whenever it’s needed, in the same way I think about Brown Girl Jane and what they’re building. And their product mix is so different: men, women, all different types of people, but also all different races because we all—I love their sleep product, their rest product. I need to sleep as well as someone who may not look like me. So I do think that it is okay for us to lean into, what are we good at? What do we deliver? Because if a product doesn’t deliver because they’re trying to serve the masses, you’re not going to have success. So we need to lean into that. We need to be okay with that. We need to embrace that. And Kelly, I am marking your words because we are launching our BrainTrust Fund I to further invest in founders. So that’s what we’re all going to be looking at, is melanin-rich skin brands as kind of the next frontier. And I have to say, the question of race is so interesting. It’s the same way I feel about hair, right, because our cultures are blending; people are blending. We’re not just here or there. Our hair type can’t be dictated by you think this person is Black because there’s so many things that go into it. And so I think we move beyond just you look like this and you get that, because so much of it—that’s why I love the science and the data of the products, of what we’re creating, because it truly is your DNA based upon what you need.

Kelly Kovack: Well, and I also think that with all shifts, the entire supply chain, and in this case, it’s primarily formulators and contract manufacturers, there is amazing research, and manufacturers like Solésence that are really paying attention to the needs of founders that are building these products, these brands for melanin-rich skin, because you can’t deliver a product if the ability and the resources don’t exist to make the product.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Yeah, and that’s why when you think about founders saying, I had to create this in my kitchen, I had to go and find my own ingredients, I couldn’t figure this out, there’s an amazing neuroscientist who is launching a brand, and I’m like, wow, you must have had access to all these things. And she’s like, believe it or not, I got to the core myself, mixing and building in my kitchen because I couldn’t even find the different components that I needed. And I’m in the field of science and chemistry and all of these different things. So to your point, going back to supply chain and manufacturing and seeing diversity there—and Kelly, we’re not talking about that enough because people want to say, oh, you’re a founder, you built that in your kitchen. It was out of need and necessity because I couldn’t find anyone who understood, who had the components, the ingredients, or who also wanted to do smaller batches for us to get it right.

Kelly Kovack: And building something in your kitchen, it only scales so far.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Exactly.

Kelly Kovack: So I’ve got one last question for you. BrainTrust Founders Studio is your passion; it’s kind of the culmination of your career. What does success look like for you?

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: So I am very big on verifiable, tangible results. There is so much talking, and I really want us to do the work and continue to do the work that we’ve started. And so when I think about success, it really is not just how many founders have joined us on the platform, but how are they growing their businesses? How have more jobs been created? Have we helped them get to profitability faster, through our mentorship program? Were they able to take that learning and impact their business? And what did it look like? We had a founder who, through a mentorship program, was able to open their new manufacturing plant. So it’s like, how are we providing these resources but putting clear metrics around the outcomes? And how that’s impacting the founder as well as our industry at large. 

And so when I think about success, that’s what keeps me up at night. It’s like, how do we create this platform so that all founders can be successful based upon where they are and where they want to go? So thinking about in the beginning, if the founder’s goal is, I want to sell for a billion dollars, let’s get into where we are now. Let’s kind of focus on, do you have a CFO? Do you have a COO? Do you have social media marketing? Do you need a new manufacturing facility? What are your margins? How do we reduce your CAG? How do we get you into the right retailer? How do we look at different financial sources that may come from a Clear Co or a Shopify Capital to get you inventory and marketing so you’re not giving up so much equity?

So success is, how do we look at each of our founders, their businesses? How do we create tangible goals that help them move along this funnel to get to profitability? And then when we get there, how is their brand surviving and thriving? And so we are literally looking at metrics all the time so we can make sure we are meeting founders where they are, we can push them to get to the next level, but we can also make sure that it’s not just mentorship for mentorship, that it’s mentorship for how that has now impacted your business that you can tangibly say made a difference, grew and evolved you, and helped you get to this next level. So at a tactical level, we are building this really cool AI-based system so that we’re tracking—we’ll be at a hundred different data points across the different platforms so we can really start to see how businesses are growing and shifting, what’s working, what’s not working, and really helping to prepare founders for this journey. So I keep saying this, like, I want us to build this massive platform. More importantly, I want founders to feel heard, seen, to build their businesses. I want to invest in a hundred Black beauty and wellness founders. And beyond that, just continue to help build and grow the industry.

Kelly Kovack: Well, I have no doubt that you will achieve all of that.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Thank you, Kelly.

Kelly Kovack: Yeah. Well, thank you for your time, and we’re huge fans of what you’re doing, so any way we can help, let us know!

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: I absolutely will. I appreciate you giving me a platform to share.

Kelly Kovack: Thank you, Kendra.

For Kendra, It’s A Matter Of BrainTrust. With 200 creator-driven brands under her belt, she has mastered the create, build, monetize formula. And now she’s paying it forward to other Black founders. For Kendra, diversity starts with personal outreach and marketing. She is removing the barriers of access to capital for Black-owned brands through her latest venture, BrainTrust Founders Studio, a membership-based platform providing an ecosystem of mentorship, education, and community for Black beauty and wellness founders. So in the end, it’s a matter of BrainTrust. I’m Kelly Kovack, see you next time.

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson: Hi, I’m Kendra, and for me, It’s A Matter Of BrainTrust. It takes a BrainTrust, or a collective group and community of people, that you trust to solve problems and drive greater impact. 

Kelly Kovack: If you liked what you heard today, don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe to our podcast. It’s A Matter Of is a production of BeautyMatter LLC. You can find more content and insights on and follow us on social media.