Tuesday March 19th, LadyDrinks hosted a fireside chat with two minority women role models: Amanda Johnson, co founder of Mented Cosmetics. She bucked all the assumptions about women of color and Former Miss America Nina Davuluri, who was panned in the headlines the day after she got her crown, asking “Is she too dark to be Miss America?” 

Takeaways from the talk listed below.

Complete audio of event here.

“Any successful business is one that solves a problem. “

Mented Cosmetics co founders Amanda and KJ already knew they worked well together from their time at Harvard Business School working on a musical. After graduation, they continued to meet over wine every two weeks to just talk business ideas. It was in one of these sessions, they both discovered that they wanted the perfect nude lipstick for women of color. It was a pain point in the market they could fill.

“Be mindful of the company you keep”

Amanda remarked that being at Howard University undergraduate was a welcoming experience because everyone around her was of African American origin and doing things in different verticals. She found so much freedom in that environment. Harvard Business School afforded a different kind of freedom: the ability to be around a lot of people who had both failed and succeeded in the startup world. It helped to normalize both risk and failure.

“Be authentic and true to yourself”

For one of the pageants Nina entered, she did a Bollywood style dance because she thought it would be more palatable for the American judges. However, she had been trained in Bharatnatyam and Kuchipuri classical dance. She was first runner up. When she won the crown, she did it her way and performed a classical dance form that was more true to who she was. She wanted to change the brand that Miss America was. She had never seen someone who looked like her have the crown.

“Start big”

Amanda and KJ searched videos on YouTube to learn how to create lipsticks. After ordering everything they’d need to create nude shades for women with brown skin, the two started hand-making samples inside their apartments in Harlem.

“Understand where customers are struggling”

Amanda and KJ hosted monthly pop-ups to understand where customers were struggling. The two friends direct messaged influencers on Instagram and Youtube to mail them their homemade lipsticks. Every Monday Amanda would mail 15 tubes to an influencer. Eventually they hit critical mass. When a few influencers had created videos with Mented lipsticks, they hit an inflection point. It was their extensive email list and social media influence demonstrating the pain point they filled in the market that convinced their investors to put skin in the game. To date, they have raised $4 million for Mented. The line just added foundations to the mix this week.

Tailor your pitch

Amanda and KJ learned quickly that they were sitting across the table from investors that did not necessarily have the same painpoints as women of color do with makeup. So they would not only tailor their pitches to the audience, but also provide a frame of reference. So for example, if an investor had already put money into Glossier, then they would pitch themselves as the “Glossier for women of color.”

“Have a platform, not just a product”

Nina and Aavrani co founder Rooshy Roy created their skincare line to not only help women of color access wonderful ingredients found in our mothers’ kitchens like Neem and Turmeric, but also to change the conversation around skin tone and self worth. The headlines around Nina’s Miss America title win were quite nasty because of her skin color. She also observed the skin lightening industry in India and how it was marketed. Today, Aavrani is a skin care brand, but more importantly, its a platform to educate women on skin tone and self worth.