The lack of representation and products for black consumers in the beauty industry is certainly not a new problem, despite the fact that the average black woman spends as much as five times more on beauty products than her counterparts. Shocking indeed. Makeup brands – such as Rihanna’s ‘Fenty Beauty’ launched late last year – have certainly taken some notice and have been exploring this demographic increasingly over the past few years. One inspiring entrepreneur has been building solutions catering to this market since 2013. Meet Florence Adepoju (Flo to her friends), the founder of international cosmetics brand MDMFlow.
Trading Pharmacy for Makeup
Flo’s journey into beauty entrepreneurship was not an obvious one. She had her sights set on becoming a pharmacist and, at 18, was sitting on multiple coveted Pharmacy offers. On the weekends, she had a part-time role at a well-known makeup brand and loved it. “It was the first time I realized that you can build a career doing something you enjoy rather than working just to make a living” she says. However, she recalls having to repeatedly inform black women who came in looking for particular shades of lipsticks and foundations that they just didn’t exist. Following a visit to the Head Office of said makeup brand, she realized that many of the formulation processes just did not cater to darker skintones. Inspired by the cosmetic scientists she had encountered, she decided to make a change, first by switching her university course to Cosmetic Science at London College of Fashion. “I cancelled my offers and went through clearing, receiving an offer on the spot.” As nervous as she was, she took this as a sign that it was meant to be.
A Year in Antwerp
During her third year, Flo found herself on a year abroad in Antwerp, away from friends and with much time on her hands. She began to conduct her own research on the beauty market in Belgium, reviewing local beauty stores in her own time and befriending many local entrepreneurs. Disappointingly, she noticed this market suffered from the same issue – a distinct lack of products available for black women. Equally frustrating was the realization that, of the minimal marketing that was geared towards black women, there was significant misrepresentation “all of the influencers and cover models were made to look like western models and not genuinely representative of black culture.” It was at this point that Flo knew that she needed take additional steps to fix things herself.
The Leap of Faith
Back in London and in her final year of university, Flo wrote her dissertation titled “An In-vivo Comparative Study on How Treated Pigments Influence the Performance of a Matte Lipstick”. This naturally evolved into a well thought-out business plan. Admittedly, Flo mentions “I did not know a huge amount about business but spent all of my time reading everything I could, attending events and networking.” After graduation, Flo was dedicated to building her new business – now named “MDMFlow” – during any free time she could find around her regular 9 to 5 job. The brand officially launched in the summer of 2013, having been birthed in a make-shift a lab she had created in her parent’s shed. As any strong business woman should, she figured “Henry Ford built his first car in a shed, so I’m sure I can develop makeup.” She was, of course, correct.
By 2015, MDMFlow began to gain significant traction, catching the eyes of customers and the competition alike. The product began stocking in several reputable retailers and was gaining much interest at a rapid pace. Due to a combination of the burnout from juggling her job and her business, and the realization that things could really take off with more focus, Flo took that final leap of faith and quit to work on her brand full time.
Moving out of the Shed
Armed with significantly more time and endless ambition, Flo wanted to scale the heights with her brand and knew she needed an injection of capital to make it a reality. Her marketing efforts were focused on getting her message out, using both simple and sophisticated PR methods. This hustle involved trawling the internet for new ways to showcase her products, physically representing the brand at events targeted at her clientele and sending her very best lipsticks to influencers who embodied the ‘powerful, independent black female’ narrative. She quickly realized that, whilst it was exciting to have her product in magazines and the largest retailers in the country, the consumers cared mostly about the authenticity of her journey, and the lengths that she had gone to employ the appropriate formulation techniques for people of color. Perseverance certainly paid off and, in December 2015, Flo was featured in the New York Times, in a piece titled “Hip-Hop Colors for Your Lips”. This did not go unnoticed and the article quickly went viral. A snowball effect of additional press coverage and, more importantly, a much-needed spike in sales, followed. Not long after, millennial-favourite ‘Nasty Gal’ were on the phone and lipstick production increased tenfold. Demand continue to intensify, with multiple orders to fulfil from retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Topshop and Boots. At this point, “parents, friends and anyone who offered to help was involved in the operation just to keep up with demand… it was clearly time to move out of the shed.”
Not Forgetting Your Audience
Flo sought and found a reliable manufacturer whom she continues to work with to this day. Retail orders are now being fulfilled in an efficient way. As with many areas of entrepreneurship, whilst the retail orders were a great boost, Flo was determined to maintain her authentic connection with her core audience. A series of online conversations named “Beauty Talks” were launched, a direct-to-consumer website was constructed and Flo’s presence at black-beauty-focused events have been paramount in encouraging continued engagement with her key consumers. She states “when I get positive feedback from my loyal customers, I know I’m doing something good.”
The future is certainly bright for Flo. The focus now is to continue developing the direct-to-consumer experience online, coupled with a strong pipeline of new products requested and tailored by her most loyal customers. She’s most excited about exclusive (and top secret) colours that are currently in development for the oncoming festive season. “” Unsurprisingly, further diversification of her makeup line is the ultimate dream, along with skincare products for black woman and international expansion.
Flo’s journey, whilst unique in many ways, showcases many of the common hurdles that come with starting a business. As we wrap up our meeting, she reflects on her journey, emphasizing that the key component that has kept her going is a deep-rooted desire to solve the problem. This passion continues supply her with the energy and tenacity required to continue when things aren’t going well, it also serves as a reminder that there’s still so much more to achieve. She says “I launched MDMflow to try to make a difference – representation of all ethnicities in the beauty industry is improving, but until brands like mine become the norm, we haven’t won. I’ll relax when brands like mine become normal, from an island ofcourse…”
This article is the first of a series featuring diverse founders making a difference. Follow me on Twitter @TommyASC91 to be updated as new features are released