The Founder of DRK Beauty Is Changing the Narrative for Women of Color in the Beauty Industry

August 18, 2020
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We know how daunting it can be to start a new business, especially if you’re disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new one. When there is no path to follow, the biggest question is, where do I start? There is so much to do, but before you get ahead of yourself, let’s start at the beginning. To kick-start the process, and ease some of those first-time founder nerves, we’re asking successful entrepreneurs to share their stories in our series, From Scratch. But this isn’t your typical day-in-the-life feature. We’re getting into the nitty-gritty details of launching a business, from writing a business plan (or not) to sourcing manufacturers and how much founders pay themselves—we’re not holding back. In honor of National Black Business Month, we’re shining a spotlight on Black female founders by taking a closer look inside the successful businesses they’ve built from the ground up.

In 2016, Wilma Mae Basta was in the middle of a conversation with her daughter during the family’s annual Christmas celebration when she had a lightbulb moment. “We were talking about how difficult it was, as Women of Color, to find our beauty products outside of beauty supply shops,” Basta tells Create & Cultivate. “There was also the poor retail experience of beauty supply stores, where we are oftentimes followed around a store to make sure that we’re not stealing anything.”

Determined to change this narrative, she set out to create a space for communities that are all too often overlooked by the beauty industry. “That conversation sparked the journey that then led to the conceiving of DRK Beauty, a digital content and community platform that celebrates and supports Women of Color and aims to fix the flawed relationship between brands and consumers of color,” Basta explains. In the midst of renewed interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and revived calls for racial equality around the world, it’s clear that this space is needed now more than ever.

Ahead, the founder and CEO of DRK Beauty tells us all about the hurdles she’s faced while building her much-needed business from scratch, including pitching the idea to white male investors who really didn’t understand the concept.

On choosing not to write a business plan (at first)…

Initially, I did not write a business plan. Instead, I spent about six months researching and understanding the data. I then distilled the data to see what problem needs solving and from there developed my thesis, and out of that the concept, DRK Beauty was born.

From there, I developed a deck that outlined the problem and showed the supporting data on how DRK Beauty would solve that need. The deck included the business model and roadmap along with my advisory team and the amount of funding I was looking to raise. It was the first of many decks that were to be written over a two-year period.

I believed that, in this pre-seed funding phase, it was more important to show how the business would gain traction and scale from there. 

On coming up with the name DRK Beauty…

I didn’t actually come up with the name myself, my Australian friend came up with the name. I was sharing the idea with him and his husband and he said, “Oh my gosh, I love it! It sounds like an amazing idea. What are you going to call it?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And then he said, “What about DRK Beauty?” And I looked at him and I said, “Oh my God, I love that name! Can I use it?” “Of course.” He said and that’s how the name came about. 

On setting up the business logistically…

Once I created the prototype app, I decided I wanted to create an advisory board before I incorporated the business. I wanted to surround myself with mentors who could advise me through every step of the process. I also wanted to work with the right legal team who were invested in seeing me succeed.

I did reserve the URLs and social channels, however, it took another six to seven months before I actually incorporated. I also focused on creating a roadmap for the app. While the app is appealing, launching that immediately would not have made sense. I wanted to take a step-by-step approach to building this business. It took almost two years before we even launched our Instagram account and blog.  

On taking a 360° approach to market research…

I researched as much as I could online and was able to find important statistical data which helped me to develop my thesis. In addition, I did my own ad hoc focus groups with Women of Color to discern the real problems they faced when it came to their beauty.

But in order to get the full picture, I also spent time researching interviewing brands to understand their process of lack thereof when marketing to Women of Color. I also looked into the relationship between publications and Women of Color and where they were falling short in truly supporting Women of Color This kind of 360° research enabled me to develop a business model and differentiate ourselves. 

On bootstrapping the company…

My husband and I self-funded the company. I guess this is what you would call the pre-seed or friends-and-family round. I do wish they would stop calling it the “friends-and-family” round. Many entrepreneurs of color have neither family nor friends who can afford to invest in an early stage business concept. I certainly have few of those people in my orbit.

I did try and fundraise, but it was too early. I spent an enormous amount of time researching investors, finding warm leads, attending investor events, and writing decks. Many white male investors didn’t really understand the problem I was solving (although Black women understand and are crying out for it!), and so I was unsuccessful in raising, especially at this early stage. “Go out and build something, get some traction, and then come back and see us.”

It was a good experience to pitch and write decks, but not one I enjoy. However, it allowed me the opportunity to clarify the kind of investors I want to work with when I do go back out and raise seed funding, which will be soon. 

On making mistakes along the way…

I paid too much to develop content. Although, I did learn a lot and was able to really develop our aesthetic. Once quarantine hit, we had to scramble to continue developing content. What we discovered was that we could outsource most of it from abroad and our costs dropped dramatically. 

On going all-in on DRK Beauty from day one…

We’re lucky that my husband can support me while I build the business. It would have been very difficult to get this far without me devoting 100% of my time to this. 

On scaling and growing a team…

There are four core team members including my co-founder, social media manager, and brand strategist, plus three interns and several freelancers. We’re all based in different cities and countries around the world. Our pivot to remote working has been great!

Having run my own businesses for over two decades, I’ve learned a lot about hiring over the years. I almost always give no credence to résumés. I expect folks to know how to do their jobs. However, I do like to ask them questions that give me some insight into their problem-solving skills and who they are as people. Our team is small, and our culture is strong.

Working well together remotely takes a committed team effort, and finding people who are as invested in making a difference as I am is key for our team. Some companies just need bodies who can perform the jobs needed, but for us, the personality, the skill set, and a strong commitment to excellence go hand in hand. Those are the qualities I look for in folks, and it has served me well over the years. 

On hiring an accountant…

My first one was too pricey and often overcharged. I was then recommended to a great bookkeeping startup called Bench, which is reasonably priced and perfect for entrepreneurs and small companies. I also needed an accountant who was comfortable working remotely. I was recommended to Watson CPA Group based in Colorado Springs. They are reasonably priced, communicative, and also are adept at working remotely through an online client portal.  

On the biggest challenges she’s faced…

The COVID-19 lockdown, George Floyd’s murder, and the following protests have been the biggest challenges of my life. The business had just launched when we went on lockdown and I also had a death in the family, and we weren’t able to have a funeral.

So my grief was put on hold and I told my team that we should liken what we were about to go through to navigating the rapids in a one-man canoe. We needed to navigate rough waters ahead, keep ourselves upright as much as we can, and micro-pivot constantly. At every turn, we had to be open to learning and not get stuck. We needed to stay open to change. My team is more of a sisterhood, so they were up for the challenge.

George Floyd’s murder, and the subsequent global response, was completely out of left field for us. My team is mostly made up of Black women and it was hard on all of us. I cried every day for a month and I started business Zoom calls saying, “I might cry during this meeting.” Everyone held space for us. Now, as a result of this, we are getting access to brands that might not have ever given us the time of day before. We are still navigating the rapids, but now we have life jackets! 

On cultivating a network of mentors…

One thing I’ve learned over the last 20 years of trying to do things always on my own is to have lots of mentors. I have an advisory board that I worked hard to cultivate. It includes respected professionals such as Esi Eggleston Bracey, EVP and COO NA Beauty and Personal Care at Unilever, and Howard Meitiner, former president and CEO of Sephora, and more. I also have lots of informal relationships with various people I have met along the way who are invested in supporting the DRK Beauty mission. I call on them regularly. I can’t do this by myself and need the help of so many people to make this happen. 

On creating a buzz around the brand…

We have mainly promoted our business by posting on Instagram and publishing a wealth of diverse content for Women of Color on our main website. Our audience has been gradually growing over the past six months and has increased with the launch of DRK Beauty Healing. We have also had some timely press coverage and celebrity shout-outs on social media which has also helped. I would probably say that 10% of our budget goes to marketing which includes our social media manager and PR team. 

On advice for anyone starting their own business…

Starting your own business is tough. It isn’t for everyone. Just because you run your own business doesn’t give you freedom from working for someone else. If you’re weak in one area, you need to ensure that you educate yourself in that space so you really understand how it works. 

Work-life balance is a myth as an entrepreneur, I think we were misled with that idea! The real truth is that many entrepreneurs do wear themselves out, so for me, the best way to avoid that is through transparency with my small team. We share with each other when we’re struggling, whether emotionally, physically, or just with the workload. This allows us to pick up the slack with the other team members while they take some more time to come back to the middle. Especially during this time of lockdown and protests when we don’t have the luxury of slowing the pace, the thing that has kept us going is authenticity and transparency with each other.

We have each other’s backs. Bring your team in close and cultivate trust and support. 

On financial advice for new business owners…

Make sure you know exactly how your money is going to be used and how it will get you to a place of growth for your company. Check your bank account weekly and understand where every penny is being spent. 

If you’d like to support DRK Beauty Healing, donate here to help the brand raise $500,000 and give free therapy sessions to Women of Color.

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