Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. And despite societal pressures and westernised ideals, Claudia Teng and Olamide Olowe found beauty in themselves after growing up with visible skin conditions. Like many women of colour, the onset of severe eczema for Claudia and post-barbae folliculitis for Olamide was a troubling one.
“Most of us grew up feeling insecure about our skin and this led to negative thoughts about our self-worth”, Olamide explains. Turning that on its head, the pair set out to develop a new lane of non-medical products that cater to one in four Americans with visible skin conditions. Leading the charge of these ‘spottie hotties’, Topicals is a black-owned skincare brand birthed out of a gaping hole in the industry for products made for people of colour.
At 23 and 24 respectively, Olowe and Teng have managed to secure $2.6 million in funding from Yvonne Orji, Issa Rae and Netflix’s recently appointed CMO Bozoma Saint John. And please believe, I’m grateful. Since getting my hands on Faded and Like Butter my skin has hit a new level of fly: think much smoother, more even and beautifully glowy. All traces of my seasonal eczema are gone, and the hyperpigmentation I thought I would never get rid off is Casper.
We talked to the duo about what it means to be ‘beautiful’, the psychological effects of that and building their partnership with Nordstrom.
What are your earliest beauty-related memories? How do you think this shaped your beauty identity?
We both grew up with skin conditions. We always felt embarrassed about our skin so we used to hide our ointments because they made us feel like outsiders.
When you grow up feeling like an outsider, beauty feels like it exists in a vacuum: we grew up chasing this aspiration of being perfect that always left us feeling inadequate.
What are your opinions on how the beauty industry has handled the current conversation around racism, BLM and tokenism?
This isn’t a new conversation to us as women of colour, but for a lot of brands, this was the first time they were truly being held accountable for their actions. I’ve seen a lot of really great initiatives born out of BLM like funding resources, educational opportunities, and retail partnerships for Black women.
Lately, it seems like people’s activism has died down and they’ve returned to business as usual. It’s up to consumers to show brands that they won’t support them unless they support communities of colour.
This year, in particular, has been transformative in a lot of ways. What changes would you like to see in the industry?
We’ve entered into an era of wellness where people no longer want to cover up their skin. Looking at Gen Z consumers, they’d rather get to the root of why their skin is flaring up and I believe that has led to the boom in skincare. Also, the idea of skincare as self-care has now been ingrained into our minds. Skincare offers a mini-escape from reality.
We hope to see chronic skin conditions become more synonymous with self-care!
Your work supporting mental health is in line with an industry shift towards psychodermatology. How did growing up with misrepresented skin conditions affect you mentally?
People with chronic skin conditions are 2-6 times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety so we partner with and donate to mental health organizations like Therapy for Black Girls, Sad Girls Club, and the JED Foundation. We’ve donated $11K to date.
How did these affect your perception of beauty and self-care? Has that changed this year and if so, how?
There is an unattainable standard of beauty that 99% of people don’t fit into. Specifically, the skincare industry has forced everyone to think that clear skin is ideal and flare-ups are embarrassing and shameful. To make it clear, darker skinned folks have very rarely been included in the conversation at all.
At Topicals, we know that you make skin look good—not the other way around. We are fluid, imperfect, shape-shifting, and a real representation of you and your skin. We also test our products on all shades because inclusion is more than just visual representation.
What do you hope to achieve with your partnerships with mental health organisations such as SGC?
As mentioned earlier, people with chronic skin conditions are 2-6 times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Our goal is to better understand the connection between skin health and mental health and provide resources for our community to get the care they need.
Why is building a community so important for Topicals?
We believe that brands define the world. Movies, athletes, and artists all have a way of creating aspirations of what we want to be. We take our position as a guide for our community very seriously so we lead with transparency and empathy.
When it came to building the brand, what were some of the adversities you faced?
For women of color, there’s a huge lack of funding and resources to help jump start your business. We’ve spoken to over 100 different investors since we started this journey back in August 2018. I feel fortunate to have the group of investors we have supporting us. It was important to me (Olamide) to have Black women on our cap table because wealth begins with ownership.
Building a beauty business is complex because there are so many moving parts. Finding manufacturing partners is a mix of online search and referrals from other founders. Because we’ve always been community focused, we always knew that if we kept building what our audience wanted they would support us.
How did you establish the partnership with Nordstrom?
We connected with a retail advisor back in March via a cold email on Linkedin. She introduced us to Olivia Kim and the team at Nordstrom and we connected over their vision to highlight and support new beauty brands in an experiential way. It’s important for us to meet our customers where they are.
Claudia, what did your work in clinical research reveal about the beauty industry in terms of racial bias and the treatment of skin conditions? Hit us with some shocking figures.
1 in 4 Americans live with a chronic skin condition so having “perfect” skin is actually an anomaly. While I was working in clinical research at Stanford, I noticed that most patients with severe skin conditions could only receive standard of care through clinical trials meaning this was their last and often only option for treatment.
Secondly, in my 10+ years working as a clinical researcher, we did not enroll a single Black patient which is shocking seeing as dermatology is a skin focused industry.
To take it further, 75% of clinical trial participants are white so most of the ingredients that we use in the skincare industry haven’t been tested on darker skin tones to see long term effects.
When do you feel most confident in your beauty?
We feel most confident in our beauty when we’re in our zone of genius. This is when we feel like we’re doing what we were put on this earth to do.
How do you define beauty?
Beauty is self-expression!