Saturday, September 30, 2023

It’s All About Seeing Us: How Three Brand Founders Are Creating Space For Black Women

In light of the social unrest of 2020, as the country grappled with its position and role in racism, many companies issued general statements expressing their solidarity with black people, most of whom were unemotional and felt more like a sink-or-swim tactic. Brands that declared a sudden awakening was met with skepticism and a unanimous realization that their inaction over the years reflected a lack of support for the black community, both personally and professionally. History has shown that the system was never designed to support black-founded businesses in the same way as their white counterparts, making it nearly impossible for these brands to flourish and, in many cases, preventing their development.

But with more companies beginning to list their blind spots and engage in systematic racism, that’s starting to change. In fact, according to a 2021 study by The Harvard Business Review and Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 17% of black women are starting or leading new businesses, compared to 10% of white women and 15% of black men. In fact, black women-owned businesses are on the rise, which may be because we finally got better access to resources and capital to properly maintain them.

The rise of brand incubators and mentorship programs has certainly helped pave the way. By working to meet the growing needs of entrepreneurs who have traditionally not had a seat at the table, they are helping small business owners equip themselves with the tools and support they need to succeed. By giving black women a microphone, they give us space to build community, empower ourselves, and partially inspire the next group of young black entrepreneurs.

Get to know the founders of three black-owned businesses in The Workshop at Macy’s and learn how they use their platforms to inspire black women to be more authentic and create their paths.

Malisa Parke of Swanky design

Photograph of Malisa Parke

Founded by creative mother-daughter duo Malisa and Imani Parke, Swanky Designs is handmade jewelry, apparel, and homeware brand known for its bold and colorful statement earrings. Sharing a deep love for art and fashion, the pair have turned this passion into creating works of art that speak to the individuality of women.

More than anything, Parkes believes in lifting women and creating collections that complement that. “My goal is to empower other women to live their authentic lives so they aren’t afraid to stand out,” says Malisa. Instead of following an ever-changing cycle of trends, they strive to stay true to themselves, drawing inspiration from both the world around them and their roots. “We’re from New York, so we’re always in town, looking at things like shapes and buildings,” says Malisa. “We are also very fond of jewelry inspired by Africa, but with a different twist, and we would like to continue to explore that.”

Later, Refinery29 spoke with Malisa about her creative relationship with her daughter, how she shaped the path of her brand, and why we should all create a taste for ourselves.

You run your brand with your daughter Imani. What prompted you to get to work together?

“We both have a creative gene. Imani has always been a super creative person. She started designing clothes when she was 14 when I was selling jewelry in various salons. One day I thought to myself, you know what? I can do it myself. I prefer my creativity and Imani told me she wanted to do the same. Our creative juices were so in sync that I suggested we do it as a team and that’s how it was born.”

What lessons have you learned from each other on your brand journey? How has your work strengthened the mother-daughter relationship?

“Imani teaches me a lot. Being younger makes me very fresh, but also allows me to make mistakes. She teaches me not to be so limited and to be freer.  At this point in her life, I’m guiding her and helping her learn [how to navigate]. Being together in business strengthens our bond in a way, but she’s my daughter, so we argue a lot. When you deal with someone, you crumble; It may be difficult, but then I remember how important our relationship is.”

How are you using your brand to uplift and empower black women?

“I hope to influence black women to know that they can do it too and that there is a place for everyone in jewelry making, regardless of medium. Age shouldn’t stop you from doing anything, I know you can do it whenever you want. I also don’t think we should care so much about following fashion trends; we have to be trendsetters ourselves. You don’t have to worry about buying or being the last, just do it for YOU. It is a continuous learning experience, we should ask ourselves: how can we improve? What will be best for us?

What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs?

“Read, learn and find a mentor. Don’t rush and expect things to happen because you’ll quickly be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. If you are an entrepreneur, what you do is your passion and it comes naturally to you. But you also have to read the business side of things. Understand capital, loans, taxes, and production; These are the things you need to know. Talk to people who do and be open to accepting help.”

Dr. Anne Beal of AbsoluteJOI

Photograph of Dr. Anne Beal

For many black consumers, the desire to take better care of their skin is held back by the fact that we’ve been ignored by big beauty brands for too long. It is therefore difficult to obtain products to effectively combat the most common melanized skin problems, such as hyperpigmentation and dark spots. Such was the case with Dr. Anne Beal, who started AbsoluteJOI after struggling to find products that would work both for her and her daughters.

Her research led her to discover that 70% of women of color think the products currently available are not right for them, so she developed her own, aimed at women over 35 who want to fight the signs of age.

“There are so many anti-aging products available, but people with high melanin skin don’t show aging with fine lines and wrinkles,” says Dr. Beal. “Instead, we begin to show age with changes in skin tone and dark markings.” Combining science-based active ingredients and plant-based soothing ingredients, AbsoluteJOI products focus on balancing and nourishing the complexion while reducing aging damage and hyper-pigmentation. Instead of offering a dizzying array of products, Dr. Beal took a minimalist approach by launching a limited edition of purely formulated supplies such as a tinted daily SPF moisturizer and retinol-powered, tone-evening night oil.

Later, Refinery29 spoke with Dr. Beal about how she’s using her brand and platform to make black women feel more visible, as well as skincare tips every woman of color should follow.

When it comes to caring for skin with color, what are the most common misconceptions?

“Historically, there have been many recommendations for home products and remedies, from lemon juice and apple cider vinegar to the use of bleach, both medical hydroquinone and commercial bleach. The reality is that skin color is incredibly sensitive, so we have to take a very gentle approach. Second, the approach to aging skincare for the general population is very focused on fine lines and wrinkles, but many women of color develop dark spots and changes in skin tone first, then wrinkles, so when thinking of melanin-rich skin, the focus should first be put on complexion resolution.”

What do you think is the most important skincare tip every woman of color should follow?

“Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen, all day, every day. A lot of women of color think they don’t need it because they have melanin, but we do. We age with brown spots, and these are signs of sun damage. It’s also important to look for a sunscreen with blue light protection. Recent studies have shown that the blue light emitted by our screens, such as our phones and computers, causes darker skin types to become hyperpigmented. Retinol is also an amazing ingredient [for evening skin toned].”

How are you using your brand to uplift and empower black women?

“First and foremost, to say I see you. I recently posted a video about the four characteristics of melanized skin that make us unique, and many commenters mentioned how they feel seen and heard. I’ve also put up rings to share behind the scenes of our photos, and it’s just a celebration of melanin. I’m also very considerate of the people I work with and the companies I work with, and I “trying to find other black women as business partners. I have an aspiration that at some point I will grow the business to a place where we can invest and advise other businesses.”

What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs?

“First, I would say read and be read. Second, don’t start a business: solve the problem and the work will follow. When you solve a problem, it is assumed that you know who your customer is, what they want and what their challenges are. If you solve their problems, then you have a job there. Take a customer-centric approach.”

Terese Brown by Terese Sydonna

Photograph of Teresa Brown

Jamaican-born New York designer Teresa Brown brings her vibrant Jamaican culture and love of Japanese art and architecture to every collection she creates. Independent, she is very focused on inspiring women to step into their authentic selves for their communities and, more importantly, for themselves. “I understand the challenges women face coping with the pressure to fit a particular image and level of beauty,” she says. “I want to change that and empower them to confidently discover their inner strength and untapped superpowers.” For this reason, she considers her sophisticated collection of dresses, coats, two-piece sets, and accessories to be “modern armor”.

Many white or non-black entrepreneurs run capital businesses from wealthy generations into their families, but unfortunately, this is not a common thread in the black community. Brown, who has experienced a change in her career and understands first-hand the value of mentorship and incubation programs, seeks to change that through her work on various entrepreneurial-focused advisory boards. “As a minority business owner, the most important thing is to be authentic, to be unapologetic about my story of sacrifice, to dream big, and to overcome the extra hardships to be where I am now,” says -she.

Later, Refinery29 spoke with Brown about what led her to start her brand and the importance of uplifting the moods of other black women.

You started your career in finance and then worked with some of the biggest names in fashion. What inspired you to make this transition and eventually create your brand?

“As an immigrant and the eldest in the family, my mother’s dream was always to succeed and get a ‘big’ job and I believed in myself for a while. I worked on Wall Street, but didn’t feel well or felt like myself, so I switched to buying and trading. I started working as a sales clerk in a department store just before the 2008 recession and one day I went to work and half of us were laid off. I remember feeling great relief; it was my chance to get out there and do what I wanted to do. The following week I applied for a year-round design program, and within a year I was working as a designer during the day and my line, Teresa Sydonna, at night.”

You are proud to create your collections in the Garment District of New York. Why is it important for you to have your local brand?

“I feel like I’m living my American dream. I’m proud to be Jamaican, New Yorker, and from the Bronx, and I feel that New York has given me a lot. I love working with small businesses that make Teresa Sydonna who she is.  Every person I work with who helps us create prints, do our production, or do our sorting and labeling is part of a Black and immigrant family business. It’s so good to know that together we are creating something so beautiful. It means a lot to me to know how to help my community.”

How are you using your brand to uplift and empower black women?

“My brand is based on authenticity. I couldn’t tell my story until I started being authentic by acknowledging the fact that I was black. How can I design anything if I don’t empower myself and black women? When I think back to the time I spent on Wall Street and shopping and shopping, there were so many spaces where I couldn’t be mine, where my hair was a problem, or where I was the only black woman. Many of my clients are black and face the same challenges every day. I wanted to change that, so I tried to create a community focused on celebrating each other and what makes us unique. I couldn’t do any of this without praising black women because they built my business and helped me get to where I am today.”

What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs?

“Whatever your idea, always listen to that inner voice telling you to do it. No one will encourage you as much as you. You are your biggest fan. I also believe that young entrepreneurs need to understand that the story behind their brand is important. People are more interested in ideas, feelings, and stories: they care less about clothes, they buy them because they are you and that’s what makes you magical”.

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