Mented Cosmetics Cofounder KJ Miller On Career Pivots, Trusting Your Instincts & Personalizing Products
If you talk to any two people about their experiences in the workforce, you’ll get two entirely different answers. We’re in an age of nonlinear career paths — of early starts, late blooms, extreme pivots, and, more often than not, an accumulation of wildly different roles — and there is something to be learned from everyone’s unique path. That’s why we partnered with Clear Eyes, the #1 selling eye drop brand whose latest campaign is all about celebrating the moments in life when we truly shine. Together, we spoke to women whose trajectories have been anything but traditional — and landed them right where they were meant to be.
Making lipstick can’t be rocket science, KJ Miller thought, in the earliest stages of launching her cosmetics company. Wholesale lipstick manufacturers told her she would need to order thousands of units of lipstick if she wanted to create the perfect nude shade to match her skin tone, but she and her cofounder didn’t want to agree to the minimum before they knew if anyone liked the product. So, Miller found a video of a woman making her own lipstick on YouTube. “I sent the link to Amanda and said, ‘We gotta do this; we’ve got to teach ourselves to make lipstick, because we don’t want to pay all this money,’” she says.
Along with Amanda E. Johnson, Miller is the cofounder of Mented Cosmetics, a makeup line for women of color, which began as a project the two pursued on the weekends in their New York kitchens after graduating from Harvard Business School. At the time, they both had full-time jobs, so it functioned as a side-hustle. “We bought the molds, we bought the ingredients, we bought the colorants, and we made our original capsule collection of nude lipsticks,” she says. And from there, the team relied on feedback from family, friends, and influencers before officially opening for business.
Since January 2017, the month Mented first launched, the beauty landscape has changed significantly. A celebrity-owned prestige brand, which launched in September 2017, set the bar high for new brands, which now tend to include about 50 shades of foundation to match the nuance in skin tones. “Women of color deserve lots of options — there shouldn’t just be a brand,” Miller says. “I remember we were mentioned in an article by a writer who was on the hunt for her perfect foundation shade. One of the things she said was, I love [this celebrity’s brand], but her foundation is so mattefying, and that’s just not the look I’m going for. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with [that] brand, it just means that we all deserve more choice.” Before Mented, Miller worked in retail buying and consulting, went to business school, and piloted a few other business ideas. But she’s never been afraid to pivot to get closer to her goals.
After graduating from Harvard undergrad in 2008, Miller became an analyst in a new role that was part of a pilot program aimed at course-correcting a major — albeit struggling — department store chain. “What I quickly realized was that the role had not been well-defined, no one in the organization really knew what it was, and I wasn’t in the best position to learn about retail.” After seeing how the buyers carried the most influence in the company, she pivoted into the fashion jewelry team as an assistant buyer. Her peer analysts were confused: Why had Miller pursued a less prestigious role in the company, along with a pay cut? Two years later, she became the head buyer for a mid-size e-commerce company.
“That was another move where a lot of people questioned it,” Miller says. “They were like, ‘You’re a buyer at a multi-billion-dollar company, now you’re moving to this small e-commerce company most people have never heard of. What are you doing?’ For me, it made perfect sense because I was a small fish in a big pond, now I’m a big fish in a small pond.” Because she chose the brands and pieces that appeared on the site’s roster, Miller learned she wanted to become an entrepreneur.
“I very much value experience over title, over brand name, over a lot of things,” Miller says. “I value experience and I value learning, and I feel like if I’m not always learning, I’m wasting my time.” To keep challenging herself, she tinkered with a handful of business ideas, “but none of them really went anywhere,” she says. Still, she’d caught the entrepreneurship bug and got accepted to Harvard Business School. While attending Harvard (for the second time!), she tried to launch a few other businesses. The one that made it the furthest was a concept called Extensive, a mobile hair salon that catered to Black women using hair extensions. Throughout her second year at Harvard Business School, Miller surveyed more than 100 Black women and interviewed nearly 20 stylists to figure out if there was enough demand for such a service. Ultimately, it wasn’t scalable, but she would follow the same research process while developing Mented.
At business school, Miller also met her cofounder, Johnson. “By the time we graduated, we were not only close friends, but we worked together on a couple of school projects, we felt we worked well together, and we both wanted to start a company in the retail/consumer space.” They both moved to New York and took corporate jobs — Johnson at a high-end department store and Miller at a consulting firm. Every so often, they would get together and bounce around ideas for startups. During one of those conversations, Johnson mentioned offhand she’d been looking for the perfect nude lipstick for three years. “I was like, ‘Wow I can’t find any lipstick I like, much less a nude lipstick,’” Miller recalls. “There were so few brands that catered to our beauty needs, and in the world of beauty, we both felt like afterthoughts.”
They realized they had been forced to piece together products that would work for their skin tone, as opposed to just buying a product off a shelf. “We didn’t like feeling that way, and we suspected that no one else did, either.” Together, and still while working full-time jobs, they started researching, focus-grouping, and surveying friends and family. Overwhelmingly, there was dissatisfaction with the beauty options available to Black women. Once they DIY’d those first nude lipsticks, they sent samples to their focus groups, plus influencers.
“In the beginning, we weren’t even asking them to post it,” she said. “We got enough great feedback, enough people asking about it, enough people posting about it, that we decided to turn it from a weekend hobby into a real business.” By the end of that year, they had investors on board, a term sheet, a manufacturer, and enough confidence to quit their jobs in November 2016. Mented launched the following January. It’s been two and a half years since then, and a lot has changed. For one, the line has expanded beyond just lipstick to include a contour/concealer stick, an eyeshadow palette, nail polish, and more. The company has also raised $4 million in venture capital. Now, as the team gears up for another round of funding, it’s less difficult to get the right people in the room.
As she looks ahead, Miller feels personalization is the next buzzword in both beauty and direct-to-consumer retail more generally. “We’re just going to see consumers who feel like, Yeah, my whole makeup bag is brands that thought specifically about me and my needs and created products for me,” she says. But like matching foundation to skin, she’s learned there’s no one-size-fits-all career path for becoming a successful entrepreneur.
“It’s easy to feel so anxious about any decision you’re making, but what I’ve realized is my instincts are strong, and I’m good at course correcting,” she says. “Even when I do the thing that isn’t the right thing, I’m good at finding the right thing out of the bad thing, if that makes sense.” Now, the Mented operation is a far cry from DIY lipstick, but Miller looks back fondly at those early days. “Just the two of us, packing orders, that was a huge moment for us.”