Niambi Cacchioli — the 46-year-old founder of Pholk Beauty, African diaspora historian, esthetician, and fifth-generation gardener — grew up in Kentucky around Black folks who gardened, but she’s no traditional plant mom. “I have an interesting relationship with plants — they remind me of people," she says. "If I'm missing something or somebody or someplace, then plants are the easiest way for me to evoke a memory and feel like I'm reunited with them.”
So when Cacchioli moved to London at the age of 23 to pursue her doctorate in sociology and politics, she harnessed her incredible bond with nature to stay connected to home. It was there that she continued to explore the power of plants and reflect upon the beauty practices of family members for comfort. Cacchioli's explorations resulted in her creating her own skin-care elixirs.
“I would just make my own very simple body products based off of the ingredients that my grandmother used to use like butter, glycerin, and flower waters,” she says. “London has an apothecary culture, so going shopping for beauty ingredients was very much like going grocery shopping for me.”
Cacchioli concocted her formulas using her knowledge of the African diaspora — specifically, the beauty rituals of Black women, which are rooted in centuries of rich history. That was the starting point of what would eventually become Pholk, a natural beauty brand intended to carry on a beauty legacy set forth hundreds of years ago.
“In an African diaspora community, the types of ingredients are really important,” Cacchioli says, noting moringa, hibiscus, hemp, honeysuckle, rose, aloe, and watermelon as plants that are incredibly dense in nutrients. “Not only are they connected to our ancestors, but they're also very hearty and sustainable — they could be used to feed the body and skin, and they could also be used medicinally. It's like a vitamin cocktail for your skin.”
It took Cacchioli a decade to even consider bringing her natural skin-care concoctions to the masses. She says that she never thought of it as a business, but more of a service to the community. “I wasn't really raised to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “I was raised to be an academic, a civil servant, an activist — that's our family heritage. We’re do-gooders. It never occurred to me that I could make an impact in beauty.”
After a slew of conversations with Black and brown women about their skin, Cacchioli discovered that it wasn’t just ingredients in their skin-care that needed reevaluating: It was also their approach to beauty.
“Every Black and brown woman needs to know how to treat their skin with kindness,” she says. “The beauty industry often gives us the harshest products on the shelves, expecting our skin to be just as resilient as we are. While yes, we are a resilient people, our skin can be very sensitive and reactive.”
Cacchioli was well aware of what she was up against when she launched Pholk in 2018; the natural and organic cosmetics and personal care industry raked in a whopping $34.5 billion that year alone. Cacchioli would be adding to the rapidly growing list of natural skin-care brands, but she knew that Pholk, with its African beauty wisdom paired with local ingredients, was nothing like the others. She was right. Now, nearing 20 SKUs, the New Jersey-based brand has garnered a fan base that includes professional athletes, influencers, and notable activists.
“I think that a lot of my competitors push [an idea to market] before they ask their customer base, ‘What is it that you're not getting?’” Cacchioli says. “For a year and a half before I launched a single product for Pholk, I was solely asking questions to my customers. A lot of brand owners aren’t doing that. That’s what makes Pholk different. I found that Black women preferred natural skin care — they just didn’t know where to start.”
While Cacchioli launched her brand using her knowledge of African beauty, she now relies on her team — a staff that comprises people of color who boast roots in Trinidad, Southern Ghana, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and more — to diversify their offerings. Their global insight has not only made her brand more competitive, but it’s also opened her eyes to the beauty rituals of other cultures. “I make sure that we're also bringing their voices in when we’re making products,” she says. “We're bringing in their botanicals and incorporating their gardens.”
On the surface, Pholk Beauty products can treat common skin-care woes like acne, discoloration, and enlarged pores, but Cacchioli hopes the brand can ultimately serve as a healing agent. “When we think about the African diaspora or Black history, we often think about trauma,” she says. “I, however, think of the African diaspora as the framework for healing. I want to devote my career to highlighting how we can mend.”
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